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A 12th-century sultan ordered it built to carry water from the Nile to Cairo. Napoleon filled in the arches and turned it into a wall. Now, after another year of severe drought in the Middle East, the government has ordered the city’s ancient aqueduct restored to slake the thirst of modern Egyptians.

Eye in the Sky

The project, which will take two years to complete at a cost of U.S. $11 million, dramatizes the importance of one of the major keys to peace in the Middle East: water. Experts say that a lack of agreement on how the region’s scarce resources should be divided not only could wreck any peace deal with Israel, but could actually lead to new outbreaks of war among the Arab states.

“People outside of the region tend not to hear about the issue,” says a U.S. State Department official. “It just doesn’t make the news. But there are talks all the time among water specialists. Guaranteeing fair access to water is critical to any peace agreement.”

Palestinian official Fadl Ka-wash declared yesterday on the official government radio station that water “is no less important and serious than any other final status issues on the agenda of the Camp David summit” between the Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.


In a region with a population of 12 million and about as much rainfall every year as Phoenix, Arizona, water weighs heavily in the concerns of Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis over their joint futures together. Forty percent of Israel’s water supply comes from aquifers beneath the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. About 25 percent comes from the Sea of Galilee, which helps explain why Israelis balked when Syria this spring insisted on giving up control of the shoreline as well as the entire Golan Heights—often called the “water tower of the Middle East”—as the price of peace.

Even though it controls most of its water resources now, Israel is running dry. Last spring, in the midst of the worst drought since 1990-91, the cabinet decreed a 40 percent reduction in subsidized water allocations for farmers and promised compensation to farmers for their losses. The leading newspaper Ha’aretz, citing the possibility of more years of reduced rainfall and an “imminent threat to the supply of drinking water,” called on the government to set “special regulations to reduce urban consumption and educational activities to promote water conservation.”


While water shortages are proving an annoyance to Israeli citizens, they are angering the Palestinians. At one point Palestinian officials in Hebron—hardest-hit of the West Bank cities—limited households to running water only twice per month.

Most West Bank water still flows through Israeli pipes, despite the existing agreement yielding control over the territory to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians claim their average citizen receives less than one-third as much water as the average Israeli, and criticize California-style watered lawns and vat-sized bathtubs in Israel.

A study released this spring by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and counterpart groups from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority confirmed that Israel’s per capita water use in 1994 was nearly quadruple that of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Israel and its immediate neighbors aren’t the only Middle-Eastern states with water problems. The Egyptian aqueduct project was spurred partly by predictions that the country’s water needs will rise 30 percent by 2017. Water Resources Minister Mahmoud Abu Zaid told a January symposium at Cairo University that Egypt will have to find an extra 20 billion cubic meters of water by then to meet the demands of its rapidly growing population.

In Egypt as elsewhere, agriculture is a prime consumer of water, especially since 1977, when the government embarked on an ambitious irrigation program in the northeast to help feed the country’s 68 million people.


Several Arab states are busy moving their dwindling water supplies around to serve the neediest areas. Iran—which has set up a crisis committee to deal with water shortages in Tehran—recently opened a 207-mile (333-kilometer) pipeline to supply water from the Zayandeh River in central Iran to the desert province of Yazd. President Mohammad Khatami visited his native region in March to inaugurate the U.S. $88.6-million pipeline, which the official news agency called the largest water transfer project in the Middle East.

The government of Iraq in March began digging a canal to take water from the Tigris River to drought-stricken lands north of Baghdad—part of emergency measures ordered by President Saddam Hussein to cope with water shortages. Saddam also ordered relief measures for the western town of Rawa, where falling levels in Lake Qadissiyah and in the Euphrates River have caused a drinking-water crisis. Water levels in the Tigris—which along with the Euphrates form the major sources of Iraq’s supplies—have been falling sharply because of slack rainfall over the past three years. The government also has bitterly complained that the situation has been worsened by dams built upstream, further reducing the flows.

Dams, in fact, have become a source of dangerous friction that could lead to war, in the opinion of some of the ministers from nations attending a World Water Forum held in the Hague in March.

“Worldwide, at least 214 rivers flow through two or more countries, but no enforceable law governs the allocation and use of international waters,” said Sandra Postel, a senior researcher for the U.S. based environmental group Worldwatch Institute.


Many believe the biggest flash-point is the Middle East with its desert climate, shrinking aquifers, staggering rates of population growth, and tradition of settling differences by fighting.

“Many of the wars of this [20th] century were about oil,” World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin once observed, “but the wars of the next century will be about water.”

No country is so dependent on a single lifeline as Egypt is on the Nile—the source of which lies several countries to the south. Eighty percent of Iraq’s water originates outside its borders. Turkey controls most of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, the twin rivers upon which both Syria and Iraq depend.

Syria and Iraq are gravely concerned about the effects that water-rich Turkey’s massive Southeastern Anatolian Project, with its dam system, will have on their stretches of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Former Turkish President Turgut Ozal a decade ago proposed a “peace pipeline” to sell surplus water from the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers to parched countries on the Arabian Peninsula. Experts estimated that such a project would cost billions of dollars and take a decade to build. But the most daunting challenge to such a project—or any other regional water-sharing arrangement—would be getting nations that often have warred against each other to cooperate.

In the end, a pan-Arab deal on water resources that takes into account Israel’s concerns may not only be a price of peace in the region. Peace might be the price of such a deal.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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•  A recent international study found Israel’s per capita water use to be four times that of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—whose water still runs through Israeli pipes—but only marginally greater than that of Jordan.
•  Annual rainfall in Israel ranges between 40 inches (1,000 mm) at the northernmost point and 1.24 inches (31 mm) at the southern tip—nearly all of it coming between November and February.
•  As much as 60 percent of Israel’s total rainfall evaporates, 5 percent runs into the sea, and the remaining 35 percent seeps into the ground, where it gathers in natural aquifers.
•  According to the Bible, the Jordan River—whose headwaters are in the disputed Golan Heights—once upon a time miraculously and suddenly stopped flowing, allowing the Israelites to cross into the Promised Land.

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Israel has taken a position of world leadership in finding ways of coping with dry climates, including laying plans for desalinating seawater on a large scale. Among other recent innovations:

An agricultural company has developed a new strain of cotton that requires only one-third of the water normally used for cotton plants. The company plans to market the new strain in Peru, Spain, Turkey, and Greece.

The Kibbutz Erez has developed a method of purifying waste water in cowsheds. After the cows are hosed down, a fast-growing water plant floated on the surface of the runoff pool raises the quality of the water—and provides a nutritious green food for the cows.

A farm owner at a Negev Desert oasis has discovered that the sabra—a prickly pear fruit of a desert cactus—can produce several sweet products beyond its own sweet soft interior. Noam Blum reported that, “We produce pickles from the sabras, and also various snacks and spicy paste.”