MAKING the desert bloom is again a preoccupation instead of’ a cliché in Middle East countries. Arnold Toynbee, traveling through the states of the Fertile Crescent five years ago, wrote of a coming agricultural renaissance there. To him, this was the really revolutionary event of the times. It is so today. Water development and river management now have the highest domestic priorities in the Arab states and Israel. Two major dams have risen in Iraq and Syria. In Lebanon the Litani power and irrigation scheme, interrupted in 1958 by the civil war and by technical difficulties, is again under way. In Jordan a part of the flow of the Yarmuk, largest tributary of the Jordan River, has been channeled south of the Sea of Tiberias down the east side of the Jordan Valley, putting the first 9000 acres there on a commercial rather than subsistence-farming basis.
In Egypt the Aswan Dam, a project which dwarfs all others in the area, is on the way to construction, with far-reaching changes already visible in the upper Nile Valley. In Israel a large share of this year’s budget is designated for the diversion of Jordan River water, via pump and pipeline, to irrigate the Negev Desert.
The search for water
Aside from these dramatic and expensive efforts, all of them undertaken within the last six years, a concentrated search is under way for new sources of water for domestic purposes and for irrigation. In the Middle East this summer, a corps of United Nations consultants and hydrologists is testing for ground water and surveying the economic potentialities of demineralizing seawater and brackish pool water. This survey owes its start to a $75,000 Ford Foundation grant to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Beginning with knowledge of desalination techniques already employed in such arid countries as Kuwait and Israel, experts will test the feasibility of extending desalination to other arid zones in the cheapest possible way. Freezing and distillation are only two of several new approaches to conversion of seawater which are under study all the way from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.
Drilling for artesian sources of sweet water has until recently been spasmodic in Middle East deserts. Yet, a few dramatic successes offer hope. Some 40,000 acres of saline land near the Dead Sea in Jordan have been reclaimed for fruit and vegetable growing within the last ten years. Initially a few Arab visionaries began the search for water near Jericho, digging by hand. When they struck water at 75 feet, pumps were obtained, and the watering of 2000 acres was made possible. The founder of this pioneer reclamation work, a retired Palestinian lawyer, Musa Bey Alaini, proved that the salty soil around Jericho could be drained and made economically productive. Today his Arab Development Society farm and agricultural school are surrounded by flourishing private orchards and vegetable gardens. Jericho has thus become a great oasis.
In Saudi Arabia, of course, no one need dig by hand. Artesian wells now being drilled near the Red Sea coast may have as much importance as previous oil drilling has had for the country. International Bank advisers and FAO experts have encouraged the Saudi government Lo develop its water resources, with the eventual object of becoming self-sufficient in food.
Iraq continues to spend much of its oil income for river basin work. The Derbendi Khan Dam, completed last April on the Diyala tributary of the Tigris, is 177 miles northeast of Baghdad. A quarter of a million farmers who cultivate some 22,000 acres in the Diyala Basin are now secure from flood damage. Iraqi planners expect to bring 4000 additional acres into cultivation in this basin and to settle landless peasants there.
Further north, in Syria, in spite of chronic political turmoil, reclamation and dam building have continued. In the last ten years, 112.000 acres in the Ghab Valley have been drained. There the Rastan Dam on the Orontes, built by Bulgarian engineers, rises 200 feet. It makes possible the irrigation of 62,000 acres in the Ghab Valley and so provides new land for impoverished peasants.
Since the dam’s completion a year ago, distribution of land has made halting progress. Land reform comes hard in the only Arab country to have achieved agricultural mechanization through private land companies. There is particular resistance to the provision in the land-reform decree of 1958 which required government licenses for pumping from Syrian rivers. The basic intention of sharing water rights with new . small farmers threatened the customary pumping at will by large landholders. No Syrian government strongenough to enforce this reform decree yet exists.
Syria’s plan to develop the Euphrates depends on agreements with Turkey and Iraq, which share riparian rights on this international river. An agreement between Turkey and Iraq, providing for cooperative planning for flood control on both the Tigris and Euphrates, was signed in 1946. Recently, Syria and Iraq have been negotiating a similar agreement. Help in financing and building a Euphrates dam is beingsought from the West German government, perhaps by way of balancing Syria’s present dependence on technicians from the Eastern bloc. The proposed Euphrates dam would irrigate 500.000 acres at a cost of some SI25 million.
The opening of new land
In Syria, as in Iraq, there is a lack of trained manpower and effective administration to carry out and service the actual distribution of new lands. Until recently, 70 percent of the rural population was landless, while large owners held 45 percent of the irrigated and a third of the rain-fed land. For this reason, rural poverty remains a problem and a source of Syrian political unrest.
In Egypt, water is the key to survival of a population of 27 million, dependent on 6 million acres of cultivation. The Aswan Dam. expected to add 2 million acres of irrigable land, cannot be finished before 1968. Reclamation on the sites of ancient desert bases and in coastal marshes has, therefore, a high priority. For example, some 229,000 acres have been reclaimed since 1959. The distribution of land under Egypt’s land-reform system continues as new acreage is opened up. Nevertheless, the race between hunger and production remains Egypt’s most compelling problem.
Jordan’s search for water has been rewarded wherever pumping has been tried. Subterranean springs are being explored northeast of Amman by a technical mission provided by the UN Special Fund. An International Bank credit of $2 million is financing an improved water supply for the growing capital city of Amman. In 1960, a central water authority was created for all of Jordan. One of its jobs has been to re-establish ancient water systems dating back to Roman times. American technical assistance has aided this effort.
American aid to Jordan
The largest American contribution to Jordan has been for construction of the East Ghor Canal, This canal diverts about 150 million cubic meters a year of Yarmuk River waters. Its purpose is to make commercial farming possible on the east bank of the Jordan Valley on some 17,000 acres. Though small in area, this development promises to yield from the intensive cultivation possible in this region enough produce to make the entire project economically profitable. The Jordanian government, which has just received a development loan from Kuwait, hopes eventually to interest Kuwait in further extensions of the Yarmuk plan, including dams on the upper Yarmuk, from which Syria would also benefit.
The Yarmuk, like the Jordan, is an international river. It flows along the border between Syria and Jordan and drops through a volcanic rift to join the Jordan River four miles south of the Sea of Tiberias. Hence, it is the principal source of the Jordan’s flow in the Jordan Valley, which extends from Tiberias 65 miles to the Dead Sea.
The decision in Washington to help Jordan utilize a portion of Yarmuk waters for the East Ghor Canal came when hope of a TVA for the Jordan Valley Basin was abandoned. Up through 1957, it had been the American policy to promote a joint utilization of the Jordan system in the interest of all the riparian states involved. These are Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. The prerequisite to such a development was not necessarily formal peace between the Arabs and Israel, but it was essential that each side should agree to international supervision of the distribution of waters developed under international auspices.
Agreement on technical aspects of a revised Johnston plan for the Jordan was reached in 1955 by an Arab technical committee of engineers, and apparently by the Israeli government. But on political grounds the plan was rejected by both sides. To the Arabs, the advantages of water development at international expense, with the flow to be safeguarded by an international water board or water master, were tempting. Yet no Arab government felt strong enough to commit itself to a project which would enable Israel to expand its population.
On Israel’s side, the plan meant relinquishing a historic goal of obtaining water from northern sources, particularly the Litani in Lebanon; and it meant an intrusion by an international authority in Israel’s water policy. It required, for example, curtailing the Israeli proposal to take water from the Jordan south to the Negev for a future additional two million settlers expected to come to the Promised Land.
Given these political handicaps, it is not surprising that a joint water plan had to be abandoned. In its place, the two states most dependent on Jordan water have moved ahead with separate developments. On the Jordan side, the question of how much of the Yarmuk may be diverted to Jordan’s use without depriving Israel of the normal rights of a downstream user has not yet been settled. So far, Jordan’s diversion is small.
Israel’s need for water
The Israeli government project to pump water from the Sea of Tiberias into a reservoir at Beit Natoufa and pipe it 110 to 155 miles south to the undeveloped desert of the Negev is well under way. By the winter of 1963. 180 million cubic meters yearly of upper Jordan water from Tiberias will be in the pipeline now nearing completion. When completed, the line will transfer 330 million cubic meters a year out of Tiberias.
The physical effect of this diversion will be to lower the level of Tiberias and to increase its salinity, since salt springs already exist in the southern end of the lake. Hence, the Jordan from Tiberias to the Dead Sea will become saline. By the fall of 1963, the diversion will take one half of the average annual flow of the Jordan below Tiberias.
Israel’s need for water for even its present population of two million is serious. It is already exploiting 70 percent of its available water resources. In the entire northwest area of the country, water is rationed and water tables are dropping. It is apparent that Israel cannot develop as its planners hope without access to the rivers of neighboring countries. Of necessity, existing water quotas set a limit to irrigation expansion. At this point they conflict with the policy of unlimited immigration, whereby the Israeli government hopes to accept additional Jewish immigrants and populate the Negev.
The Arabs protest
Arab reaction to the Israeli water project takes three forms. One is to protest on legal and moral grounds against the major diversion of an international stream out of its normal watershed, the Jordan Valley. A second proposed protest takes the form of threats to dam up the principal headwaters of the Jordan River, which originate in the hills of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, thus letting it dry up. This proposal, urged byLebanon, is not only impractical; it violates all water law relating to international rivers. Other Arab downstream users, such as Egypt, reject it for this reason.
Finally, the Arabs threaten war over the Jordan. This time, the seriousness of the issue — the allocation of a vital water resource on which two desert countries depend lor survival — gives this threat an unusually urgent sound. One real possibility of preventing a water war in this area remains. This is the development of cheaper processes for the conversion of seawater. It is lor this reason that so much energy and money are being spent on this scientific front in the Middle East today.