In the Middle East, a rapidly expanding population is making even more rapidly expanding demands upon the water supply. Although this increase in demand is common throughout the world, the Middle East has the special problem of a severely limited supply.
We have recently seen a spate of books and articles on the water problems of the Middle East. In one way, this is a welcome development, suggesting that persons interested in the Middle East are turning from a narrow concentration on headline politics and beginning to pay more attention to other important issues which affect the lives of the mass of the people. But some of these books and articles have been journalistic, relying on half-digested notions about water. Some have been alarmist, suggesting that war is about to erupt over one water dispute or another.
Daniel Hillel's Rivers of Eden is on a much higher level than the journalistic or alarmist publications. He is an emeritus professor of plant, soil and environmental sciences at the University of Massachusetts and has long worked on water and related problems, especially in Israel and other parts of the Middle East. The book is a professional examination of major water problems in the region. Hillel's book is a thoughtful introduction to water issues, especially useful to those from other disciplines.
The book opens with four introductory chapters covering such topics as his personal reaction to water problems, the importance of water to life, water in Middle Eastern cultures, ecological problems associated with water in antiquity, and the origins of the modem state system. The utility of these chapters depends upon the reader's own specialties. Thus, a political scientist would learn little from the section on the state system but would profit from the section on the hydrological cycle.
The core of the book begins with regional chapters on the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile and the Jordan rivers, and Lebanon.
The chapter on the Tigris-Euphrates basin (chapter 5) can serve as an example of the regional chapters. Hillel describes the courses of the rivers and their tributaries, the amount of water in the river system, the climate of the basin, the problem of salinization, and the various water projects of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Among the Iraqi projects is the "Third River," a canal to drain and irrigate the marshes between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Hillel points out that, contrary to the belief that the canal is a plot of the current government to root out Shia dissidents, work on the canal began in 1953, in the days of the monarchy. The real significance of the canal, along with the Jonglei Canal in Sudan and other projects elsewhere in the world, is the shift from complete faith in large engineering projects ("salvation through construction") to a greater awareness of the possibility of irreparable damage to the environment and to a greater awareness of the value of thoughtful analysis of goals and of alternative paths to these goals.
In the chapter on the Nile (chapter 6), Hillel discusses many of the same topics as they arise in that basin. He summarizes the history of planning for the Nile in this century with the evolution of thinking towards basin-wide planning. Another issue affecting the Nile that Hillel discusses concerns the need, problems and prospects of cooperation among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
The regional chapters are followed by chapters on groundwater, efficiency of water use and unconventional methods of augmenting water supplies. These topics are vital, yet they are often slighted, even omitted, in many discussions of water in the Middle East.
In the Middle East, as elsewhere, groundwater development has usually gone through two stages: persuading people that there is indeed water deep under the surface and then persuading them that the groundwater supply is limited. In chapter 9, after an introductory description of the nature of groundwater, Hillel focuses his attention on two case studies. One is the project to develop groundwater deposits in southern Libya and pipe the water to the north. The Libyan project raises the issue of the safe yield of a groundwater deposit, especially one about which basic information is lacking.
The other case involves the aquifers under Israel and the occupied territories. The aquifer under coastal Israel and Gaza has been overpumped, which has brought the danger of salt-water intrusion. For the upland aquifers, major issues are the safe yield of the aquifers and the equitable apportionment of the yield between the two parties.
In chapter 10, Hillel discusses the efficiency of water use under the title "The River of Waste." The amount of water wasted in the Middle East, he suggests, is larger than the amount of water in any of the rivers of the area. Too often, he states, the "demand" for water becomes the unquestioned "need" for water. Yet much use is inefficient. He examines the inefficiency of water use in irrigation because this is probably the area of the greatest waste and because he was engaged in Israel in developing more efficient methods, such as drip irrigation. He notes that there are different types of efficiency: the economic, the physiological and the application, each of which is difficult to improve. Improving economic efficiency, for example, is severely hampered in Israel and other countries by government underpricing of water, in tum protected by the power of agricultural interests.
Hillel's chapter 11 discusses alternative ways of enlarging supplies. These include rain-making, water spreading, long-distance water transport and desalination. The problem with these methods is that many politicians and social scientists feel that such technical methods will solve water problems and eliminate the need for the difficult task of bringing water users to improve their methods. Unfortunately, most if not all of the methods of enlarging the supplies are, as Hillel demonstrates, neither cheap nor easy.
The last two chapters review the scant history of international water law and Hillel's thoughts on water in the Arab-Israeli peace process. In both discussions, he quite rightly recognizes the complexity of the issues.
So much of the material published on water in the Middle East concentrates on how much water is available, the various projects for developing water resources, and the international disputes over water. Hillel has taken a closer look than most writers at important topics such as basin planning and water use in irrigation. In this way, Rivers of Eden has contributed greatly to our knowledge and understanding.
Valuable though Hillel's book is, however, it cannot do everything. Attention should be turned to one significant field that remains to be explored: the distribution, use and disposal of water in cities. One topic, for example, is the number of households in the cities of the Middle East that have direct water service in contrast to the number of households that rely on carrying water from public taps. If direct service is provided to more households, the per capita consumption will increase significantly, and the total demand will increase, even with no increase in population. Much material is available on urban water use many countries have reports from consultants on city water systems, household consumption, industrial use and sewage facilities in their files. They await a researcher to utilize them for a study of urban water problems in the Middle East.