Environment, Society and Security: Interrelated Challenges in the Middle East

All through the millennia of its environmental history, the Middle East1 has seen little change. The region's environmental mosaic of Mediterranean, semi-arid and arid landscapes, with the two great river systems of the Nile and the Jordan, has remained relatively stable, in spite of the fact that there have been periods of cold, drought and aridity. Mediterranean seashore settlements were involved in maritime trade, riverbanks have been places of irrigated agriculture (and regular and irregular floods) and semi-arid lands provided for nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists.

Modernization and Globalization and the Environmental Challenges in the Region

Modernization and globalization, however, initiated huge changes to the region. They introduced and enforced new political and social realities which have had a complex and profound impact on the old relationship between the inhabitants and the inhabited environment. The political intrusion of the Europeans into the region (British and French colonization) resulted in setting political borders and institutions, most visibly affecting the semi-nomadic and nomadic ways of life. The demographic explosion following the Industrial Revolution in Europe may have reached the Middle East much later, but had similar results: rapidly growing populations in rapidly growing population centers, migration from the countryside to the cities, etc., with increasing industrial activity, exploitation of the arable land and - where possible - efforts to fight desertification.

Modernization and globalization have left the Middle East with such major environmental challenges as water and food security, energy security, desertification and land degradation, urbanization and industrialization (including pollution and waste management) and natural disasters. In the newly introduced nation-state system, most of these challenges have come to constitute part of state authority - in such cases as water, food or natural disaster relief and mitigation - in contrast with the former umma responsibility.2 Globalization, however, introduced new actors to the field: the international community and nongovernmental organizations. The environment has no political boundaries. Therefore, cross-border and/or regional cooperation is highly advisable either in the sharing of the common environment or in managing the problems that arise. Although no regional environmental protection system has yet evolved due to the very complex political situation in the Middle East, in the course of the Arab-Israeli peace process, two of the five post-Madrid Conference multilateral working groups dealt with the environment in general and with water in particular.

Water and Food Security

Water and food pose very complex domestic and external security challenges. Inadequate supplies of either resource can lead to domestic unrest, attested to by the so-called "bread riots" in Egypt in 2008.3 Self-reliance is another basic challenge; most states in the region have to rely on imported food, and the waters of the region are typically rivers or sources over which compromises have to be made, which is not easy when some regional states do not recognize one another or have no peace treaty between them. But even where diplomatic and official relations exist, sharing water may lead to serious threats, as seen in the water-sharing experiences between Turkey and Syria, or the current dam-building crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia. While there is an ongoing debate over whether or not water scarcity could lead to war - and no such war has taken place as yet - it can still act as an aggravating factor in existing conflicts. In a region that is considered one of the most conflict-prone areas of the world, the possibility cannot be excluded.

At the same time, it has been argued that "water is a fundamental part of the social contract in Middle Eastern countries. Along with subsidized food and fuel, governments provide cheap or even free water in order to ensure the consent of the governed."4 This social contract, however, is threatened by such factors as the demographic explosion that has taken place in the region,5 the huge influx of refugees in the recent and not-so-recent past, and climate change and industrialization, which increasingly make it difficult for governments to provide for these very basic needs of human life.

The population in the Middle East has tripled in the last 50 years, due in part to the number of children average Arab families used to have, as well as the improvement of living conditions, which ensured that child mortality rates have decreased and life expectancy has increased.

Population growth or sudden unexpected shifts in the numbers can also be caused by migration and refugees further aggravating water and food security concerns. The biggest migrant/refugee groups in the Middle East have been the Palestinians, the Iraqis and the Syrians. But while the Palestinian refugees and refugee camps have become "constant elements" in the states hosting them or in the occupied territories, the recent waves of Iraqi and Syrian refugees have added unexpected burdens which could not have been foreseen. While Arab states have traditionally received these refugees well and even provided services and social benefits to their Arab "brethren," before long restrictions had to be introduced as water and electricity consumption, the cost of living and unemployment skyrocketed.6

The water situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is defined not only by natural and/or humanitarian causes, but also by political and legal commitments, such as the Oslo Agreement and Israel's responsibility as the occupying power under international law. While the substance of water distribution as defined in the Oslo document in itself is questionable, the very fact that it was originally planned to be relevant for a period of five years should be a "warning," as the facts on the ground, e.g., the number of the population to be accommodated, has changed.7

It should also be borne in mind that while water in its most important aspect means clean drinking water, it is also needed for agricultural purposes (e.g., irrigation) and animal breeding (a clear connection to food security), but also to industry, etc. Many countries use increasing amounts of water to expand the arable land at their disposal to the extent that some speak of a "green revolution" in the Middle East. In fact, "agriculture accounts now for between 65 and 90% of national water consumption across the region."8 Since most of this water comes from underground sources that cannot be replenished, and since the land use practices have not changed much and are still wasteful, governments are looking for suitable resources as substitutes. Among the options, sea water desalination seems to be an acceptable technology, even if it demands technological and financial resources. Another - so far mainly theoretical - option could be the treatment and re-use of wastewater, which among the Middle Eastern circumstances should be considered more as a renewable water source than as waste.9

Sewage, as a part of wastewater, poses many serious threats, the most pressing of which is the threat of epidemic diseases. The necessary expansion and modernization of the drainage system cannot keep up with the rapid population growth and the development of megacities. This has presented clear health risks, including the pollution of groundwater sources. In Gaza this is especially a serious problem affecting not only the Gazan population but also that of Israel. There are projects under way to help manage the situation, subsidized by organizations and countries such as the World Bank and Qatar.10

Industry and Energy

Wastewater and sewage, however, are not only dependent on demographics and population. Industrial development, which is considered to be the first element of modernization, is in itself one of the major causes of water scarcity. Although the level of industrialization in the Middle Eastern countries is different - Israel being the most industrialized state in the region - industry even in its most primitive form has a direct environmental impact. Starting from the increased demand of water and energy to the demand of space and territory, industry has several dimensions influencing the relationship between the population and its environment.

Industrial activities will necessarily attract people, who require food and water, housing, etc. In the Middle East the building of industrial centers or cities outside the great population centers makes sense, especially considering the fact that the deserts offer enough empty space to house an increasing population. In places such as Egypt, the government even provides subsidies and benefits to such industrial zones. However, these zones need basic infrastructure such as roads, water, energy supply, etc. The Egyptian government announced in February 2014 plans for the development of 35 industrial zones.11

The demand for energy is also increasing. Despite the fact that most of the states in the region have some energy resources of their own, the amount of sunshine makes solar energy a very reasonable investment. In special cases, such as in the occupied Palestinian territories, investment in solar energy plants would, in addition to the considerations of environmental protection, have a political relevance as well. Taking into account the fact that the infrastructures of the territories are dependent on the Israeli energy and resources networks, be it gas, electricity or telephone, building solar energy plants would at least diversify the resources and lessen the dependence to some degree. NGOs have initiated programs aimed at decreasing Palestinian dependence on Israeli resources. Considering the present conditions, however, such investments may not be feasible at this time.12

The Way Ahead: A Role for the European Union?

In spite of the growing awareness globally, environmental challenges are very difficult to address; these issues cannot be decoupled from other developments in the state, the society, and international relations. Protecting the environment sui generis requires cooperation among the states, which is increasingly difficult if the parties are in conflict with one another. Although there have been examples showing that two states in conflict have come to cooperate as a result of an environmental or natural disaster (e.g., Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of earthquakes), environmental protection is a joint activity that needs the parties to act together. In the Middle East the best, and so far only, example of a regional dimension has been the multilateral working groups on water and environment in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Bilateral examples of cooperation do exist, e.g., between Israel and Jordan over the Jordan River and planning of the distribution of resources from the Dead Sea, or the Palestinian-Israeli NGO activities.

However, the regional dimension has been, and likely will continue to be, sadly missing under the present political conditions.

The generally environmentally friendly European Union has established a set of institutions connecting the EU with the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. While the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the southern dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy do not address the protection of the environment per se, the Union for the Mediterranean includes projects on transport and urban development and energy, as well as water and environment. The ministerial conference on environment and climate change held in May 201413 may be a clear indication that there is a wider regional format which in times of tension may still offer a forum for moving forward. This next step, supported by many local initiatives and cooperation, can still provide the continuity necessary to address environmental challenges.


1In the context of this paper the Middle East means the territory of Egypt and the historic Levant, i.e., Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan.
2A very common form of Islamic charity used to be that of providing a public well (drinking water) to the community. A well-cited example is that of Muslim organizations providing immediate services following the Cairo earthquake in 1987.
3"Egyptians riot over bread crisis," The Telegraph, April 8, 2008,
4Jon B. Alterman-Michael Dziuban, "Clear Gold. Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East," December 2010,
5We claim that although the population is still increasing, the demographic explosion itself has been completed and now it is the after-effects that we see. This proposition is supported by the fact that the fertility rates as well as the percentage of the population under age 15 have continuously declined over the past decades.
6On the problem of refugees and water scarcity, see Kinga Szálkai, "Summer is coming?" Escalating host-refugee tensions over scarce water in Jordan, in BiztPol Affairs, vol. 2:2, 2014, pp. 2-17,
7Discriminatory water supply, B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, March 10, 2014,
8Jon B. Alterman-Michael Dziuban, "Clear Gold. Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East," December 2010,
9Maher Abu-Madi and Rashed Al-Sa'eds., "Towards Sustainable Wastewater Reuse in the Middle East and North Africa,"
10Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment (NGEST) Project,; Qatar, Egypt, Gaza, Israel investments communication channel,
11Ministry of Industry announces development of 35 industrial zones,
12Palestinians Turn to Solar Power To Reduce Reliance on Israel,
13The ministerial meeting was held in Athens, with the participation of the ministers of the 43 member states.