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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter May 19, 2014

Water Quality in the Middle East

  • Yehuda Shevah EMAIL logo
From the journal Chemistry International

Among the many problems that plague the region, the western states of the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan suffer most from water scarcity. The three states depend on three major trans-boundary surface and groundwater reservoirs, which historically supplied 75% or more of water but nowadays are critically low because of overuse, lack of rainfall, and climate change, which magnify the water stress in this arid region. Consequently, the shared water resources are under heavy natural and man-made pressures, in terms of quantity and quality, affecting every aspect of life from ecosystems and the environment, to food security and health.

Parts of the groundwater resources contain unhealthy levels of biological contaminants, nitrates and chlorides compounds beyond the permissible limits, while many communities are exposed to waterborne diseases because of lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Also, inadequate treatment of point and nonpoint sources of pollution and trans-boundary movement of pollutants from one entity to another endangers the shared water bodies and poses a threat to the drinking water and the environment. Future population growth, urbanization and improved standard of living, together with global warming, are likely to result with more extreme stresses on watersheds. Intense precipitation events, altered river flows and changes in the growing season will worsen the ongoing conflicts in the region—the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular.

Experts Working Group on the Assessment of Drinking Water Quality

The water crisis presents a clear opportunity and challenge for this troubled region, provided that the involved parties adopt a regional water strategy that will trigger the emergence of suitable forms of regional partnership able to address the acute crises of lack of water. The challenges and the potential for turning water into a pillar of regional cooperation were reviewed by an international group of 17 experts from Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Kuwait and other U.S. and European members of IUPAC, the Chemistry and the Environment Division, CHEMRAWN and Malta Conferences Foundation (MCF).

The working group, conceived in 2007, held the kickoff meeting during Malta IV Conference in Amman, Jordan, in November 2009, followed by several workshops and focus group discussions. The findings were presented in Malta V Conference in Paris, December 2011 and reviewed in Malta VI Conference (see insert, next page), 10-15 November 2013, in the Island of Malta. Scientists from 15 Middle East countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates), Nobel Laureates, and other eminent scientists were present (see C&EN, Vol. 91, Issue 46, Nov. 18, 2013, p. 7 or Several consecutive workshops were held including Chemistry and Bio-Medicinal Chemistry; Analytical, Nanotechnology and Material Science; Energy, Air and Water Quality; Chemistry Safety and Security; and Science Education at All Levels.

The Energy, Air, and Water Quality Workshop

The workshop was organized by Chuck Kolb (USA), Yehuda Shevah (Israel), Tareq Abu Hamed (Israel), Alfred Abed Rabbo (Palestinian Authority) and included the following sessions:

1. Solar Energy

2. Water Resources and Water Quality

3. Air & Environment

4. Workshop Summary and Future Actions Report

Water Resources and Water Quality Workshop—Issues of Discussions and Recommendations

The shared water resources can supply on average no more than 150 m3 per year per capita, which is only 30% of the Scarcity Red Line of 500 m3 per capita/year. Even if one of the three states gets all the rights on the shared natural resources, it would not be sufficient in the long term. Under business as usual, the regional population is forecasted to reach 30 million in 2040, an increase of 12 million from 18 million in 2010, and the overall water demand will increase from about 3 billion m3/year in 2010 to 6 billion m3/year. The increment of 100% between supply and demand will create significant pressure on economic and social development, as of the anticipated demand for water, only 40% could be met from natural resources, the rest could only derive from non-conventional sources, namely: water reuse (30%) and sea water desalination (30%). In total about 100 million m3 have to be produced annually for the next 30 years in order to satisfy the growing water demand. For such a scenario to be realized, a concerted action plan is recommended as follows.

Regional Water Strategy and Cooperation

Genuine regional cooperation leading to the implementation of a cross-border regional management is suggested for a sustainable use of the regional water and the development and the harnessing of new water resources. It is also essential to address the existing asymmetries in the shared water resources and the related health and environmental impact, irrespective of political and economic differences. Such regional collaboration may promote a joint action on the alleviation of the looming regional water crisis. Convinced of the added value of a regional water strategy and aware that a multilevel governance can achieve the goals that have been set, the three member states shall jointly make the necessary political effort to adopt a regional water strategy, promoted by stakeholders at national and regional levels and supported by international agencies having interest in the region. The key goal is to build bridges among the governments, which provide appropriate policies and regulations; the private sector that provides innovation and technology; and the civil societies that provide inputs from user stakeholders, to the mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence among people in the three states.

Malta Conferences

Research and Education in the Middle East

Instability and uncertainty in the Middle East, combined with water scarcity, global climate change, nuclear proliferation, and lack of civil society, create a growing threat to the world. To address these challenges, the Malta Conferences Foundation (MCF), a tax-exempt charitable organization, has organized biennial conferences for more than a decade that bring scientists from Middle East countries together with as many as six Nobel laureates for five days. Most of the scientists from these countries cannot meet face-to-face easily to exchange information and discuss collaboration and cooperation because their governments are hostile to each other.

Yet, within these countries, there are people who do the work of science and science education at universities and national institutes, and hunger to know their colleagues from across the forbidden borders and learn about the results of their research. The Malta Conferences, for which “Science Diplomacy as a Bridge To Peace” is the overarching theme, are the only platforms where these scientists from Middle East countries can work together on solutions to regional problems.

The Malta Conferences are so-named because of the location of the first two meetings in 2003 and 2005 on the island of Malta. The sixth biennial conference (Malta VI) was held 10-15 November 2013, on Malta; past conferences were held in Istanbul in 2007, in Amman, Jordan, in 2009, and in Paris in 2011 at UNESCO headquarters as part of the celebration of the International Year of Chemistry.

Malta VI, which celebrated the tenth anniversary of this series of conferences, attracted a total of 85 invited participants, including students and early-career scientists, from 15 Middle East countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates).

See more on page 27.

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and Decision Support Systems (DSS)

Based on technical and economic realities and not on water rights and administrative division, access to a sufficient, safe, and regular supply of drinking water for the whole population from fresh and artificially produced sources, isolated from other regional issues, shall be secured, based on IWRM and DSS tools.

IWRM and DSS, which considerupstream and downstream interactions, provide a viable solution for the development and delivery of the substantial quantity of water, needed over the next 30 years. Combining engineering, social, environment and economic components, IWRM provides a sustainable solution for exploitation and use of water by all sectors of the economy, including irrigation. Considering the dominance of agriculture in the regional economy and the multiple functions it performs for food production, social, and environmental benefits, the water needs of agriculture have to be met. Water productivity in irrigation systems has to be greatly improved, incorporating recycled water and eventually adjusting to a more costly desalinated water supply.

IWRM recognizes the right of individuals, civil societies and the local authorities and other interested parties to participate at the different levels in decision-making processes and the involvement of the private sector in development and implementation. It also respects the rightful allocation of waters, considering agreed quantities and quality and safe exploitation of the shared water resources, using consistent and uniform techniques of measurement. Based on Management Information System and reliable databases, IWRM accommodates a monitoring system able to monitor progress, recording and reporting data, including health, environmental, and social impacts, sources of pollutants and trans-boundary movement of pollutants and atmospheric deposition.

Initiate and Promote the Development of New Water Resources and Conservation

Innovative and advanced technologies shall be adopted as related to conservation, desalination, water reuse, restoration of depleted and degraded resource and aquatic ecosystems, strategic groundwater storage, rainwater harvesting and cloud seeding. Installation of wastewater treatment and reuse systems and brackish and sea water desalination plants shall be accelerated, taking advantage of the unprecedented technical and economic advances that have already occurred and the accumulated and proven experience within the region and beyond. The associated and the emerging environmental impacts of large-scale seawater desalination installations and use of recycled waters have to be fully elucidated.

Regional Water Research and Development (R&D) and Experts Support

A regional R&D program for scientific and technological based development of water resources shall be set up and to encourage scientific cooperation and partnership, at a national, regional, and international level. The close regional cooperation that was established shall form a base for further regional collaborations, providing a framework for dissemination of information and research supported by the international scientific community. Consultative forums shall be established to review alternative engineering solutions, as well as facilitating cross-border mobility for professionals, tackling the problems and specific needs of each sub-basin, based on a participatory approach and detached from other regional disputes and conflicts.

Concluding Remarks

It is a simple fact that the Middle Eastern countries are experiencing a severe water scarcity in which available water resources cannot match the existing and rising demands, while depleting resources and anthropogenic pollution renders parts of the resources unusable for human consumption. The study proved that despite the destabilized political and economic climate in the Middle East, it is possible for scientists from opposing sides to meet in an attempt to bridge the deep distrust and intolerance.

Finally, the study covered the “what” is needed to be done regarding trans-boundary management of water resources, considered long-term development trends, and proposed the mechanisms that can be used to increase effective regional cooperation on trans-boundary water resources. It remains to expand the work on “how” it can be done. Successful strategies that will emerge would pave the way for intense cooperation on water technology and other related issues such as climate change, food, and energy, setting an example for other nations of the Middle East and elsewhere facing growing water scarcity.


The findings in a form of a consensus Declaration is being endorsed for dissemination to the state governments, regional agencies, communities and to other relevant local and international agencies and organizations. The complete document on the regional water quality assessment project may be found in a publication: Shevah Y. (2013) Adaptation to Water Scarcity and Regional Cooperation in the Middle East. In: Ahuja S. (ed.) Comprehensive Water Quality and Purification (Elsevier, 2013, ISBN 9780123821829), pp. 40-70.

More information about this project is available on the IUPAC website at

Yehuda Shevah <> works in Tel Aviv and is a member of the Subcommittee on Chemistry of Environmental Compartments of the IUPAC Chemistry and the Environment Division, and chair of IUPAC project 2008-003-3-600.


The report is a result of a multilateral working group who contributed from their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, greatly assisting in making the published report possible. Funding and technical and organization support were provided by IUPAC Chemistry and Environment Division, and Malta Conferences Foundation (MCF). IUPAC and MCF have demonstrated a keen interest in promoting collaborative environmental research in the Middle East. Their contribution is greatly appreciated.

Online erschienen: 2014-5-19
Erschienen im Druck: 2014-5-1

©2014 by Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co.

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