Major water projects in Arab countries

Summary: dams and pipelines have been among the largest infrastructure projects in the Arab world. Some have been successful, some less so.

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

The Mubarak Pumping Station, Toshka, Egypt

In confronting their countries’ water problems, Arab rulers have often focused on the supply side – that is, providing more water rather than making better use of the water which is already available. In so doing, they may partly be yielding to the autocrat’s love of grandiose projects (as described in our post of 23 January, “Prestige projects in the Arab world”.)

Water can indeed be an attractive area for grandiose projects, although such projects are often successful, at the same time, in providing more water where and when it is needed, controlling floods and generating electricity. One project that did all three was the Aswan High Dam. For Egyptian President Nasser (Abdul-Nasir, president from 1954 until his death in 1970), after whom the lake impounded by the dam was named, the dam symbolized Egypt’s drive for economic development and its independence from the West. It was, however, far more than a symbol. Despite some serious environmental effects and the displacement of 100,000 Nubians, the dam was a success in that it maintained agricultural output in years of very low flow in the Nile and averted what would have been catastrophic flooding in years of very high flow. These days, the Nile in Egypt is completely under human control. Variation in the flow of the river downstream of the dam is determined by the needs of irrigation and power generation: in the words of Prof John Waterbury, one of the world’s leading authorities on the hydro-politics of the Nile, the river became “for all intents and purposes, an enormous irrigation ditch”. The dam allowed a major increase in Egypt’s agricultural output, in the form of double-cropping on the country’s existing 2.5 million hectares of irrigated land by the late 1970s and the expansion of the area cultivated in Egypt to nearly three million hectares by the beginning of this century.

Husni Mubarak, Nasser’s successor but one as president of Egypt, seems to have been attempting to do something similar with his “New Valley” (or Toshka) project. This was designed to divert water from Lake Nasser (the reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam) to the Western Desert, with the aim of irrigating 250,000 hectares of land. The project, construction of which began in 1998, included a pumping station named after Mubarak, one of the largest pumping stations in the world and an impressive achievement in engineering terms. The project as a whole has been much less impressive in terms of its results. Indeed, it can be seen as having failed, “because of poor planning and inept leadership”, to deliver the sort of benefits that the Aswan High Dam did. Indeed, some have described the project as a whole as “Mubarak’s pyramid”, “a white elephant” or “a political diversion” intended to compensate for a lack of political legitimacy.

Another major water project that has not lived up to expectations is the Tabqa Dam in Syria (also known as the al-Thawra or “revolution” dam), completed in 1973. The dam, with the Lake Asad reservoir behind it, was intended to be the centre-piece of a project to develop the whole of the Euphrates region in Syria. The scheme was badly planned and executed (and what was executed was not adequately maintained) and failed to deliver either the volume of electricity or the area of irrigated land envisaged. It has, however, provided water by pipeline to Aleppo, to compensate for the latter’s loss of supply following Turkey’s use for irrigation of all the water in the River Quaiq, which used to flow through the city.

IS (Islamic State) captured the Tabqa Dam in 2014. Following the expulsion of IS forces in 2017 by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the dam and associated installations needed a good deal of repair work but the structure was not itself in danger of collapse as both IS and the Syrian government had suggested.

One dam that may have been actually close to collapse was the Saddam Dam on the Tigris, completed in 1986 and now known as the Mosul Dam. In 2016, the US Embassy in Iraq raised concerns that the dam faces a “serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure”. This was partly due to the fact that the dam had been attacked in 2014 by IS (whose forces remained in the vicinity) and, as in the case of the Tabqa Dam, maintenance had not been possible. As far as the Saddam Dam is concerned, constant remedial work is essential to prevent its collapse, because of the unsuitable nature of the rock (gypsum, which is soluble) on which it was constructed. Had the dam collapsed, the consequent flooding would have caused a major disaster downstream: one team of academic experts described it in 2015 as the most dangerous dam in the world. However, with the resumption of the remedial work, the risk of collapse now seems to have been averted.

Major water projects do not have to involve rivers and dams: they may be based on the extraction of ground-water from aquifers and its conveyance to where it is needed. By far the largest of these projects in the Arab world is Libya’s Great Man-Made River (GMMR), a network of massive pipelines that Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, the late dictator, described as the “eighth wonder of the world”. The GMMR brings water from aquifers beneath the Sahara in southern Libya to the more populous areas of the country along the coast. Construction of the GMMR began in 1984, with the project designed to be completed in several stages. The initial intention was that the scheme would provide water to irrigate crops, over-pumping having depleted the ground-water reserves in the agricultural regions in the north of the country. In fact, 98% of the water is used for higher-value urban and industrial uses.

The GMMR was surrounded by controversy from the first, with critics pointing to (among other things) the huge cost of construction and the fact that the water was from non-renewable (“fossil”) sources. The GMMR has, however, delivered water to where it was needed (at the rate of 2.5 million cubic metres a year) and, properly maintained, should be able to do so for several decades to come.

NATO bombing during the 2011 civil war did severe damage to the GMMR. More recently, it has suffered from sabotage in the south. Libyans – especially those who remember the days before the GMMR – will be hoping that such attacks will not prevent the system from continuing to provide them with water.

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