TRIPOLI, Libya — The city of Tobruk, poised on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in eastern Libya, recently faced a terrifying prospect: After weeks of rationing, the city of 100,000 literally ran out of water.
The seepage of sea water into Tobruk's wells had ruined the ancient pipes of the city's water supply. There was no tap water, no showers, no working sewers.
"It's a wonder the city was not swept by a cholera epidemic," one Western diplomat here said.
Tobruk's crisis, which began last month, is an isolated event, still rare even in the arid Middle East. But the nightmare of critical water shortages is becoming the region's most significant long-range problem, overshadowing religious fundamentalism and ideological clashes in an area long prone to violent resolution of conflicts.
'Suffering and Strife'
"By the year 2000, the major river systems in the Middle East will be suffering either acute water shortages and-or acute pollution," said Dr. Joyce R. Starr of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who recently co-authored a widely praised report on the region's water crisis. "This could lead to conflict, possibly even war, but no doubt to enormous suffering and strife."
Water experts regard three areas of the region as most likely to suffer because of water shortages:
--The Nile Basin. Saved this year by heavy rains after an 11-year drought, the basin is threatened by a combination of burgeoning populations, changing weather patterns and an unstable political climate. The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat once remarked that the only factor that could force Egypt to go to war again was water.
Turkish Water Project
--The Euphrates and Tigris rivers. A massive irrigation project in eastern Turkey promises to bring agricultural development to a large area of that country. But there has been no agreement with neighboring Syria and Iraq about the use of the water. In 1975, Iraq mobilized its army against Syria when Damascus began filling a reservoir from the Euphrates, and war was narrowly averted.
--Israel and its neighbors. Experts predict Israel will require 30% more water than will be available there in 10 years, Jordan 20% more. Nearly 40% of Israel's water supply is drawn from an aquifer, a water-bearing geological stratum deep beneath the Earth's surface--but the aquifer lies under the West Bank, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. A manifesto of the leading Likud Party, issued for the November national election campaign, named water as one of the major reasons that Israel should keep control of the West Bank.
'A Time Bomb'
"The question is whether the nations in the area are going to face the problem or escape from answering," said Meir Ben-Meir, a former Israeli water commissioner. "If our generation does not tackle the problem, within 50 years it will become a time bomb. Without cooperation, we will have to face a conflict."
Starr, who has been advising Congress on the growing water crisis, warned that "the problem can't be solved. It's going to get worse. It can't be solved by conflict either. You can't solve something that is insolvable. You can only try to manage it."
Arnon Sofer, a geographer at Israel's Haifa University, noted that Mideast water supplies are not flexible, while population figures are expanding at phenomenal rates. In the Nile Basin, for example, the population is expected to increase by 100 million people in the next 12 years, while the water supply remains relatively constant.
More than 90% of the Nile's water flows from Ethiopia's mountains, Sofer noted--and how long Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, will allow such a precious resource to drain away to Sudan and Egypt remains an open question.
In recent years, there have been repeated rumors of Ethiopian plans, with Soviet assistance, to build a dam across its tributary of the Nile. The other countries of the Nile Basin--Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Zaire, Rwanda, Kenya, the Sudan--are all politically unstable, casting a further shadow over the reliability of water supplies.
Egypt, which is entirely dependent on the Nile for its water, narrowly escaped catastrophe this year when heavy rains in Ethiopia relieved a decade-long drought. Before the rains, water in the High Aswan Dam had fallen so low that navigation on the Nile was impossible, and it was feared that electricity production would have to be curtailed. Changing weather patterns could keep the area in a cycle of drought, however.
And despite this year's reprieve, Egypt still depends on irrigation methods that waste huge quantities of water. Indeed, one Western study suggested Egypt could face a shortfall of 4 billion cubic meters by 1990.
Turkey's 13-Dam Project
In another sensitive area, along the path of the Euphrates and Tigris, Turkey is building a 13-dam project in a bold move to develop the relatively backward area of eastern Anatolia.