Water wars in the Middle East: the future calls for cooperation

Haya Chemaitilly is a 2nd year International Development (BA) student and Vice-President of the society. Her article focuses on the importance of cooperation in the Middle East not just for geopolitical conflicts, but also for water based ones.

11/10/2017 – When one thinks of conflicts in the Middle East, one automatically talks about geopolitical ones, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iran-Saudi tensions or the wars in Yemen and in Syria. However, one issue that seems to be forgotten in such a context is the question of water. Water is the source of life for humans and its access is currently in jeopardy all over the world. The Middle Eastern region is an especially concerning case: if conflicts linked to politics continue to arise in the region, furthered by this a dearth of potable water, the Middle East will be bound to no rest from wars for the rest of the century.

The importance of water is non-negligible from all standpoints. Our agriculture, health and energy depend on water. Its use is predicted to increase in the following years, as more food will be produced to provision the estimated population growth. However, since this past decade, we have been witnessing more polluted hydraulic resources, as well as for a diminishing amount of water resources all over the world, making their management a central aspect of our specie’s survival.

This increasingly important issue has encouraged some governments which share common aquatic resources (transboundary waters) to cooperate and find sustainable water resource management solutions, in the light of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and securing water resources for the next generations. However, in the case of the Middle East, cooperation will not be easy to achieve, even though necessary, because of the ongoing geopolitical conflicts.

Cooperation to manage water resources in the region is crucial because of the various transboundary freshwater rivers, underground aquifers and basins between countries that do not necessarily have friendly relations. This is the case for the Jordan River basin, shared by Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. On top of the difficult relations between Israel and Arab countries, there is controversy as some states want to build dams on the river, while others claim they are not receiving enough water. There might be a possible conflict, turning into military interventions on this site if cooperation is not found among these countries.

Military interventions, concerning this time securing water provision, is the last thing some nations are looking for. They are either already implicated in some conflicts or have deployed troops massively over their borders to make their country safe. Hence, they could be looking for selfish ways to obtain water.

One way to avoid cooperation and military escalation is by desalinizing water resources. In addition to the few freshwater resources the region has, in relation to the desert typology of the Middle East and low rainfalls, some countries have undertaken this process to become “water independent”. This is a great initiative in a way since each country has its own exclusive economic zone, it permits exploiting at each country’s convenience the area’s resources. However, this process is costly, and only countries who can afford to do it such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have been able to implement these industries. Therefore, we go back to the issue of sharing common freshwater resources, as most countries cannot afford desalinization.

Governments are forced to find ways to supply their citizens. An increase in population is projected for the next decades in this region. Pollution of water resources, as witnessed in many of these countries which do not necessarily have efficient waste management authorities, places stress due to its scarcity. With the geopolitical conflicts continuing in the region, adding up to this water issue, the Middle East could be destined to decades of wars.

However, some hope lies in this situation. Some solutions include privatising the water sector in all countries so that the governments do not have to cooperate to achieve water provision services. This might limit the tensions in the region but it will not encourage states to engage in diplomatic dialogues for instance. Moreover, privatisation entails that prices will increase, and while water is essential for life, some citizens might, therefore, be waterless on this basis.

Therefore, the most favourable outcome is cooperation. First, an end to all geopolitical conflicts must be found: in the hope that in the next months or years, some of the most disastrous conflicts of the region (such as the wars in Yemen and in Syria) will end, creating a domino of resolutions and peace talks between all actors. After this first process, collaboration for water resources management along other domains (such as the energy sector) could begin. Otherwise, water wars will be the next great obstacle to the achievement of peace in the Middle East.


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