Access to water still causes conflicts between those who share or fight over access to the same source. These tensions are even more serious, or even explosive in regions where water resources are scarce. This is the case on the shores of the Mediterranean and all countries in the Middle East. There is a risk that they will be further exacerbated in the future by the consequences of climate change. For Georges Comair, a water diplomat, countries in the region need to establish specific negotiation processes on water issues and anticipate the increase in water stress and its consequences.
Are water-related conflicts on the rise in the Middle East?
All the causes of vulnerability are to be found in the Middle East! First of all, 60% of water in countries in the region comes from external countries. Secondly, the region is experiencing strong population growth, at a rate of about 3.8% per year. Finally, the quantity of water available per capita is low: 700m3 per capita per year in the Middle East, against an average of 7,000m3 per capita per year worldwide. Consequently, all the ingredients are there for conflicts. At the same time, we have established major dynamics to promote dialogue between States.
What are these tools which promote cooperation and sustainable water resources management?
The UN texts, which I call “anti-crisis” texts, are there to build cooperation and peace and secure water for future generations.
Countries with transboundary basins will need to transfer information, exchange their databases, model the impact of climate change affecting these basins by conducting technological audits, and propose adaptation plans. This is without forgetting that the countries upstream from watercourses will need to ensure that they do not cause harm to countries located downstream.
In the transboundary basins in the Middle East, international legislative and regulatory texts are increasingly being used. For example, the 1997 United Nations Convention advocates for the equitable sharing and reasonable use of water – a text which was ratified by all countries in the region, with the exception of Israel and Turkey.
The texts of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) can also be taken as an example. The management of the Danube is, for instance, exemplary: all the countries which share the river negotiate and work together. This management model can be applied in the Middle East. The management of the Orontes River was the first success of hydro-diplomacy in the Middle East.
What is hydro-diplomacy?
I created this concept in the early 1990s. Hydro-diplomacy refers to the fact of getting all stakeholders in water management around the table in the context of a new governance. The aim is to promote the economic and social benefits for transboundary basins and work on preventing the militarization of water-related conflicts.
I have applied this concept in the basin of the Orontes River, which originates in Lebanon, crosses Syria and flows into the Mediterranean. According to Unesco, the win-win agreement signed between Lebanon, Turkey and Syria is a model for water management in the Middle East.
I have also applied it in the context of the Jordan River crisis, which affects Palestine, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. For the Nile, we will need to establish an extremely dynamic hydro-diplomacy!
Indeed, what are the current areas of tension in the Middle East?
There are many inter-State issues over water. For example, the Tigris and the Euphrates cross Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Water from the Jordan River is shared between Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Israel and Lebanon. Israel decided to occupy the Palestinian Territories to secure its access to water. This hegemonic domination causes water and military conflicts. The Red Sea-Dead Sea project might break the deadlock in this situation. This canal between the Red Sea and Dead Sea will supply additional desalinated drinking water, which will be equitably distributed between Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
The Nile, for its part, concerns the two Sudans, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt. Once it has been completed, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be the largest hydropower dam in Africa and will store approximately 80% of the water from the Nile. There will be serious consequences for food security in Egypt, whereas the country is already faced with increased droughts and major demographic pressure. Conversely, the dam will secure Sudan’s energy needs.
Consequently, it is not only water sharing that is at issue, but also the food and energy security of countries. The sectoral approach alone is no longer sufficient to work on water issues.
What is the role of Basin Agencies?
The concept of basin agencies came about in France in the 1970s. It was extended to Europe in the context of a European Framework Directive, which came into force in 2015. The principle involves getting riparian countries of a watercourse together to agree on a regulatory text (UN, European, Middle Eastern…) and organize an equitable sharing of water and its reasonable use. The creation of a basin agency comes with three major questions: What governance should be adopted? What Water Code should be used? And what legislative text should be used in the event of dispute?
Governance is a central issue. Riparian countries can opt for a Basin Commission, which is only composed of technicians, or for a Basin Agency, which is more broadly composed of politicians, researchers, industry leaders, farmers… In the latter case, water demand management takes into account comprehensive plans for adaptation to changes, with measures concerning floods, droughts, the transfer of populations, etc.
Apart from water sharing, what problems can Basin Agencies provide a response to?
Basin Agencies can address problems related to agriculture, the efficiency of networks and financing structures. For example, in the Middle East, the agricultural sector is a huge water consumer and its irrigation methods need to be changed. But how to finance the necessary technological change?The lack of efficiency of drinking water networks is also a central issue. In the Middle East, there is a 40% loss rate on drinking water supply networks due to leaks, against 10% in Europe. How can they be stopped and service quality be improved for citizens?
Consequently, the question of financing is central to the water issue. Financing can be provided by systems of donors, creditors (World Bank, European Investment Bank, etc.), or by private financing in the context of public-private partnerships with regulatory agencies. This can finance the construction of infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment plants, which are essential in preventing water in countries downstream from being polluted by countries upstream.
How is global warming threatening Middle East?
The Middle East is one of the first regions affected by global warming. According to the modelling of climatologists, a temperature rise of two degrees will have an impact of 30% on rainfall over the next ten years.
Faced with the coming shortage, farmers will leave increasingly arid areas and settle on the Mediterranean coasts. Rural areas will consequently lose their populations to large cities. In addition, the presence of these climate refugees will further increase water stress, as is currently the case in Lebanon, with the 2 million Syrian refugees. The water shortage will also increase the security threat: the strongest countries will impose their hegemonic management on the weakest countries and conflicts will intensify.
Finally, this increased scarcity will cause an economic and environmental shock. The economies of countries will be affected and river ecosystems will change: there will be fewer green areas, less flora, less fauna. This will also have a number of consequences.
The Paris Pact on Water and Adaptation, signed in 2015, provides for water data to be shared so that we can understand how aquifer resources will be affected by global changes and develop common responses. This type of framework does not exist in the Middle East. For the time being, the creation of a Mediterranean Water Agency has not been able to materialize for diplomatic reasons. But the negotiation is going to resume in the context of the “5+5” Dialogue, which I have the honor of chairing.
What are the emergencies?
Without hesitation, political will! Without dialogue between riparian countries, without active hydro-diplomacy, conflicts will increase.
The second need is education, as it is the basis of sustainable development. We need to train senior officials and educate young generations to ensure everyone understands that water is the condition for their survival in this region and that wastage has dramatic consequences on supply. The population has a role to play!
Finally, the third emergency is to work on the water-energy-food triptych, in the context of a regional body, in order to reduce the energy cost of water and promote sustainable resources management. And only good governance will make all this possible.
The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.