Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation


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(Updated May 2002)

Through forward-looking policy and strategic planning, water-scarce regions can guarantee a level of security that rivals that of water-rich states. Non-conventional sources of water supply, such as desalination plants, can mitigate the detrimental impact of scarcity, as can managing domestic levels of water consumption by ensuring that price reflects cost. And some MENA countries can already point to successful initiatives aimed at addressing water scarcity. But, overall, the region is in a precarious state when it comes to water.

The challenge will be for all countries to learn from best practice and good governance about securing their water supply. Rather than explore strategies to enhance water security — such studies exist in abundance — this report focuses on the destabilising potential of water scarcity. It examines how failure to implement effective policies exacerbates the risk of conflict.


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This is particularly important considering how rapidly water scarcity and other forms of environmental stress are beginning to shape regional developments. Although resource scarcity and climate patterns are rarely — yet — the principal drivers of conflict, environmental factors have already acted as multipliers on numerous occasions.

In such instances, they have aggravated political, economic, and social causes of instability within and between states. The case studies in this paper illuminate current trends and reveal the different ways in which water can be a source of conflict. Water-scarce regions are those in which there are few renewable sources of water available. But such regions can still invest in securing non-renewable sources of supply, and therefore meet their consumption needs.

A place that is water-scarce can still be water-secure. Water insecurity, on the other hand, means that levels of consumption exceed levels of available water, renewable or otherwise. A water-rich country that uses water haphazardly can be insecure. So, being water-scarce, as many countries in the MENA region are, does not make water insecurity inevitable. A recent World Bank study warned that governments in the MENA region are struggling to address the nature of their countries as water-scarce, or achieve the security needed for sustainable water usage.

Truly addressing this challenge would entail tackling issues of consumption and supply to achieve a greater level of water security, or sustainable levels of water usage, despite resource scarcity. But the situation today shows that governments are yet to properly confront the challenges of water scarcity.


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Two-thirds of the population in the MENA region live in areas with insufficient renewable water resources to sustain current levels of consumption — this compares dangerously unfavourably to the global average of 35 percent. This is not a standalone problem: regional trends mean that the potential for water scarcity to play a role in causing conflict is increasing.

One of the most crucial transformations is a rapid growth in the population and its growing concentration in urban areas. At around 2 percent a year, population growth in MENA countries is steep compared to that in other parts of the world. By , close to million people living in the MENA region will be city-dwellers. Within cities, the demand on water infrastructure is likely to further erode quality of life, thereby adding to the list of grievances that people have towards ruling elites.

This may cause the younger generation to increasingly call for better governance and higher socioeconomic standards. In addition, urbanisation may exacerbate rural-urban divides if governments then come to focus their services on cities that have high population densities and that the political and economic elite reside in. The growing gap between poor water access in rural areas and better access in urban areas creates the sense that states are corrupt and focused on self-serving interests.

Without a targeted approach, such interventions often end up disproportionately harming the disenfranchised poor and benefiting the political elite. This can in turn aggravate feelings of distrust and strain the relationship between governments and citizens. Furthermore, urbanisation inevitably alters the economic make-up of states, with implications for water security. While some countries are more industrialised than others, agriculture is generally a core contributor to the regional economy.

In the MENA region, as elsewhere in the world, agriculture tends to be the biggest consumer of freshwater resources. Water usage in agriculture across the region is suboptimal, as countries often grow water-intensive crops that reduce the productivity of limited water supplies. Urbanisation reduces water withdrawal for agriculture, possibly redirecting it to other less water-intensive industries.

But this comes at the expense of investing in a sustainable and productive agricultural sector that remains vital for regional economies and for supporting city populations. In addition, environmental issues overlay tensions around governance, demographics, and inequality.

Which Countries Are Fighting Over Water?

Increasingly erratic climate patterns driven primarily by climate change, from rising temperatures to unpredictable rainfall, have served to increase the tensions that problems with water can generate. Such environmental stress can either be a domestic issue, where states struggle in the face of climate shocks such as droughts, or a transboundary issue, where there is increasing competitiveness among states as they each pursue water security and claim expanding shares of ever-shrinking shared natural resources.

The five case studies that follow capture the diversity of the water scarcity challenge in the MENA region. They reveal ways in which failures to properly respond to the demographic and economic trends sketched out above combine with particular domestic, transboundary, and environmental factors to cause instability, increasing the potential for conflict. They indicate how strategic planning and good governance are prerequisites for averting future problems. This report finds that European governments and the European Union have a significant role to play in helping MENA governments and societies to adapt to their own changing circumstances, through technical expertise, funding, and diplomatic and political support.

Jordan is the fourth most water-scarce country in the world. The water originates in the north and flows down the River Jordan towards the Dead Sea. Over the past half-century, water availability has dropped precipitously due to upstream diversions, irresponsible waste discharge, and the cultivation of water-intensive crops in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere. Most Jordanians have access to basic drinking water services — Yet, while access is high, services remain unreliable. More importantly, faults in the distribution infrastructure primarily, leaking pipes and inefficient irrigation practices waste significant amounts of water.

Specifically, these factors have heightened the threats inherent in water scarcity, expanding demand at a time when supply is becoming unreliable. Equally destabilising has been the increased demand for water generated by Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees entering Jordan. This has created significant strain and threatened to create a situation where water becomes a catalyst for social unrest.

Water in the Middle East

For a government that is heavily dependent on foreign aid, engages in unsustainable public expenditure, and possesses rapidly diminishing sources of renewable water, this situation contains imminent risk. Such unrest is driven by the fact that public trust in the ruling elite is low, given the presence of unchecked corruption and the belief that fiscal reform disproportionately benefits the rich. Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians have a range of agreements in place that shape their cooperation around shared water resources. For Jordan, this comes from bilateral agreements signed with Israel following the peace treaty of For Israel and the Palestinians, cooperation was established through various agreements initiated after the signing of the Oslo Accords in Western governments and international organisations herald regional cooperation of this sort as a success — an example of how to avert conflict over shared resources and to promote peaceful relations.

It is in this light that civil society organisations such as EcoPeace and international development organisations such as the World Bank actively promote bilateral and multilateral cooperation between Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians. Yet such enthusiasm overlooks some of the more difficult obstacles to securing fruitful cooperation. The Jordanian-Israeli bilateral agreements are underpinned by a peace treaty that has safeguarded the rights of both countries and enabled an equitable use of water resources.

However, the absence of an equitable foundation between Israel and the Palestinians undermines cooperative efforts to address water insecurity or promote peace. The failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process has resulted in a situation where the share of water that Palestinians can access remains disproportionately lower than that for Jewish settlers living within the same territories. Given the stark power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, the cooperation that was outlined in the Oslo Accords and that continue to shape Palestinian access to water today has merely served to help subjugate the Palestinians and enable Israeli dominance.

Palestinians are unable to access their water resources without having to go through Israeli channels and are not able to build and invest in water supply and distribution infrastructure without permits from Israel, which it often withholds. There remain many other steps they need to take. Domestic reforms aimed at curtailing demand as well as investments in alternative sources of supply are imperative.

This means that Jordan has not fallen into the trap of quick-fix solutions, and has been forced to begin considering more sustainable means of water preservation. These need to develop domestically alongside efforts by the government to pursue major infrastructure projects such as the Red-Dead Canal, which are funded by external development partners. The situation in Jordan reveals how countries that are water-scarce must pursue policies that aim to enhance both demand and supply in order to ensure sustainable water usage and achieve water security.

Grand infrastructure projects alone are insufficient: domestic reforms, in the form of reduced subsidies, remain a priority. In the absence of a full suite of policies to deal with the issue, increased competition for scarce resources due to population growth or incoming refugees will turn water scarcity into a catalyst for domestic social unrest.

Ethiopia began building the dam shortly after the revolution in Egypt, meaning that its northern neighbour failed to address this emerging threat.

Water In The Middle East: Potential For Conflicts And Prospects For Cooperation -

The Egyptian government also appeared confident that the water treaty would hold. This certainty has weakened of late, prompting the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to first countenance military action and then to concede that there was a need for renewed diplomacy. However, the agreement has yet to provide a multilateral framework for water sharing. As in the case of Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians, diplomatic interventions that seek to address water issues contend with other economic, social, and political factors.

Sustainable and equitable agreements require functioning states that are able to engage in the negotiations needed to achieve a true partnership. The Egyptian regime has a strong state apparatus and institutions, as well as centralised decision-making processes. Compared to Ethiopia and Sudan, Egypt is an economic heavyweight. Approaching negotiations in a manner that seeks to ensure a multilateral approach benefiting all countries, rather than one that seeks to sustain Egyptian dominance, might still allow Egypt to mitigate the detrimental impact of the GERD on its own water supply.

That said, it is unclear whether Egypt will succeed on this front, not least because of the dominant role the military plays in these issues, a reality which might favour a strong-handed approach that protects vested interests. The country requires investment in more effective management tools within urban centres, alongside more productive agricultural practices in rural areas. With its irrigation and drainage infrastructure operating at only 50 percent efficiency and 40 percent cost recovery, Egypt makes staggering losses.

This drops to 12 percent in rural areas. This document provides a year roadmap covering that Egypt must pursue to reduce domestic consumption and mitigate the impact of water scarcity. Yet such efforts still face significant obstacles within Egypt, including inefficient public bodies that often act in conflict with one another. For example, while the Ministry of Water has in the past tried to reduce the amount of land used for water-intensive crops such as rice, the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade offered incentives to farmers planting rice crops.

These have only recently begun in earnest, with the prevalent belief among the population being one rooted in the myth of the riches and abundance of the Nile as an ever-giving source of water. As one expert noted, even though Egypt is 95 percent desert, it has never acted like a desert country. These factors underscore the urgency of significant changes inside Egypt to address mounting challenges. Given the high level of wasteful water losses and unbridled consumption, tackling subsidisation is of paramount importance, as it is elsewhere, and is a policy that the government can immediately begin pursuing.

The Sisi regime has already taken measures to implement domestic reforms that international donors such as the International Monetary Fund have promoted in other parts of the world. The regime might be able to address the issue of water subsidies better than other governments, although this is likely to come through its authoritarian ability to quash protests and quell unrest. Activists have already reported greater policing around journalistic practices and advocacy involving the security of the Nile and other water issues. Egypt offers a clear example of a country that faces both transboundary and domestic threats to its stability as a result of water scarcity.

In its foreign relations with Ethiopia, Egypt is well placed to take the lead in initiating a multilateral regional approach to water management that could benefit all the stakeholders. Iraq faces an extreme situation when it comes to water, one that is exacerbated by domestic tensions, regional developments, and the weight of conflicts and sanctions that began following the first Gulf War in Since then, however, the absence of investment in the water sector, as well as the general destruction wrought by conflict, have taken their toll. Like Egypt, Iraq relies predominantly on transboundary sources of water supply.

Political tensions between these neighbours, particularly since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, have ensured that these water bodies remain highly politicised. Responsibility for this lies partly upstream, specifically with Turkey, which has embarked on a major irrigation and electrical power project called the Southeastern Anatolia Project. This massive undertaking involves the construction of the Ilisu Dam, one of several dams that will ultimately slow or reduce the flow of water into Iraq from the Euphrates and the Tigris.

But river flows in Iraq have been dropping for years, due to climate change and persistently high levels of consumption upstream. This has dealt a significant blow to food production, electric power generation, sanitation and healthcare, and industry. Industrial waste and pollution in Iraq, and further upstream in Syria and Turkey, have also undermined the quality of water available to Iraqis. Conflict over fishing routes and access to the hole was resolved in by a convention referred to colloquially as the Donut Hole Agreement. Corporate interest often crosses opposing commercial interest, as well as environmental concerns, leading to another form of dispute.

In the s, Lake Erie , and to a lesser extent, the other Great Lakes were polluted to the point of massive fish death. Local communities suffered greatly from dismal water quality until the United States Congress passed the Clean Water Act in Water pollution poses a significant health risk, especially in heavily industrialized, heavily populated areas like China. In response to a worsening situation in which entire cities lacked safe drinking water, China passed a revised Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law. There is no single framework for dealing with pollution disputes local to a nation.

According to Aaron Wolf, et all. They categorized these events as following:. A comprehensive chronology of water-related conflicts is maintained by the Pacific Institute in their Water Conflict Chronology, which includes an open-source data set, an interactive map, and full information on citations. In this dataset, water conflicts are categorized as follows:.

International organizations play the largest role in mediating water disputes and improving water management. Yet water conflicts that go unresolved become more dangerous as water becomes more scarce and global population increases. The UN International Hydrological Program aims to help improve understanding of water resources and foster effective water management. But UNESCO faces optimistic prospects for the future as water conflicts become more public, and as increasing severity sobers obstinate interests. The World Trade Organization can arbitrate water disputes presented by its member states when the disputes are commercial in nature.

The WTO has certain groups, such as its Fisheries Center, that work to monitor and rule on relevant cases, although it is by no means the authority on conflict over water resources. Because water is so central to agricultural trade, water disputes may be subtly implicated in WTO cases in the form of virtual water , [27] [28] water used in the production of goods and services but not directly traded between countries. Countries with greater access to water supplies may fare better from an economic standpoint than those facing crisis, which creates the potential for conflict.

Outraged by agriculture subsidies that displace domestic produce, countries facing water shortages bring their case to the WTO. The WTO plays more of a role in agriculturally based disputes that are relevant to conflict over specific sources of water.


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Still, it provides an important framework that shapes the way water will play into future economic disputes. One school of thought entertains the notion of war over water, the ultimate progression of an unresolved water dispute—scarce water resources combined with the pressure of exponentially increasing population may outstrip the ability of the WTO to maintain civility in trade issues [29]. Water conflicts can occur on the intrastate and interstate levels.

Interstate conflicts occur between two or more neighboring countries that share a transboundary water source, such as a river, sea, or groundwater basin. An example would be the conflicts between farmers and industry agricultural vs industrial use of water. Some analysts estimate that due to an increase in human consumption of water resources, water conflicts will become increasingly common in the near future. In , Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said that if Egypt were to ever go to war again it would be over water.

Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. Some research from the International Water Management Institute and Oregon State University has found that water conflicts among nations are less likely than is cooperation, with hundreds of treaties and agreements in place. Water conflicts tend to arise as an outcome of other social issues. Data from the Water Conflict Chronology show these intrastate conflicts to be a larger and growing component of all water disputes, and that the traditional international mechanisms for addressing them, such as bilateral or multilateral treaties, are not as effective.

Strategic Foresight Group in partnership with the Governments of Switzerland and Sweden has developed the Blue Peace approach which seeks to transforms trans-boundary water issues into instruments for cooperation. The Blue Peace framework offers a unique policy structure which promotes sustainable management of water resources combined with cooperation for peace.

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By making the most of shared water resources through cooperation rather than mere allocation between countries, the chances for peace can be increased. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. For the type of mock combat , see Water fight. See also: Climate security and Causes of water scarcity in India. Archived from the original on Retrieved 14 January Navigating Peace. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars 4.

Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation
Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation
Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation
Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation
Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation
Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation
Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation Water in the Middle East: Potential for Conflicts and Prospects for Cooperation

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