Instrument for Peace in the Middle East

Instead of sparking conflict, water could be an instrument for promoting peace, security and development in the Middle East.

Writer: Francesca de Châtel

Far from being the cause of future wars as various politicians and analysts have predicted in the past, the Middle East’s water resources could provide the basis for peace and sustainable development, according to the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG).

The Mumbai-based think tank’s latest report, The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water, urges decision makers in seven countries in the region to set aside geopolitics and focus on building trust through cooperation over water.

“The Middle East is at the epicenter of a large arc of hydro-insecurity, which stretches from Vietnam to Turkey and Kenya,” SFG Executive Director Ilmas Futehally told REVOLVE. “This entire region has the potential to be the harbinger of a new form of peace – the Blue Peace.

“This concept ensures that no two countries that share the same water body, and have access to adequate clean water, will go to war. The challenge is to rethink Middle East water.”

The countries of the Middle East are among the most water scarce in the world, with populations in eight countries in the region getting by on less than 200 cubic meters per year – compared to the world average of 6000 cubic meters.

Rising population figures, more frequent and prolonged droughts, widespread mismanagement of water resources and rapid economic growth will only heighten the pressure on the region’s dwindling water reserves.

According to recent UN studies, 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa will be ‘water scarce’ by 2025, making the region a hotspot for water conflict in the future.

“The deficit in water resources is a direct function of the deficit in political wisdom,” SFG President Sundeep Waslekar said. “The [Middle East water] crisis will be so severe that current events in the region will seem minor in comparison. It will be a major humanitarian crisis.”

Speaking at the European Parliament on March 15, Waslekar described the dramatic depletion of the region’s water resources – the flow of the Jordan River has dropped by over 90 percent since 1960 – as a “crime against future generations”.

“However, this crisis can be averted through sound political management and technical competence,” he said. “In fact, it would be a great source of satisfaction for us if our analysis failed because governments in the region had taken notice and started acting.”

Produced over an 18-month period through consultations with experts and decision makers in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Turkey, The Blue Peace looks at ways of turning the impending crisis into an opportunity by adopting a pragmatic approach to water sharing and management.

Previous proposals to promote water sharing in the Middle East have stalled over the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict and other geopolitical issues in the region.

Turkey’s 1987 Peace Pipeline, which was to transport water from Turkey to the Arabian Peninsula and the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, was received with skepticism in the region, not just because of the project’s questionable viability and USD 21bn price tag, but also because of the lack of trust between countries involved.

Other, less ambitious versions of the same project – the Mini-Peace Pipeline and the Peace Canal – similarly never left the drawing board as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed in 2000 and conflict in the region paralyzed any significant dialogue over water.

The SFG calls for a new, holistic approach, in which water is not subjected to the framework of nations, regions or river basins.

Instead, The Blue Peace works with the concept of ‘Circles of Cooperation’, groups of countries that are already cooperating with their neighbors over water issues, or countries – like Israel and the Palestinian Territories – whose water resources are so closely connected that they cannot avoid looking beyond their borders.

Within their circles, countries would launch short- and long-term initiatives. These would range from confidence building measures such as standardizing measurement equipment and methods in shared river basins to the construction of joint desalination plants and relaunching the idea of Turkish water exports to the Jordan Valley.

“In the near future water and environmental politics will be at the core of politics,” Futehally said. “The Middle East cannot escape the change that is inevitable.

“These countries can build upon existing agreements and confidence measures and use the recommendations in the report to move forward. Once countries accept the principle of cooperation, they rise above self-interest.”

One of the strengths of the ambitious Blue Peace is that it is based on the ideas and proposals of experts and decision makers in the seven countries and therefore is also broadly supported in the region.

The challenge, however, will lie in taking the bold ideas outlined in the report off the drawing board and translating them into concrete initiatives on the ground. Waslekar admits this may not be straightforward.

“There is great political will. The big problem will not lie in finding agreement between countries, but in finding the bureaucratic will within the countries.”

The danger is that other, apparently more pressing issues continue to dominate the attention with the result that water will remain at the bottom of the regional ‘to do’ list.

“The prospects for solutions get weaker every year due to rapidly dwindling water resources,” the report states. “Every year we lose precious resources and golden opportunities, and with a diminishing availability of freshwater and growing conflicting interests, water cooperation is up against a battle with time.”

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