Sharing water is key to peace in the Middle East


The Tigris river flows from Northern Iraq down towards Mosul.

David Stanley

We hear much about countries battling over control of oil, far less about the struggle to secure fair use of water. 

Water is a vital resource, even more essential than oil for everyday human existence. As it becomes an increasingly scarce resource across the globe, water has also become a major trigger point in conflicts.

Countries that get their water from a common source often misuse it, causing far-reaching social and practical problems for those who share the resource. This is especially true in the Middle East today.

Jordan is one of the ten most ‘water-poor’ nations in the world, relying mainly on Israel to provide its supply. People buy their household water by the tank-load, which costs around 23 dinars ($36) each and lasts the average family for around one week. This water is not suitable for drinking, so people have to rely on bottled mineral water as well. 

In the wider Middle East, there are more than 40 million people who are identified as water-vulnerable, according to a report from the Strategic Foresight Group. These include populations spread across large swathes of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. To make matters worse, the latter two countries are also embroiled in severe and ongoing conflict. 

According to the Strategic Foresight Group, the Syrian civil war was triggered in part by water shortages resulting from the severe drought between 2006 and 2010. The notorious Islamic State (IS) terrorist group has made strategic use of water resources in eastern Syria and Western Iraq, in particular the Mosul Dam. The dam, located on the River Tigris, is Iraq’s largest. Whoever controls it also controls the majority of Iraq’s water and power resources. IS uses the control of water to put pressure on governments and populations. 

Speaking to the BBC in August, Salman Shaikh of the Brooking Centre in Doha, Qatar, said about IS: ‘There’s a method in their madness. They’ve managed to amass cash and natural resources, oil and water, the two most important things. And of course, they’re going to use those as a way of continuing to grow and strengthen.’

At the time of writing, Kurdish and US forces have managed to recapture control of the Mosul Dam from IS. But the situation remains unstable. While the advance of IS cannot easily be halted, some of the world’s best water specialists are hard at work devising methods to manage water more effectively in this troubled region. 

Christophe Bösch, lead water specialist at the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation, speaking at the Blue Peace Forum held in Istanbul on 20 September, said: ‘Three million people have been displaced in Syria. This is a massive crisis. But we hope that water management will be an element of the future reconstruction and reconciliation process.’

Cultural, religious and political issues may add fuel to the fire, but the underlying causes are often poverty and poor water management. When water is scarce, there is an increased struggle to control the existing supply. This can quickly escalate into violence and discrimination, as the groups controlling the resource favour their own when distributing it. 

The populations most likely to be affected by such conflicts – and to participate in them – are poor, rural, and agricultural. Inclusive developmental policies can help address some of their grievances and make daily life easier, reducing the likelihood of war. 

Water co-operation between different countries has already proved successful in parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia. But so far, most countries in the Middle East have been reluctant to embrace the idea.

The Strategic Foresight Group report on the region points out that the main obstacle remains a ‘lack of vigorous political commitment’ to co-operation. So what lessons in water cooperation can be learned from the examples of other countries? Take the Senegal River Basin Cooperation programme.

In 1960, the West African country of Senegal  gained independence from France, at a point where its economy was in bad shape. The Senegal River is Africa’s second largest. It flows for 1,800 kilometres, crossing Mauritania, Mali and Senegal, to its end point in the Atlantic Ocean. This river formed a common link between the countries, but during the 1970s it was also a source of regional tension. 

As the 1980s dawned, all three nations decided that it was in their best interests to co-operate in water management in the Senegal River Basin. Two large dams were built, which provided water for agricultural and municipality use. One of the dams was designed to produce hydroelectric power for the whole region, forming part of an ambitious economic growth strategy that has paid dividends today. 

Dr Ba Madine, Secretary General of the Senegal River Basin authority (OMVS), said: ‘Ideally, the water courses belong to no country, they belong to everyone.’ 

In the Middle East, unless an approach to managing this key resource is implemented soon, the scarcity of water is likely to persist and may even get worse in coming decades.

There are many strong international examples to learn from. Better water cooperation could be the key to mitigating the risk of further conflict, while helping the next generation gain stable and secure access to vital water resources.

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