Hope for Resolving the Water Conflict in the Middle East

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SHAFAQNA – The availability of fresh water has direct impact on food and energy production, development of industry, and human survival. Fresh water resources are often unevenly divided and irregularly distributed throughout the regions of the world. As populations in the world continue to increase, particularly in water scarce regions, the potential increases for conflict to develop over competition for water. As such, concern over the dwindling water supplies in the Middle East has been labeled as the next source of conflict in the Middle East.

The severity of the water issue in the Middle East is a key strategic issue in understanding future security decisions within the region. Nations in the region have many ongoing disputes, but few are more basic and deep-rooted as the need for water. After all, the human body can survive without oil, but the soul requires the font of living waters for survival. An understanding of the magnitude and scope of the water issue will better prepare an analyst or decision-maker to anticipate events in the region.

Nations in the region share more political conflicts than just water, to include religious differences, ideological disputes, border disputes, and economic competition. These tend only to complicate the water problem further. Cooperation in the region is a very significant problem. Nations in the Middle East are constantly afraid of another gaining an advantage from an agreement of any type. As a result, Nations of the region are blinded by preoccupation with autonomy, power, and security.

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THE BLUE PEACE INITIATIVE

To address the ongoing water crisis in the Middle East, SFG has developed the Blue Peace approach that transforms trans-boundary water into an instrument for cooperation, with collaborative and sustainable strategies shared by riparian countries. The Blue Peace concept was conceived by Strategic Foresight Group in a project supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Political Directorate of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and presented in the form of a report published in February 2011.

Blue Peace at the Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat in Entebbe, Uganda.

This initiative is supposed to create a complete framework for water cooperation covering the entire spectrum from cooperation at the political and diplomatic level to cooperation to address the plight of marginalized people in the Middle East. The exchange of experience takes place in various forms. An important component is “Learning Journeys” to successful river basin organizations. It is feasible to undertake such Learning Journeys only when important river basin organizations agree to host them.

Per se, the Rhine Hydrological Commission and Mekong River Commission have hosted in the past Learning Journeys for policy makers and media persons from the Middle East and the latest learning journey was hosted by the Nile River Basin in East Africa in August 2016, following the Learning Journey to Senegal River Basin, held in August 2015, this was a continuation of the ‘exchange of experience’ activities under the Blue Peace Initiative.

On August 8-10, 2016, members of the Blue Peace Middle East Community embarked on a learning journey to explore and understand cooperation in the Nile River Basin in East Africa. The delegation from the Middle East included senior policy makers, academic and technical experts and leading members of the Blue Peace Media Network.

Strategic Foresight Group organized the Learning Journey to Nile River Basin in coordination with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), headquartered in Entebbe in Uganda. The journey was conducted over a period of three days in Uganda during which the participants were able to appreciate the functioning of NBI and learn about its history and mandate. In addition, six other African River Basin representatives also participated in this learning journey which helped the Middle Eastern participants to get an overview of successful water cooperation across Africa. They included representatives of River Basin Organizations from Komati River, Gambia River, Congo River, Senegal River, Volta River, Orange-Senque Basin.

The most significant feature which the participants discovered in the case of NBI and also in the case of the other African River Basins was their emphasis on cooperation and the importance of a strong political will. The participants also noted that the riparian members of the Nile River were developing countries that were trying to find a common solution to water scarcity and economic development through cooperation over the common water resource they all shared.

NILE BASIN INITIATIVE

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is an intergovernmental partnership of 10 Nile Basin countries, namely Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, The Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Eritrea participates as an observer.

For the first time in the Basin’s history, an all-inclusive basin-wide institution was established, on 22nd February, 1999, to provide a forum for consultation and coordination among the Basin States for the sustainable management and development of the shared Nile Basin water and related resources for win-win benefits.

Mr. John Rao Nyaoro, HSC, Executive Director, Nile Basin Initiative (right) and Dr. Sundeep Waslekar Director of the SFG (left)

 

The highest decision and policy-making body of NBI is the Nile Council of Ministers (Nile-COM), comprised of Ministers in charge of Water Affairs in each NBI Member State. The Nile-COM is supported by the Nile Technical Advisory Committee (Nile-TAC), comprised of 20 senior government officials, two from each of the Member States.

 

LEARNING JOURNEY TO UGANDA

The learning mission began with a presentation on the overview of Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), its structure and historical background by the Executive Director of the NBI, Dr. John Rao Nyaoro. The day was dedicated to understanding the socio-political background and the functioning of the NBI. A detailed historical background of the formation of NBI helped the participants better understand the context of cooperation.

Dr. Nyaoro also touched upon the Agreement on Declaration of Principles between the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia And The Republic of the Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GERDP) which was signed by the Heads of States on March 23, 2015. Later he emphasized the importance of cooperating and finding sustainable solutions together in order to fight the water scarcity in the basin. According to him, a balance can be struck once the cooperative mechanisms are in place.  The problems can be foreseen and the solutions can be found before the problems go out of hand, eventually leading to a basin-wide development and peace.

Presentation on Nile Basin Initiative

On the second day of the Learning Journey, in addition to NBI, six African River Basin Organizations shared their experiences with the Middle Eastern participants. As participants, we had the chance to interact with representatives of the seven major African River Basin Organizations at the same time. The representatives gave brief presentations on the history, functioning, achievements and challenges that their respective organizations face. The session was later followed by a detailed discussion on the Strategic Foresight Group’s report on “Water Cooperation Quotient” where the participants gave their suggestions and remarks which will prove instrumental in upgrading the quotient.

 

FIELD VISIT

As a part of the field visit the participants visited the Bujagali Hydropower Project built on the Victoria Nile in the town of Jinja, about 140 km east of Entebbe. It is a 250-megawatt power generating facility sponsored by the Industrial Promotion Services (Kenya) Limited and SG Bujagali Holdings Ltd, an affiliate of Sithe Global Power, LLC (USA). The main purpose of the project is to provide electricity to Uganda which suffers from power deficit and in turn to promote the socio-economic development of local residents.

Bujagali Hydropower Project built on the Victoria Nile

After the visit to the dam, the participants went on to see the source of the Nile River. It was an overwhelming experience for all the participants to be at the source of the world’s longest river from where it travels through eleven countries before it finally drains into the Mediterranean.

 

BLUE PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

It is when riparian countries face problems such as prolonged drought, depletion of water resources and other factors that can produce competition between them, that institutionalized cooperation for the sustainable management of water resources is most required. The African River Basin Organizations came into existence in order to address the problems of natural disasters or acute underdevelopment which would potentially lead to conflict over resources. This is the situation in the Middle East today, where natural disasters such as drought and underdevelopment in some parts pose a challenge. It is precisely at this time that institutionalized cooperation is required.

The Nile Basin Initiative for instance has a long history of disagreements which have been gradually narrowed down to the minimum and now have the prospect of the countries reaching an amicable agreement in the near future. This has been possible because the NBI is available as a forum where the state parties can meet, irrespective of the extent to which they may agree with each other.

In the case of the Middle East, currently the Blue Peace Community brings together various stakeholders including individuals associated with the institutions of state. However, this is not an official forum of the governments in the region. It is important for the Middle East to take the next step to progress from the Blue Peace Community to a Cooperation Council of state parties to address the issues related to water and environment in the region.

By Marwa Osman for Shafaqna

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