SHAFAQNA -Â With Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine crises making daily headlines in the Middle East, it is easy to forget about the structural challenges that threaten to become the foreign policy crises of the future. Among these, access to fresh water stands out. It is already contributing to too many conflicts around the world, and demand is growing fast while supplies are limited.
The risks and opportunities related to trans-boundary basins beg the question of what the international and regional community should do to prevent conflict and connect waterâ€™s potential for reaping greater collective benefits. Responding to this question is becoming increasingly urgent as pressures on these water resources grow. As if the age-old trans-boundary water management problem in the middle east was not enough that we had violent new comers to the scene taking hold of strategic basins like that of the Euphrates-Tigris basin.
Blue Peace Initiative
One initiative that has been put center stage these risks and ways for managing and resolving them is the Blue Peace Initiative. About 90 policy makers, Members of Parliament, serving and former Ministers, media leaders, academics and water experts from across the Middle East came together for the first annual High Level Forum on Blue Peace in the Middle embarked on a Rhine Learning Mission. Conducted over three days in Switzerland and Germany, the learning mission was a unique opportunity for participants of the Middle East to learn, first-hand, about water cooperation in the Rhine River Basin and draw experiences for the Middle East.
The mission served to inform both the media and the policy makers on the best practices in joint management of trans-boundary water resources and offer tangible
ideas of how water cooperation can be achieved. The learning mission was organized under the Blue Peace Middle East initiative and jointly hosted by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) from September 25-27, 2013. According to the SFG report: â€œThe Rhine visit was the result of a formal request by the High Level Group at the House of Lords, in London in 2012 and also reiterated in March 2013 during a meeting at the Zaman Media Group Headquarters, Istanbul. The mission benefited from a Strategic Foresight Group project on experience exchange supported by Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)â€.
The Blue Peace process is also led by HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and is supported by eminent leaders in the Middle East region from Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Another annual High Level Forum on Blue Peace in the Middle East was held at Istanbul on 19-20 September 2014. The forum was co-hosted by the Strategic Foresight Group and MEF University of Istanbul, Turkey in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Political Directorate of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
The participants projected tangible initiatives at bi-lateral as well as regional levels to endorse cooperation and sustainable management of water resources in the region. The Forum began with special presentations on the experience of the Senegal River Basin Authority in collaborative water management and work in progress of Orontes River Basin Atlas for post conflict water management in war stricken Syria and its neighboring countries mainly Turkey and Iraq where Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorists (ISIS) mostly reside.
ISIS uses Water as a Weapon
The fact that the location of the Blue Peace conference had to be changed at the last minute from Suleimaniya (KRG), Iraq to Istanbul, Turkey in September 2014 proved that a new era has begun since the so-called Islamic State or ISISâ€™s control spread from Syria to Iraq in particular Mosul together with other vast areas threatening the KRG as well. Since the ISIS controlled territories in Syria and Iraq lie in the Euphrates-Tigris basin, some speculate on how the ISIS may use those water infrastructure installations against the central government in Baghdad.
Furthermore, a result of consecutive wars in the region, several means of arsenal has been used and abused in the conflicts; for this reason it is observed that the water resources and structures are to be used as a weapon as well.
ISIS, the current biggest threat in the region, has been using Fallujah Dam and diversion structures in clashes in the Anbar province since January 2014. Thus, it will not be surprising to see such actions by ISIS in the recently gained areas.
Water flow to parts of Syria and Iraq is at a record low. And automatically that affects the water flow to Jordan as well. Likewise fierce fighting at one point around the Mosul, Tabqa and Haditha Dams in Iraq gave the militants a large degree of control. These dams are among the largest in the country.
Turkey, Syria and Iraq are all heavily dependent on water from the Euphrates â€“ the main water artery that runs through the region. Fair use of the river has been a problem for the three since the 1970s. Natural drought can be an immense driver of conflict in itself, not to mention deliberate blockages.
ISIS has already proved its determination to use the dams as a weapon by deliberately drowning government forces around the Nuaimiyah Dam. And when in control of the Fallujah Dam, the group also closed eight of the ten doors of the dam, reducing water levels in the south and flooding land upstream.
There are further concerns about the condition of the Mosul Dam as well, as disrepair and faulty construction threaten its overall stability. If the dam were to collapse, it would cause disastrous events, including the flooding of Baghdad, destruction of villages, a high humanitarian cost and droughts upstream.
So the main question here is: what can be done to solve this grave problem?
Securing Manageable Trans-boundary Water Solutions
The situation could quickly deteriorate if no effective action is taken to regain control of the dams. The nature of the crisis, however, makes it difficult for countries benefiting from the Euphrates-Tigris basin to decide on long-term strategies. In the future, alternative ways of providing water, such as reusing water for irrigation purposes, combined with different ways of producing electricity, such as solar and wind power, will be necessary to diminish these countriesâ€™ dependence on dams and reduce their vulnerability. These are possible alternatives but what about the main problem; how shall it be solved? The Blue Peace might bear the solution but with a direct and immediate coordination with the regionâ€™s policy makers and heads of states.
If ISIS can manage to merge its controlled territories in Syria and Iraq, the hydro-politics balance in the Euphrates-Tigris basin, existing since the 1960s, will change radically and none of these alternatives will be put into action. So we need abrupt regional trans-boundary water agreements that we can manage to put together as a result of this blue peace initiative.
As our governments put their efforts together to try and stabilize the region, it isÂ also our duty as journalists and citizens in the Middle East to work in parallel and to secure clean water for our future and our childrenâ€™s future. This can be done by securing manageable trans-boundary water solutions by ultimately demanding all basins and strategic dams be put under the watchful eye of trustworthy people; be it government forces or UN forces, but definitely and as soon as possible out of the hands of saboteurs.
The framework proposed by the Blue Peace initiative is available if there is political will for cooperation at the river basin level among the riparian countries of various rivers in the Middle East, however it has to be done momentarily.
Ms. Marwa Osman. PhD Candidate located in Beirut, Lebanon. University Lecturer and host of the political show â€œThe Middle East Streamâ€ broadcasted on Al-Etejah English Channel. Member of the Blue Peace Media Network and political commentator on issues of the Middle East on several international and regional media outlets.