Transboundary Water Crisis in the Middle East

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SHAFAQNA – Approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population lives in river and lake basins that comprise two or more countries, and perhaps even more significantly, over 90 percent lives in countries that share basins. The transboundary basins and aquifers link populations of different countries and support the incomes and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

All transboundary water bodies create hydrological, social and economic interdependencies between societies. They are vital for economic development, reducing poverty and contributing to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals according to the UN-Water.

While embedding a potential for discourse and conflict, they provide opportunities for cooperation and promotion of regional peace and security as well as economic growth. Potential transboundary impacts and conflicting interests, especially in war-torn regions like the Middle East, can best be solved by cooperation, adequate legal and institutional frameworks, joint approaches to planning and sharing of benefits and related costs.

In order to work on achieving such a discourse, Strategic Foresight Group and the University of Geneva in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Human Security Division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs co-hosted the High-Level Forum on Blue Peace in the Middle-East on the 8th and 9th of October 2015.

About 70 policy makers, Members of Parliament, serving and former Ministers, media leaders, academics and water experts from across the Middle East came together for the forum which was held in Geneva, Switzerland.

The session kicked off with a message from HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, delivered by Dr Hakam Al-Alami. Prince Hassan expressed concern over the fact that despite efforts by the international and regional water community, water

is still being used as a tool of war. He also highlighted the relationship between water and refugees, the nexus between water, food and energy and the impacts of the lack of a regional framework on the overall economic growth of the region. He said that regional stabilization, innovative practices, strategic partnerships and human security were necessary in solving the water crisis and called for the prioritization of water and sanitation needs in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals.

A panel comprising of senior policy makers and parliamentarians from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq chaired by the Rt. Hon. Lord John Alderdice discussed regional water cooperation mechanisms beyond 2015 in light of the transformation of the region from an era of cooperation in 2010 to an era of conflict and crisis in 2015.

Commenting on the crisis generating from dam construction between upstream countries (Turkey) and downstream countries (Iraq), Dr. Yasar Yakis, former Turkish foreign minister, said that “in other river basins around the world sometimes the downstream countries contribute financially to the construction of the dams because it helps release water in a more regular way toward the downstream country.” Dr. Yakis gave an eye witness example from his years serving in Syria, saying that when the snow from the Anatolian mountains melted in the spring time, the river basin of the Euphrates was flooded and the people were not able to use their land, however when several dams were constructed in Turkey on the Euphrates river, the water was spread equally and the Syrian farmers no longer suffered the annual flooding.

Safa Al Sheikh, Deputy National Security Advisor to the Iraqi Government, addressed other serious concerns threatening his country’s water resources. Mr. Al-Sheikh spoke about the brutal actions of the ISIS terrorists who control several dams in Iraq and have been trying to control the Haditha Dam in Iraq. Mr. Al-Sheikh re-iterated that ISIS terrorists now “control some regulators and dams in the Anbar province and are using it to flood the area to create military barriers but at the same time they are trying to deprive the citizens of Iraq from water”.

The panel chair Rt. Hon. Lord John Alderdice suggested that in the short run, countries attending the Blue Peace High Level Forum need to address immediate problems arising out of breakdown of trust and growing humanitarian crisis. He stressed that all efforts should be made to declare water off limits for war with the help of organizations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent. While in the long run, Lord Alderdice said it is necessary to have concrete institutional framework for cooperation. It is necessary for us to begin thinking about the day after”, he concluded.

All the participants agreed that it is crucially necessary for the Blue Peace network to continue to function to fill some of the void created by the absence of official regional cooperation institutions.

The High Level Forum marked the continuity of the Blue Peace community which has emerged as the soft infrastructure for dialogue and a rare channel of communication between countries affected by internal and interstate violence.

It has endorsed specific confidence building measures at the bilateral and sub-regional level. It included a capacity building workshop for the media in the Middle East as well as the proposition of new directions for its work.

While in the long run, the Blue Peace community in the Middle East will work towards the achievement of water as a sustainable development goal, in the short run, it will foster efforts to protect water as a strategic and humanitarian asset.

By Marwa Osman – Marwa Osman is a PhD candidate and a political analyst and commentator for the Middle East. A regular pundit on RT she also a lecturer at LIU in Beirut, Lebanon.

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