Water scarcity could lead to armed conflict in Mideast
Amman - Instability over water security in the parched Middle East could spark cross-border hostilities.
Tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating across Iraq since the summer of 2015 demanding improved water quality and other services.
When the Islamic State (ISIS) captured cities in northern Iraq, one of its main targets was the Mosul dam, the country’s largest, which it surrendered after heavy US strikes two weeks after seizing it in June 2014.
Jordan, nestled between mightier neighbours engulfed in civil war or sectarian strife, once reached a deal with Israel to draw water from the southern Red Sea. However, the multibillion-dollar project almost stalled over Israeli insistence on having the waterway built on its side, which Israel admitted, would allow it to close the tap should ties worsen.
Jordanian Water Minister Hazim el-Nasser said water shortages would further destabilise the volatile Middle East.
“Look at ongoing sit-ins in Baghdad and southern Iraq, for example,” Nasser said. “The protests are against deteriorating government-administered services, especially in water and electricity,” He said men who fail to secure water and food for their families were prone to join militant groups that claim to seek better living conditions for masses.
“Water security is closely linked to social and economic security, especially with hundreds of thousands moving from war-torn, water-rich parts of the region to more secure but water-poor parts,” Nasser said.
The United Nations warned that by 2025 more than 904 million people, mostly in the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin and parts of western Asia, would suffer from acute water shortages.
One way to avoid conflict is for neighbours to cooperate in sharing water, according to the Blue Peace initiative by the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group.
“Empirical evidence in 148 countries and 205 shared river basins indicates that any two nations engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war,” the initiative stated.
“Out of 148 countries sharing water resources, 37 do not engage in cooperation for the management of water resources or, if they do so, they confine their cooperation to the technical level. The same 37 countries face risk of war for reasons other than water such as land, identity, ideology or history, among others,” said the report, titled Water Cooperation for a Secure World.
The think-tank also warned about the use of water as a war tool.
“The Middle East is caught up in a cascade of catastrophes. There are no easy solutions. The only way out is for all countries to accept big compromises and to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement with water cooperation prominently included in it,” the group’s president, Sundeep Waslekar, wrote on the organisation’s website in March.
In Jordan, listed among the world’s ten poorest nations in water resources, an influx of nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, is straining scarce water supplies.
Most complaints about water scarcity are heard in the predominantly arid country’s northern governorates, such as Irbid, Mafraq and Ajloun and the southern governorate of Karak. When the state-rationed supply is short in the scorching summer, residents buy water from private suppliers at steep prices.
Nasser estimated that the annual share of water for each Jordanian citizen is less than 120 cubic metres. “This is less than the world’s average by 88% and compared to 1,250 cubic metres on the regional level and in nearby countries,” he said.
“Water scarcity in Jordan has become an even bigger challenge with the inflow of Syrian refugees.”
Jordan’s available water resources are estimated at 800 million-900 million cubic metres annually, most of it coming from rainfall, the minister explained. “In normal situations, this should be enough for a population of 3 million. In Jordan, we have got more than 10 million users,” Nasser said. In addition to the Syrian refugees, Jordan is home to 6.5 million Jordanians and 2 million Palestinian refugees.
Jordanian water expert Maysoon Zoubi said some Arab countries face the challenge of scarce resources for natural reasons, such as drought, and hardships in meeting growing demand caused by population growth or individuals displaced in wars.
“Almost 60% of surface water resources in the Arab world come from outside the region, a fact that exerts multidimensional pressures on Arab water rights,” she said.
Zoubi warned against a tendency of Arab countries to try to guarantee water security. “This can be seen in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Morocco but events have proven this policy wrong,” she said. “In the Middle East, the problem is multifaceted — political conditions are unstable, water security is absent, population growth rates are high and violence is growing. The region has become dangerous and its people suffer.”