The Middle East: From oil wars to water wars?

BEIRUT: In 1988, Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali said that the next war in the Middle East would be fought over water, not politics. What is the situation nearly 30 years on, as the region’s water resources have dropped to precariously low levels and population figures have soared?

Shared water resources remain a source of contention and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As the most water-scarce region in the world, the MENA also has one of the highest population growth rates in the world and demand for water in the agricultural, domestic and industrial sectors has risen beyond what can be sustainably supplied.

Yet despite its vital economic, social and political role, water is still undervalued and widely mismanaged by national governments and users throughout the region. Moreover, cooperation over shared water resources remains minimal despite the fact that large parts of the MENA region are part of shared surface or groundwater basins.

“The main reason for the lack of cooperation is the political tension and adversarial relationship throughout the region,” says professor Nadim Farjallah, senior water expert at the American University of Beirut. He cites the example of Lebanon and Syria, who are still technically at war with Israel, thus impeding negotiations on the issue of the Jordan River. Similarly, he says, Turkey’s longtime tense relationship with Iraq and Syria, especially over the Kurdish issue, has hindered cooperation over sharing the resources of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

In a number of cases, the military supremacy of a nation dictated the actions and activities on a given river, Farjallah says. Thus, according to him, it was not any United Nations (UN) convention or agreement that directed these relationships, but military power. He says, the ineffectiveness of the U.N. as an intermediary has led to a breakdown in cooperation and it is left to bilateral agreements which are always influenced by the political atmosphere.

While shared waters in Europe are managed through the EU Water Framework Directive, in the MENA region they are governed by principles of the 2004 Berlin Rules on Water Resources, which is based on the 1997 U.N. Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This in turn was based on the 1966 Helsinki Treaty, also known as Helsinki Rules of the Uses of Waters of International Rivers.

These rules center on a number of key principles, including:

– the equitable and reasonable utilization of water,
– the obligation not to cause any significant harm to a neighboring country by withholding water,
– and the principles of cooperation, information exchange, notification and consultation and the peaceful settlements of disputes.

Despite the importance of managing the region’s shared resources, there is in fact not a single basin-wide treaty in place in the MENA region. Instead there are water-related agreements and attempts at conflict management, but these are all bilateral or trilateral agreements that do not include all the countries that share the resource. Moreover, there are no comprehensive river basin management plans like in Europe, with increasingly visible consequences for the health of the region’s rivers. Three major river basins have been the basis of disputes and growing tension over the past century:

• The Nile Basin (shared between Burundi, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo). Water sharing along the world’s longest river has been a source of conflict for decades as upstream countries contest Egypt’s right to the bulk of the river’s water based on a 1959 agreement that upstream countries say is outdated.

• The Euphrates and Tigris Basin (shared between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). The sharing of the “Twin Rivers” remains a source of tension between upstream Turkey and downstream Syria and Iraq which have seen their water supply steadily decrease over the decades, particularly since Turkey embarked on the ambitious Southeastern Anatolia Project or GAP, which centers on the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants on the two rivers.

• The Jordan River Basin (shared between Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, occupied Palestine and Syria). While this river is much smaller than the Nile or Euphrates-Tigris, it has been subject to controversy and even armed conflict since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. No comprehensive agreement exists to manage the river and its tributaries and as a result the flow volume of the Jordan River has been reduced to a tenth of its historic rate, which has in turn severely impacted the levels of the Dead Sea.

With regards to groundwater, there is only one comprehensive agreement in place governing the sharing of groundwater in the region: the agreement between Chad, Egypt, Libya and Sudan that was signed in 2013 on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer.

In addition, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, agreed in 2002 to establish a consultation mechanism to “coordinate, promote and facilitate the rational management of the North Western Sahara Aquifer System water resources,” though this is not a formal treaty. Other groundwater resources such as the Disi Aquifer, which is shared between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, is not subject to any agreements, partly due to the fact that the exact configuration of the aquifer and the amount of water it contains is not known