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Water Scarcity as a Security Issue in the Middle East

Water Scarcity as a Security Issue in the Middle East

Nowhere is the challenge of water security greater than in the Middle East, the world’s most water scarce region. Changing climatic conditions, population growth, mismanagement and corruption reinforce water shortages throughout the region and exacerbate the already tense security situation. Besides the apparent ecological and economic damages, these challenges also have social implications that pose an eminent national security threat of Middle Eastern countries. Water shortage and pollution sparked violent protests in Basra, Iraq in 2018, in which governmental buildings and the Iranian consulate were set on fire. In Iran, water stress helped initiate impulsive and diffuse large-scale demonstrations in January 2018 after the country experienced severe droughts.

The chronic water shortage in the Middle East and the resulting feeling of insecurity has not only national but geopolitical implications as well. For example, Iran and its neighbour Iraq share a river basin and are in fierce competition for the scarce resource. As a result of river diversions and dam construction upstream in Iran, less and less water has been entering Iraq for several years. If the two countries do not manage to find a comprehensive regulation for water use, tensions between Tehran and Baghdad will intensify in the near future. Under the economic pressure of the US-led international sanction regime, however, an amicable solution is an extremely unrealistic scenario: the more Iran strives for self-sufficiency in agricultural production, the less likely it is that Tehran will meet Iraqi demands for higher flow rates.

Moreover, the development of Turkey’s Southeastern Development Project, consisting of 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants, brings the decade long conflict over water-allocation to a peak. Iraq and Syria fear that the average annual discharge in the Euphrates may decrease by 50%. Furthermore, the development of dams used for irrigation on the Turkish side of the border heavily leads to water quality degradation threatening food security in both Iraq and Syria. Although the possibility of an open transboundary conflict remains low, mainly due to the power imbalance between the riparian countries, the project bears national security threats in the downstream countries, as seen during the Syria upheaval in 2011 or the recent nationwide protests in Iraq.

Policy or technical approach?

The use of effective water management strategies are lacking in the agricultural sector, which is the main user of blue water in the Euphrates-Tigris-Basin – approximately 87% of available water resources are devoted to irrigation and agricultural production, in comparison to a global average of 65%. Approaches and concepts such as virtual water trade, as successfully adopted by other Arab countries, have been proven to initiate a shift away from water intensive crops and to lead to a diversification of the agricultural sector. The issue with virtual water trade is that countries would heavily rely on food imports which sets another security challenge. Countries like Iraq have an outdated irrigation system where measures must be taken in order to move towards drip irrigation which evidently increases water-efficiency. However, it must be added that the foundation of the set of problems does not lie in technology, where solutions are known and understood, but rather in public policy making, which is opaque and poorly understood. Syria and Iraq are currently not capable of coherent and comprehensive policy making.

Hydropolitics as a political power tool

Difficulties arise as there is no clear consensus about the adoption of watershed management strategies mainly due to the centralisation of governments in Iraq and Syria, two major Arab states in the region. River Basin Associations under the example of the European Water Framework Directive could be a solution, also to enhance cooperation between riparian states and to consolidate trust-building initiatives. Further, Syria and Iraq’s water security destiny depends upon the political will of the upstream Turkish neighbour. In this context, cooperation initiatives must be advanced in order to prevent hydropolitical tensions and to ensure water and food security. In the past, the practice of negotiations and cooperation demonstrated severe shortage; regardless of the advancements of trilateral negotiations, the talks were called off due to the absence of political will. Turkey is not willing to give up its status as a regional and hydropolitical hegemon. Consequently, Iraq and Syria will have to make political concessions to Turkey, especially in regard to security issues involving the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). As a result, a comprehensive water treaty, containing power, security and sustainability aspects seem indispensable for the Syrian and Iraqi side.

The role of donor-countries

Countries in the Middle East must address water security or risk instability. Furthermore, the global community should have an interest in securing sustainable water management approaches, as poor water management and corruption would lead to further destabilization of the Middle East and threaten the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 6, dedicated to ensuring availability and sustainable management of water for all by 2030. Considering the threat that this poses to human life, global economy and migration flows to Europe, direct measures should be taken with the aid of foreign countries, such as transfer of technology, capacity development and mediation for bilateral water and energy treaties between conflicting countries. Especially the European Union could get active in the mediation process between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Involving a third-party to the roundtable would add important value to the negotiation process and higher weight on future commitments. During a century of negotiation between the conflicting riparian countries no third-party mediator was actively engaged; one of the reasons for the failure of cooperation.

by Armin Bigham