World Water Day: Can water scarcity bring countries together?

Marking sources of conflict, cooperation in MENA region on World Water Day

Water Drop Illustrative (photo credit: Courtesy)
Water Drop Illustrative
(photo credit: Courtesy)
March 22 marks World Water Day, celebrating a precious resource in the Middle East North Africa region. In a locale seemingly prone to conflict, water can be another source for disagreement. However, solutions for water scarcity can also be a way for countries to find common ground.
According to Amro Selim, director of the Egyptian Elmoustkbal Organization for media, policy and strategic studies, about 60 percent of the region has an annual average of only 1.2 million liters of accessible water.
The lack of water has caused countries to clash as they attempt to secure enough water for their populations.
Ashok Swain, professor & head of the department of Peace and Conflict Research at the Sweden-Based Uppsala University and UNESCO Chair of International Water Cooperation, says that the current conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is one of the biggest water conflicts in the region.
Ethiopia is set to finish building the largest hydroelectric project in Africa next year. The dam is a source of tension between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt because it is built on the Blue Nile River which, along with the White Nile, is a main tributary to the Nile. Both Sudan and Egypt are located downstream from the dam, and the Nile is the latter’s primary water source.
Egypt is worried that the GERD will lessen the amount of available water to the country and that it will have an impact on the Nile’s water level, especially during periods of water scarcity. Cairo is also concerned that the GERD will spur other nations with Nile-connected springs to build copy-cat infrastructure projects that might impact water availability in Egypt.
“The realignment between Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian issue has again shifted the balance of power in the downstream's favor,” Swain told the Media Line. “Ethiopia’s open position not only against Egypt and Sudan but accepting UN, US and EU as mediators is also quite worrisome.”
“This makes it difficult to get a negotiated settlement on the dam and possibly make the river again a theater of great power rivalry by bringing China and Russia to support Ethiopia openly,” he added.
Stefan Döring, also of the department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, urged caution when using the word “conflict” with water.
Döring points to other emerging water issues in the MENA region,
“I think there is far too little attention to the water supply situation in Yemen. This also relates to the spread of pathogens or acute malnutrition that is related to water access,” he told The Media Line.
Muna Luqman, executive director of Food4humanity, a civil society organization in Yemen spearheaded by women, also is concerned about the water supply in Yemen.  
“I remember during the outbreak of COVID-19 around the world I was watching the impact of the pandemic in highly developed countries and I was terrified to what could happen in Yemen where there have been attacks on water systems, bombing of hospitals and infrastructure which in turn has intensified struggles over resources and created tensions and conflicts within a conflict,” she said.
Luqman says that water can be targeted as part of armed conflict, worsening the water situation in countries under siege.
“In Yemen, the environments in which people live have also become a forgotten victim of war… . Water wells are polluted, crops torched,” she said.
Uppsalla’s Swain says that the Tigris–Euphrates river system is also a cause for concern because of war in Iraq and Syria.
“The world should start really worrying about Euphrates-Tigris. As Iraq and Syria recover from the war and rebuild their countries, they will need water, bringing realignment of the forces in the basin against Turkey. Iran’s active entry into the basin’s water dispute is also a factor to be taken seriously,” he said.
Water may cause tensions, but the finite resource is also something that can cause people to coalesce.
“As much as water can be a source of conflict, it can be a source of peace,” Dr. Mara Tignino, lead legal specialist for the Platform for International Water Law at Geneva Water Hub, and reader at the Faculty of Law and Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, told The Media Line.
“In Lebanon and Jordan, it’s important for refugees in the city, and in the camps, to have access to the essential water and sanitation services. Water can connect the refugees to the local population,” she said.
Tignino also cited as another example the fact that at the first Baghdad water conference on March 14, Turkey indicated that the memorandum of understanding signed with Turkey over the Euphrates will soon enter into force.
Asher Fredman, CEO of Gulf-Israel Green Ventures, also agrees that water can help bring peace, particularly between Israel and the Gulf Cooperative Countries.
“I think water is actually going to be the biggest driver of peace between Israel and the Gulf countries,” he told The Media Line.
“These countries are working for and are predicting rapid economic growth, rapid population growth. Dubai is projected to grow by 3.3 million to 5.8 million people by 2040, and water is also obviously very connected to food and food security because if you want to grow crops in an arid environment you need to use precision agriculture and drip irrigation. The whole issue of water and water reuse and water recycling is going to become ever more urgent for these countries,” he said.
This is technology in which Israel particularly excels. Fredman noted that Israel recycles nearly 90 percent of its water, which is four times more than the next country.
“We are going to see a lot of deals, I think reaching hundreds of millions, between Israel and the UAE on water,” he said. “The technology … and joint research and development is going to show everybody in the region what benefits there are for cooperation with Israel,” he also said.
Omar Al-Suwaidi, founder and group president of United Stars Group, says promoting cooperation between the UAE and Israel will benefit both countries.
“The UAE’s Water Security Strategy 2036 plans to reduce demand for water resources by 21%, reduce the water scarcity index by three degrees, and increase the reuse of treated water to 95%,” he told The Media Line. “Israel is known as a world leader in water technology. Promoting cooperation on water innovation between the UAE and Israel will bring great benefit to both our countries.”
Fredman believes other nations that have yet to sign peace deals with Israel may do so as a result of water technology.
“I think we are going to see more and more interests, connections and relationships between Israel and entities both government and private in Saudi Arabia, Oman, even Qatar… at first some of those contacts may be under the table … and that’s going to create the basis for a peace between us around issues that are really urgent for our people, and our population, and our health,” he said.
Al-Suwaidi also believes that more Arab countries might follow in the path of the UAE.
“Every Arab country is, of course, independent. But we believe that when other countries see the great mutual benefits of the Abraham Accords, adopted under the leadership of HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, including in the field of water, they will want to follow in the footsteps of the UAE,” he said.