The effects of climate change on already scarce fresh water resources in the MENA region poses an existential risk and a potential for conflict.
More than any other region, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is plagued by instability and conflict. Conflict has traditionally been caused by political, military, ethnic and religious issues, but, in an increasingly complex world, potential causes of insecurity have widened and diversified considerably. Though traditional sources of conflict continue to play a major role, economic, social and environmental issues increasingly contribute to both causing and fuelling it.
Global warming combined with massive population growth has led to increasing pressure making access to resources more important than ever – and no resource is more important than water. Climate change has had a significant impact on freshwater availability, resulting in a global freshwater crisis whose effects are more acute in arid and semi-arid regions like the MENA. Already an unstable region, access to shared water resources will increasingly become an additional source of tension. Whether cooperation or conflict characterizes how the region deals with this issue, it is likely to have ever more implications as the effects of climate change become increasingly severe.
While 70% of the planet is covered in water, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Of this, only 1% is easily accessible, as much of the world’s freshwater is trapped in glaciers and ice caps. Compounding this is that this scarce resource is very unevenly distributed. While some regions enjoy ample supply, others like the MENA do not have enough.
The MENA is in fact the most water scarce region in the world. With approximately 5% of the world’s population, it only has 1% of the world’s renewable water resources. This scarcity is caused by a combination of factors. Firstly, the region experiences arid conditions, low rainfall and high levels of evaporation, leading to limited naturally available water resources. Secondly, the MENA suffers from inefficient usage and mismanagement; usage of old water networks; population growth; pollution; cultural and social issues; and inappropriate legal, political, and economic frameworks.
The combination of these factors means that, not only does the region suffer from aridity, drought and desiccation, but it is also extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Forecasts on the impact of climate change on the region are dire. A predicted rise in temperature coupled with a lack of rainfall in Syria, for example, could lead to the desertification of 60% of the country. In Egypt, heat waves could lead to the flow of the Nile into the country being reduced by up to 75% by 2100 according to recent estimates. Forecasts for other MENA countries are equally bleak.
This will be exacerbated by inefficient irrigation which currently consumes 85% of the region’s water. In Saudi Arabia, this has resulted in the depletion of two thirds of its groundwater supplies since the 1980s. Inefficient water use has also seen the water table in the United Arab Emirates drop by one meter per year, a rate which will see its freshwater reserves depleted in roughly 50 years.
Without a proactive approach that breaks current wasteful trends, the MENA countries will not achieve water sustainability. With the world’s population expected to rise to over 9 billion by 2050, it is inevitable that water stress will increase and the MENA will be the hardest hit.
Politics and Conflict
Increasing scarcity and dire projections have made states view water both as a national security priority and as a political and economic lever. In this region, water, like oil, cannot be separated from politics.
For example Turkey, as an upstream state of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, has used its strategic position as a leverage to advance its national or regional interests. Egypt, on the other hand, is a downstream state, meaning its supply is more vulnerably and it had threatened to go to war to protect its so-called acquired rights over the waters of the Nile.
A country’s strategy to deal with water scarcity depends not only on local conditions, but also on the available financial resources technical and institutional capacity, and the agreements in place to secure access to this resource. Resources in the West Bank, for example, include the Jordan River, which runs all along the eastern border of the West Bank, and the Mountain Aquifer underlying the West Bank and Israel. Both are transboundary—meaning that, under international law, they should be shared in an equitable and reasonable manner by Israel and Palestine. However, since Israel took over the West Bank in 1967, it has remained in full control over water resources in the area. This is the case for example for the Mountain Aquifer, the 1995 Oslo II interim agreement—which also defined the water-sharing arrangements between Palestine and Israel—came to consolidate the Israeli control that had been in place since 1967: Israel was granted access to over 71 percent of the aquifer water, while Palestinians were only granted 17 percent. While the agreement was supposed to last five years only, 20 years later, it is still in place.
Apart from being used as a political tool, water can also be one of the triggers for violent conflict. It was, for example, a major factor in the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967. Disagreements over water began in 1953, when Israel attempted to divert the Upper Jordan River to the National Water Carrier, a pipeline which carries water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert. This is widely recognised as the beginning of water competition between Israel and the Arab states.
In relation to the conflict in Darfur, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) declared in 2009 that regional climate variability, water scarcity, and loss of fertile land were underlying factors for the conflict to break out. Water shortages led to the desertification of soil which brought about fierce competition over remaining arable land. This, combined with ethnic and religious tensions, helped ignite the conflict in this region.
Control over water is also at the forefront of the Islamic State’s (IS) strategy of creating a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates basin are seen not only as strategic targets but also as powerful weapons of war. Water matters as much as land in this region and IS’s quest for hydrological control began in Northern Syria when it captured the old Soviet Tabqa dam in 2014, a major source of electricity and water for the country. IS has also launched repeated offensives to capture the Iraqi Mosul and Haditha dams, the two largest in the country.
Considering that over 95% of Iraq’s water comes from Tigris and Euphrates, anyone controlling both dams would have a stranglehold on water and electricity supply which would have a crippling effect on food production and economic activity in central and south Iraq.
Cooperation or Conflict?
Though water scarcity may not be a determinant trigger of conflict, it can compound other underlying factors to spark tense relations. A recent European Union brief “Climate Change and International Security,” for example, referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier which exacerbates existing tensions and instability.” Many would argue that, taking into consideration the history of tense bilateral and multilateral relations and on-going political mistrust among MENA countries, where democracy and peace seem doomed to failure, conflict would be the most likely result.
However, as current developments in the region indicate, cooperation seems to be the most likely outcome. Water is a vital resource to all nations involved, and a prolonged fight over scarce resources goes beyond the military realms of power of any of these countries. Cooperation to successfully manage and cope with water scarcity has proven to yield more benefits than conflict. Water scarcity can encourage peace talks between competing states to ensure future stability and resolution of conflict.
There have been some encouraging signs, such as Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia engaging in talks over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GERDP) which will affect the trans-boundary water resources of the Nile. Water-sharing agreements governing shared resources such as the Nile are the way forward for the MENA region in order to avoid hydrological poverty and the harsh economic and human consequences this entails, especially as the gap between supply and demand widens in the future.
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