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  • Writer's pictureDeepa Rao

Water scarcity in the Middle East: Issue of global importance and transforming conflicts

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

The Middle East is currently experiencing security, climate change, and water scarcity challenges all at the same time. In the Middle East, water shortage is a significant environmental issue that is quickly becoming a source of conflict in an already volatile region. Annual internal water resources in the region account for only 6% of average annual precipitation, compared to a global average of 38%.

Although it has around 6% of the world's population, it only possesses 1% of the world's freshwater resources. Nearly two-thirds of the population of the region lives in areas with insufficient renewable water resources, and over 60% of the population lives in areas with high surface water stress, compared to a global average of roughly 35%.

Meanwhile, approximately 70% of economic activity in the Middle East takes place in places with high or very high water stress, more than three times the global average of 22%. Despite recent breakthroughs in water delivery technology and management, the region's finite water resources are being overexploited due to extreme scarcity, weak governance, changing hydrology, and rising demands in many industries. Subsidies that are too high stifle incentives for smart water management.

Although the Middle East has abundant transboundary freshwater resources, the absence of mutual agreement on water allocation in shared rivers and aquifers adds to the region's water scarcity situation's complexity and potential conflict. Freshwater from the region's major transboundary rivers — the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, and the Jordan — is used in unsustainable quantities for agricultural, industrial, and domestic reasons. Most water policy efforts, on the other hand, are oriented towards boosting access through increased aquifer exploitation or saltwater desalination, rather than conserving water and guaranteeing efficient management.

The rising water scarcity situation jeopardizes human security and adds to variables that heighten the risk of violence, fragility, and war, resulting in insecurity and displacement across the Middle East. Failed governments, political instability, forced displacement, armed wars, and persistent insecurity characterize Middle East geopolitics as a conflict-ridden regional system.

In the last few decades, the region's potential sources of instability have grown and varied significantly. Aside from conventional origins of conflict, socioeconomic and environmental challenges are increasingly contributing to the onset and perpetuation of war in the volatile Middle East. Water shortage, along with tremendous population increase and urbanization, is the most pressing environmental concern in the Middle East, and it is gradually becoming a source of conflict in an already unstable region, as trends in the region show.

Water, as a strategic asset, is no longer only tied to environmental concerns and food security, but also to regional security arrangements. Water is seen as a source of political influence and power by states. In the Middle East, water is a source of state power, and scarcity is inextricably linked to national security. Many scholars have observed that disputes over transboundary waterways cannot be understood without first comprehending power dynamics and the significance of competing or warring states' upstream-downstream orientation.

Although power imbalance has historically been the main cause for the lack of battles in transboundary waterways, it is also a major impediment to the basin adopting shared measures and cooperative procedures for managing water scarcity. Asymmetric allocation of transboundary freshwater results from the significant power imbalance among riparian governments, and the absence of war does not imply the absence of conflict in the basin.

According to the hydro-hegemony framework — an analytical framework for studying how hegemony and power asymmetries influence transboundary water politics — relative power imbalance in the basin inevitably leads to hydro-hegemony, in which a superior power controls water flows and forces weaker states to follow its orders. The hegemon has asymmetric power to coerce a weaker state, and he sets the agenda for all riparian states in the river basin.

Aside from physical location, the framework implies that the use of force and consent in conjunction with the implementation of basin-wide regulations is a more powerful determinant than international legislation on non-navigational usage of international watercourses or riparian position. Upstream hegemons use water to gain more power, while downstream hegemons use power to gain more water — Turkey is an upstream hegemon, Ethiopia is an upstream state but not a hegemon, and Egypt is a downstream hegemon. In this scenario, the powerful riparian has exploited international water law to express their dominance and to compel compliance.

Cooperation is least likely to occur in asymmetric conditions, such as when the upstream state is the basin's hegemon. When the downstream state is the hegemon of the basin, collaboration is more likely, but the agreement is frequently imposed in exchange for the stronger riparian's benefits. Turkey's strategic location and hydro-hegemony on the Euphrates and Tigris, and Israel's hydro-hegemony on the Jordan River, for example, allow both countries to maintain dominance over Syria and Iraq, and Palestine, respectively. Although basin governments' power relations evolve through coexisting, conflictual, and cooperative interactions, effective transboundary water management that promotes collaboration is difficult to achieve.

The hydro-hegemon dictates the method of cooperative adaptation to the weaker riparian in a coercive engagement in the setting of unequal power in the basin, where water governance is applied since water is considered as a public good. The weak downstream riparian states are apparently unable to change the arrangements due to power imbalances over the region's main transboundary rivers, the Tigris, Euphrates, and Jordan, which leaves no room for negotiation and reconciliation while escalating the Middle East's rising water conflict.

Transboundary water agreements are essentially political, and they are shaped by the riparian governments' larger social-security environment. Water supply systems are increasingly becoming both political levers and strategic objectives in the Middle East, which continues to suffer from chronic instability, as states see access to water as a national security problem. As a result, the misdistribution of transboundary freshwater, combined with rising populations and urbanization, the absence of international water legislation, and depleting water resources, show that water is becoming a more important trigger of interstate politics and conflict. War over water is quite likely in semi-arid zones like the Middle East, where the hydro-hegemony is building large dams across common rivers, thereby weaponizing water to fulfil its strategic aims.

In the transboundary basins of the Nile and Jordan, Egypt and Israel have been exploiting current unrest to forward their grandiose ambition of becoming regional hydro-hegemons. Water can be utilized as a determining force in Israel's prolonged occupation of the West Bank, thanks to power asymmetry in the Jordan River basin and technological technology, allowing Israel to grab water resources in Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries. Apart from being utilized as a tool of dominance, water warfare has been the primary cause of conflicts. Water scarcity, drought, and climate change, according to an increasing number of studies, have played a direct part in the deterioration of Syria's socioeconomic conditions, brutal civil conflict, and the formation of extremist armed groups in Iraq and Syria, such as ISIS.

Water scarcity in the Middle East is a global issue that has turned riparian conflict into a major regional and international security concern. Water scarcity is a threat multiplier, and its socioeconomic effects have serious international security implications — aggravating factors can lead to massive displacement and migration flows, pressing concerns about food security, environmental degradation, political instability, social insurgency, state failure, interstate violent conflict, and the reemergence of extremism and terrorism, all of which have the potential to trigger domino effects outside the region.

Multilateral initiatives should be founded on the formation of transboundary water resource management agreements, which can help overcome local political barriers and lead to the adoption of a long-term integrated framework for managing water demand and supply. If current trends continue, this region faces a considerable risk of impending conflicts and wars over water, with far-reaching consequences. Now is the time for the international community to intervene.

Water availability, quality, water treatment options, and water reuse decisions we make today have an impact on the future living standards of communities all over the world. What is going to happen? No one is aware. However, it's critical to think about the options. Talk to our experts and learn more on global water solutions through MEGHDOOT.

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