Water is clearly recognised as a scarce resource in many parts of the WANA (West Asia and North Africa) region, and becoming more so with increasing population, wealth and environmental pressures. Will water be the cause of the next wars or a source of regional cooperation? According to the 2016 WANA Institute report, Promoting Water Cooperation in the WANA Region: widening the base for water diplomacy, with support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), water can play a key role in mitigating or inciting conflict, but is not yet the main cause of war.
Globally, there are 276 transboundary lake and river systems, and approximately 300 transboundary aquifer systems, with 40% of the world’s population living in a basin shared by two or more countries. Starting with the Helsinki Rules on the Uses of International Rivers (1966), there has been a succession of policy guides and agreements aimed at establishing an internationally-applicable approach, most recently the UN Watercourses Convention of 2014. However, with ratification by only 36 countries to date, the reality is that most water sharing agreements are bilateral, and sometimes trior multilateral.
Regionally, around the Mediterranean, there is great potential for cooperation amongst countries despite the many challenges presented by transboundary rivers and bodies of water. Such challenges include exploitation, ownership, management, agricultural demands, hydropower supply, and other linkages to provide fresh water and clean energy to people living in coastal areas. Water diplomacy helps advance and ensure the positive outcome of mutually-beneficial cooperation between neighbours and regional partners for sharing this precious natural resource.
What defines whether water diplomacy is relevant?
A key paradoxical point the WANA report makes is that the greater the conflict potential from water, the greater the potential for water to influence diplomacy. Conversely, if water is not a subject for dispute, then there is limited incentive for mutual cooperation over its management.
The notion of water diplomacy relies on two key assumptions: 1) in the context of increasing scarcity, competition for water resources can drive conflict between states; and 2) water cooperation can give rise to mutually beneficial solutions. Water diplomacy is particularly attractive to the WANA region where water scarcity is high and diplomatic relations often complicated. Many transboundary agreements exist, but as the Nile example shows, these often favour the more powerful country, and they have generally under-delivered on their expectations of solving disputes and improving socioeconomic conditions. There is also the argument that water diplomacy cannot yet demonstrate success in achieving peace. Examples are the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian tensions in a context where water resources are critical, and ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan despite their need to share the Indus River waters.
Water is often insufficiently important to drive conflict or diplomacy because, at least in part, the pressure on water demand is offset in time by a combination of technologies, such as desalination and wastewater recycling, and by imports of virtual water, whereby the import of agricultural products means much of the water use is in other global regions. Thus, many parts of the West Asia and North Africa region do not suffer the water scarcity challenges that might incite conflict between states, while water stress does rise domestically.
Beyond transboundary water scarcity
Water-related conflict may not always be about transboundary water scarcity. The Shatt al-Arab waterway was a driver for the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, but the conflict was over access to a critical shipping route, not water supply. And this occurred between two neighbouring countries with respective water scarcity concerns.
Transboundary water bodies are not the only conditions for water-related conflict. It can also be driven by inequalities within a sate. Inadequate or unreliable water supplies for parts of the population, especially the poor, can be a driver for civil unrest. Until inequalities in water, food and energy provision are compressively addressed, they are likely to fuel local-level conflict for years to come.
The political importance of water determines its scope in diplomatic efforts. However, regardless of the role of water cooperation in leading to peace, it remains important in the context of political and social stability, human welfare and the natural environment of the region. The West Asia and North Africa continues to face many water-related challenges, some of which are worsening, such as the over-extraction of water sources, seawater intrusion, growing demand and climate-related threats like droughts and floods. Policies must take into account future generations. This is especially important for non-renewable resources such as aquifers with very low or negligible rates of recharge (where the water is often referred to as fossil water).
Developing a more enabling environment for the advancement of water science and technology within the region will be primordial for addressing the great water challenge of our times. Arab states, to date, under-perform in the areas of peer- reviewed science publications, patents and R&D spending. Better laboratories and science education are not enough. There needs to be a political will to inte- grate science and research into the wider economy. There are, however, some positive signs of change. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are taking a lead in science and R&D investments. Also welcome is Jordan’s hosting of the World Science Forum in November 2017. Science can play a more explicit role in making the link between water science, water preserva- tion and water cooperation.