19 September 2023

Water crises - water opportunities: Promoting water cooperation in the Middle East

In a new report for The Clingendael Institute and The Planetary Security Initiative, Tobias von Lossow and Annabelle Houdret offer five action areas for thinking beyond traditional approaches and promoting opportunities for water cooperation in the Middle East. The text below is the executive summary of the report. Read the full report here.

Von Lossow is a a researcher at Clingendael and an affiliate researcher at IHE Delft. Houdret is a senior researcher at the German Institute for Development and Sustainability (IDOS) and speaker of the BonnWaterNetwork. 

Climate change exacerbates the pronounced water scarcity in the Middle East and also acts as a threat multiplier, for instance in the areas of health, food security and livelihoods. Increasing competition over water and the failure to address related challenges intensify tensions and conflicts within and between countries. At national level, water challenges undermine the legitimacy of the state – water provision, protection from extreme events, such as flooding and drought, and stakeholder inclusion are key elements of the social contract: if a government is unable to provide these, then the population will call into question its legitimacy. At the same time, the water crisis strains relations between countries, as two-thirds of freshwater resources in the region are transboundary and the distribution of resources is often contested. Considerable tensions between countries and the polarising and emotional nature of water as an existential resource often prevent neighbouring states from concluding water agreements. Against this backdrop, the urgency for action is high, but the scope of action for traditional transboundary water agreements is limited.

In response to this challenge, this report proposes five water-related action areas in which water cooperation is ‘reimagined’ and pursued via thematic entry points of national and regional interest. The report looks into established resource management frameworks, less politicised water-related challenges or topics of increasing political urgency with a strong water component – all of which are already being addressed and debated at national and local levels. By linking them with regional dialogue, capacity development and joint strategies, these thematic clusters provide promising spaces for inter-state water cooperation.

The (1) water-energy-food-ecosystems (WEFE) nexus could further the reuse of wastewater, better energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy at transboundary levels. Such water-related but cross-sectoral cooperation within the nexus generate shared benefits or offset disadvantages, which makes them less polarising than agreements over the distribution of water resources. Linking such efforts to bigger international debates could increase external financial and political support. The involvement of civil society and quick and visible gains from nexus projects would help to secure public support.

Regional cooperation could also be promoted on (2) water-related ecosystems and local livelihoods, as they play a relevant role in certain border regions. The focus on the largely undisputed goals of conservation, restoration and sustainable use of water-related ecosystems could build on sharing experiences, existing national activities and new approaches. The protection of ecosystems and biodiversity helps to protect traditional livelihoods and creates new income opportunities – in this way also easing societal tensions.

Investment in (3) water knowledge through better data, citizen science, public awareness, social science expertise and dissemination of traditional knowledge could also improve regional water cooperation. Citizen science can complement state efforts in the collection and analysis of data and credibly raise public awareness. This form of political participation also counteracts political disenchantment and the undermining of state structures. Social science approaches allow for a more holistic perspective on water resource management and conflict mitigation. They could play a more prominent role in regional institutions and national curricula – along with traditional knowledge and understanding of water.

In addition, (4) transboundary, water-related disaster risk reduction could help to jointly address shared and growing challenges such as droughts, floods, sandstorms and dust storms. To date, relevant plans, projects and supporting programmes are lacking at regional and transboundary levels. A pan-regional approach to address urgent and cyclically recurring disaster scenarios is promising, as shared benefits are evident in the event of a disaster while the costs remain manageable if the disasters do not occur. In addition, disaster risk cooperation is relatively crisis resistant, contributes to trust-building and can be implemented in several steps – from a shared warning system to damage repair, or joint planning of infrastructure to protect it against damage in the event of a disaster.

In relation to (5) displacement, migration and reconstruction, water cooperation could help to ensure that WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) provision and water resource management are designed in a conflict- and climate-sensitive manner. Shared visions, jointly negotiated rules, processes and institutions can contribute to trust-building, conflict prevention and social cohesion between polarised groups or host communities and refugees – also in the context of Cash for Work (CfW) programmes. In addition, water supply is closely linked to government legitimacy and an important entry point to (re-)build social contracts between citizens and their government. In this area it is particularly important to identify quick gains in order to illustrate the value of water cooperation to all parties.

These five action areas are not meant to be a blueprint for any setting, but an encouragement to think beyond the widespread stalemate in transboundary water governance in the region. They offer a wide range of options for strengthening state legitimacy and inclusive social contracts at national level as well as improving inter-state relations through the water sector. This less polarised, multi-level approach addresses domestic pressure to take action while embedding the latter in intergovernmental contexts and regional solutions. This report refers to examples from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Syria, and also includes contexts in which Iran, Israel and Turkey play a role.

This text is an executive summary of the report Water crises - water opportunities, promoting water cooperation in the Middle East. Read the full report here.

Photo credit: Azraq Wetland Reserve - Jordan, by Alex Bezrukov © Shutterstock.com (background); Businessmen Handshake Deal Business Commitment Concept by Rawpixel.com © Shutterstock.com (image section)