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The biggest threat to water security is war

The biggest threat to water security is war thumbnail

The Middle East and North Africa region accounts for about nine per cent of the planet’s geographic area, has roughly five per cent of the world’s population and just one per cent of the global supply of fresh­water. Unsurprisingly then, freshwater resource stress has grown in the region in the past 25-50 years. It has become especially acute since 2011.

Lebanon receives the highest annual average precipitation of about 800 millimetres, while Egypt receives the least, 50mm. Most of the region is arid. The distribution of agricultural land varies with the varying rainfall. So does the distribution of hydrocarbon wealth, which helps determine a country’s ability to augment freshwater supplies with desalinated water. The most water-scarce Arab countries are oil exporters, so they can afford to desalinate water, but other water-stressed countries don’t have the economic resources to do so.

Climatic constraints on the availability of freshwater is a big enough challenge for Arab countries to deal with; geopolitical factors have compounded them. More than half of the Arab region’s freshwater supply comes from a resource that is shared with other countries and originates outside the region.

For example, Iraq and Syria share the Euphrates-Tigris river system, mainly with Turkey, where this trans-boundary freshwater basin originates. Egypt and Sudan are riparian countries of the Nile River system, which originates in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

As a result of these geographic interdependencies, the quality, quantity and security of the region’s freshwater supply do not depend on natural availability alone, or on the availability and the degree of efficient resource management within a country. In Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, which rely heavily on freshwater that originates outside their borders, supply is affected by measures taken in upstream countries.

Geographic freshwater interdependency is not unique to the Arab region. However, military conflicts in the Middle East and the grim record of international water law application has left the region’s natural interdependency at the mercy of geopolitical agendas. For example, since the completion of Turkey’s Great Anatolian Project and associated water infrastructural developments on the Euphrates-Tigris system, Iraq and Syria have experienced significant reductions in their water supplies. Estimates of the expected water loss for these two countries range from 30 to 60 per cent for Syria and 70 to 90 per cent for Iraq. If each country were to lose even half of the upper limit of those figures, the fundamental reasons for economic insecurity and instability will become more entrenched.

As military conflicts have increasingly engulfed different parts of the region, security has taken primacy over other issues, not least the availability of water, protecting that precious resource and other developmental priorities. In Syria, transboundary water security has lost ground as a fundamental precursor to development because normal life is on hold and the country is suffering the effects of war.

But the water security crisis will not wait until the war is over in Syria or Iraq. Along the Euphrates-Tigris and other contested river systems, as time passes and conflicts grind on, populations will continue to grow and industrialisation will increase. It is likely that either urbanisation will spread out further in some areas or agricultural expansion will demand more water in other areas – or both. These are some of the pressures that have contributed to the aggressive and unregulated upstream competition over transboundary freshwater basins on the banks of rivers along which many Arab countries came to being.

It is particularly dangerous that water shortages are cumulative in nature. Once a source of stress remains in place long enough without any attempt to remedy or mitigate, it can cause additional conditions, which lead to more resource degradation and scarcity.

Military conflict is one of the most potent reasons for water scarcity and insecurity in the Arab region in the past century.

Freshwater resource conflicts have been allowed to persist because regional water disputes long seemed to pose no immediate or direct threat to the interests of the world’s leading economic powers. For millennia, there have been cross-border water agreements, but no international mechanisms are in place to enforce them. The time for this complacent attitude is well and truly up.

Amal A Kandeel is an economist and director of Pioneers International, a business development and geoeconomic analysis services company specialising in the Middle East and North Africa

the national

9 Comments on "The biggest threat to water security is war"

  1. Makati1 on Mon, 29th Dec 2014 7:08 pm 

    And the story is…?

    I can hardly wait until the world economy cannot afford to support people who produce nothing of value. The world will be a better place.

  2. Rodster on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 4:55 am 

    Future wars will be fought for natural resources essential to maintaining life and clean drinking water is on the top of the list. Which is already in short supply in various parts of the world.

    Lake Mead is running dry because of Las Vegas. China is now down to 40% clean drinking water because of pollution from it’s industrial base.

  3. bobinget on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 6:28 am 

    Turn that headline on its head:

    Did Drought Cause Syria’s civil war?

    Is climate change destabilizing Iraq?

    in the news:
    Did Drought, Climate Change Cause ME Collapse
    in 2014?

  4. ghung on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 8:20 am 

    And then there are middle eastern countries building out, and becoming reliant upon, huge desalination plants, obvious targets in a conflict or terrorist action. One or two rockets and the taps go dry. As usual, complex solutions to simple problems increase vulnerabilities exponentially.

  5. bobinget on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 8:38 am 

    So called ‘terrorists’ when they get access to modern highly mechanized ‘modern’ weapons, a FLAG, regular income from taxation, don’t we need to call them something else?

    ghung’s point is valid in not only Mid East but
    all cities where societal cooperation is vital for survival.

    Acts of ‘terror’ are intended to weaken existing
    governments by demonstrating current leadership
    too weak to protect a general population.

  6. Kenz00 on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 12:34 pm 

    The biggest threat to water security os OVER POPULATION…….

    Every year the world adds 80 million more people to feed, provide water for, house, and provide energy for. Endless population growth is the worlds worst environmental problem.

  7. bobinget on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 2:36 pm 

    Yes Kenz00, Over-popuation.
    When they closed abortion clinics in your’s or a nearby state, what did you do about it?

    How much help do you offer Planned Parenthood?

    Do you support pro-choice candidate$?
    School board candidates who seek better (or) any sex education?

    Do you believe in separation of Church and State?

    Water security a complicated issue. Difficult to
    relegate any single cause.

    Does anyone feel Climate Change is a greater or lesser
    challenge to water supplies? (then overpopulation)

  8. Apneaman on Tue, 30th Dec 2014 6:00 pm 

    American Geophysical Union 2014 Recap: That Sinking, Drying, Sharing Feeling

    “San Francisco – Here, among the hydrologists, seismologists, and climatologists, and between rows of thousands of research posters, you can find the Earth’s pulse — or at least measurements of it. In charts and graphs, the planet’s temperature, blood pressure, and bone density are portrayed in fine detail as well.”

  9. Kenz00 on Wed, 31st Dec 2014 12:52 pm 

    Limited supply meets expanding demand (over population) with bad results……. start with rationing as a solution and ultimately end up with no water as it is used up by the expanding population.

    Demand can not continue to increase endlessly……

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