In the Driest Region of the World, Water Offers Peace

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, countries use over 80 percent of their water resources in agriculture, according to a U.N. Children’s Fund report. As climate change and migration exacerbate already scarce water supplies, The Blue Peace Strategy is working to promote transboundary cooperation and help ensure food security and political stability in the region.

Over 5 million people along the Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey through Syria and Iraq, are at risk of water scarcity and power outages, according to the REACH Initiative. Among this number are 1 million displaced Syrians. Rising temperatures, reduced rainfall, and a historic drought are reducing the river’s water levels, and Humanitarian groups warn of an unprecedented water and agricultural crisis.

“Water is life. Without water, there is no life, there is no development,” André Wehrli, the Senior Water Policy Advisor at The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), tells Food Tank. “Fair and equitable access to water is needed for long term peace and stability.”

Wehrli advises SDC’s Blue Peace Strategy, an initiative aiming to promote water cooperation and generate peace in the MENA region—the most water scarce region in the world. Of the 33 most water stressed countries, 14 are in the Middle East, according to the World Resources Institute.

The Blue Peace Strategy fosters relationship building between countries by combining continued dialogue with baseline studies, knowledge, and capacity building, and building confidence and trust.

The 2022 Global Risk Report from the World Economic Forum names water security as a top risk in terms of impact for the tenth consecutive year. In 2017 alone, water was a major factor in 45 global conflicts. And an article published in Geneva Solutions expounds the use of water as both a weapon of war and an instrument of peace.

“While international treaties and water law are absolutely necessary, they are not a silver bullet solution,” Wehrli explains. “It is important to strengthen the entire global water governance system.”

Wehrli says that building relationships enables transboundary cooperation, which is essential to achieving peace. “It’s not just water allocation. We need a new narrative; water is a key factor for social and economic development.”

SDC is working to mitigate conflicts in Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as well as use the Yarmouk River as a common ground for negotiations between Jordan, Syria, and Israel.

“When you look into a complex region such as MENA, you understand that there are many factors that might facilitate or impede access to water cooperation,” Wehrli tells Food Tank. These factors include climate change, poor governance, and ineffective water management by agricultural sectors.

A recent report by SDC finds that agriculture is the main consumer of water. Wehrli tells Food Tank that effective water management in agriculture can help to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Along the Jordan River, farmers typically get 60 percent of the water resources they request. Werhli says that many are switching to water conservation methods such as drip irrigation to cope with water shortages. But when climate change-induced drought leaves farmers without water, “countries need to adapt in other ways. That is already a challenge for countries experiencing water scarcity,” Wehrli tells Food Tank.

“If you look at the entire food supply chain, 30 to 50 percent of food is wasted. Improving supply chain and logistics could create opportunities to improve water efficiency,” Anders Jägerskog, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, tells Food Tank.

Many MENA countries experiencing water scarcity may rely on food imports, Jägerskog says, raising concerns around food security. Supply chain disruptions due to the Russia-Ukraine war also increases the need for more water and arable land to satisfy food security needs.

Jägerskog explains that in addition to the climate crisis, population growth and dependency on global water imports challenge water cooperation in the MENA region. Water scarcity also creates concerns for hygiene and sanitation by exacerbating disease and other health risks in refugee camps and host communities.

Both Jägerskog and Wehrli still maintain a positive outlook on water cooperation in the MENA region. According to Jägerskog, in some instances, “where countries do not cooperate over other matters, they do cooperate over water.”

And while many countries coping with political tension, migration, and the climate crisis continue to “blame their neighbor” for water scarcity, Wehrli adds that generally, there is more cooperation than conflict.

“Generally what makes headlines is when there is conflict,” Jägerskog explains.”Water scarcity does not just increase conflict—most countries want to work together.” The “interconnectedness of water speaks to the need for countries to come together.”

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Image courtesy of Nasa, Unsplash

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