Water resources in the Middle East should be considered as a potential source of socioeconomic development and peace, advocated a recent report, “Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water,” by the Indian-based think tank Strategic Foresight Group (SFG). At a conference hosted by the Carnegie Middle East Center, in cooperation with SFG. Fadi Comair, president of the Mediterranean Network of River Basins Organization; Selim Catafago, president of the Litani River Authority; and Sundeep Waslekar, president of SFG, discussed the report’s main findings and assessed the policy measures that could turn the current regional water crisis into an opportunity to promote development and peace in the Near East. Carnegie’s Paul Salem moderated.

“Blue Peace”: Water as a Source of Socioeconomic Development and Peace 

While water is often seen as a source of conflict in the Middle East, the panelists noted that water management can be a source of cooperation among Near East countries like Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as between Israel and Palestine. As an example of successful cooperation, water management can also create the circumstances necessary for socioeconomic development and peace in these countries.

  • Roots of the water crisis: The decrease in water resources—coupled with growing populations that create higher water consumption and the absence of water management—has resulted in a tense political environment. For example, the annual discharge of the Jordan River in 1960 was 1,300 m3, compared to highs of only about 200 m3 today, even as consumption levels increase at a rapid pace. 

  • Water to promote peace: Comair argued that if policy makers follow the recommendations made by the Strategic Foresight Group’s report and reach a common multinational agreement about the allocation of water resources, this successful cooperation can create what he described as a “peace culture.” Such an outcome would “turn this crisis into opportunities for creation,” contended Waslekar.

“Hydro-diplomacy”: How to Reach Cooperation Through Water Management

To create this peace culture, cooperation in water resource management should be enhanced. The framework for this cooperation is the United Nations Convention of 1997, which promotes the use of water in an equitable and reasonable manner in accordance with the needs of individual states. Further guidance for water management cooperation can be derived from European Union directives.

  • Hydro-diplomacy: Comair defined hydro-diplomacy as “regional cooperation that creates dynamics of trans-boundary basin economic development through integrated water resources management.” For example, countries along the Jordan River should establish a daily per-capita water usage of under 200 liters, he said. In comparison, today Israelis consume a daily average of 350 liters per capita, while Jordanians consume about 60 liters and Palestinians only about 30 liters. 

  • Implementing hydro-diplomacy: The report recommends that Near East countries improve water management through the following steps: 
    1. Develop the region economically.

    2. Ensure the fulfillment of domestic and water needs in order to improve food security in the region.

    3. Enhance the struggle against climate change and global warming, which reduce river flows and rainfalls and generate droughts and desertification.

    4. Contribute to political stability through equitable sharing of water resources. 

Key Policy Recommendations

Hydro-diplomacy aims to establish two main regional frameworks for water management, which should be actively supported by the international community:

  • Establish a cooperation council for water resources: This council should include Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, noted Comair. It will serve as a political mechanism to establish common standards for measuring water flow and quality, set goals for sustainable management of water resources, adapt regional strategies to combat climate change and drought, and facilitate basin-level cooperation in each river basin. The organization will also improve the sharing of knowledge and information about water resources among the various countries. 

  • Develop a high-level confidence-building initiative between Israel and the Palestinian Territories: This initiative’s key responsibility is to answer the specific challenges caused by the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The current negotiations about water management depend on figures from the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, even though studies show that water resources have depleted by 7 percent since then. The panelists highlighted the need for the parties to meet and agree on facts and data, even before starting to negotiate the terms of water management. In particular, Catafago explained that the lack of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians is the most important impediment to improving water resource management.

  • Encourage the international community to become actively involved: The international community should play a critical support role in both the technical and financial aspects of hydro-diplomacy.  The panelists emphasized, however, that the cooperation initiative should emerge from the Near East countries, as it is first and foremost their responsibility.

A few initiatives have been launched in the past decade, but they all lack a necessary comprehensive approach. For example, Syria and Lebanon signed an agreement in 2002 to exchange information and monitor the flow and quality of the water for the Orontes and the Nahr El Kebir rivers. However, the construction of a diversion dam on the Orontes was interrupted by Israeli bombings in 2006, showing the crucial need for cooperation and dialogue among all countries.