Environmental Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Water and Conflict in the Middle East Working Group I

Water and Conflict in the Middle East

On October 15-16, 2017, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held a working group under its research initiative on “Water and Conflict in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, experts engaged in group discussions aimed at identifying a series of original research questions related to competition and cooperation over water in the Middle East. Topics discussed included: water conflict in the Middle Eastern context; trans-boundary water conflicts and cooperation in the Middle East; water scarcity and conflict in Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, and Lebanon; and the political and social constraints to achieving food security in water-scarce areas. Scholars also discussed ISIS and its attempts to strategically control water in parts of the Middle East, as well as how Turkey’s recent attempts to build dams on the Euphrates are affecting its relations with Iraq and Syria. Two working group sessions were also held with a specific focus on water and politics in the GCC states. The subject was discussed both with a focus on domestic political dilemmas faced by different Middle Eastern countries contending with scarce water resources at a national level, as well how inter-state relations in the region are influenced by tensions or competition over shared water resources.

Much of the Middle East is comprised of arid zones with limited available water resources. Over the past decades, the capacity of the region’s limited water resources to meet national needs has been further stretched by rapid population growth. Simultaneously, the mounting effects of pollution and waste have led to a significant deterioration in both the quality and quantity of water. In addition, poor water governance and development strategies at a national level have increased the gap between supply and demand. At the broader level, an increasing regional exposure to changing climatic events such as global warming is also of great concern. Water insecurity poses a significant challenge as well, impacting economic growth, and potentially leading to social and political instability. In many of the countries instead of investing in changing the culture of water usage and improving mechanisms for distribution, states have opted instead to expand citizens’ access to water through unsustainable means of water provision and expanding subsidies. Such behavior has intensified rather than mitigated water challenges across the region. At the national level there is a need for further research on water policies and practices, and what the social and political dynamics are that undergird them.

Scholars of the region have devoted considerable attention to studying the effects of above-ground shared water resources, and there is already an extensive body of work on the three main transboundary river basins of the Middle East, namely the Jordan River, the Nile, and the Tigris-Euphrates. What was raised during the working group was the need to examine trans-boundary or shared groundwater, particularly with regards to water conflict and cooperation in the Middle East, as this remains as an understudied subject. The region has a large number of groundwater aquifers, both renewable and non-renewable that are shared across multiple national borders. Aquifers are shared between Turkey and Syria, Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, Egypt and Libya, as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq amongst others. It is important to have a greater understanding of how states are navigating shared use of groundwater resources in the Middle East.

Focusing on water scarcity and conflict in Iraq, four critical issues stand out. The first issue has to do with Iraq’s geographical environment. It is a downstream state located at the tail end of the Tigris and Euphrates. This makes the country at risk of disruption in water supply caused by intentional or unintentional practices by the upstream countries. The issue of geographical location is coupled with climate change, permanent desiccation of Marshlands, change in microclimates and cross-boundary sandstorms, and divergence of priorities from investments into wetland infrastructure steered by political movements. The second issue facing Iraq is related to the hydro-politics of an emerging Kurdistan. After Kurdistan declared independence that was met by rejection from the Iraqi government along with Turkey, Iran and a number of other states, the future of Kurdish participation in multinational treaties is hard to imagine. The third issue has to do with water disputes between Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Iraqis argue that Turkish and Iranian policies have damaged ecosystems in northern Iraq. Finally, Iraq faces a critical issue of water being used as a weapon. Non-state actors can use dams and water infrastructure, given their vulnerability as targets, as strategic and psychological weapons. These four issues are affected by poor water governance, climate change, and the continuous migration and displacement patterns.

Turning to Yemen, a significant portion of water resources are underground, and renewable water resources provide less than 10 percent of the estimated national need. Conflict over water in Yemen is not directly related to the current civil war, although of course the impact of violent conflict on people’s water access is undeniable. Broader dynamics predating the civil war remain at heart of the Yemeni water crisis. Four main areas deserve further in-depth research. First, there is a critical need to expand available data sets on Yemen’s water resources, and a need to develop and deploy data collection methods that are more applicable to the socio-political structures of the country. Second, issues related to management of water distribution and water flow, wells management, payments for domestic water supplies, and major food projects remain significantly understated in Yemen. Third, scholars need to pay attention to the local politics in Yemen insofar as tensions between households and peoples are concerned, and the impact of that on the increasing water and food security risks. Finally, there is a need to study agricultural activities that require less water, are drought resistant, and have high value.

Lebanon and Jordan are no different from other countries in the region with regards to limited natural resources not being the reason behind their water scarcity, but rather external and internal factors. With regards to the external factors, Jordan has issues with Lebanon and Syria insofar as the Upper Jordan is concerned, besides the issue of sharing the Jordan River with Palestine and Israel, and the Disi Aquifer with Saudi Arabia. For Lebanon, issues of water diplomacy revolve around the sharing of the Jordan River, an aquifer with Israel, and the Aasi and Kabir Rivers with Syria. This is in addition to the Wazani Aquifer and Hasbani River which were controlled by Israel during the occupation. With regards to the internal factors, the water infrastructure in Lebanon is perished, given that water infrastructure in some areas of Lebanon predates a century. Additionally, besides issues of pollution and climate change that are common factors across the region, the influx of refugees and displaced people adds significant pressure to Lebanon and Jordan’s water resources.

The aforementioned cases share a common factor with regards to water issues. While one ought not to undermine the scarcity of water resources in the Middle East, the most critical water issues lie beyond water resources. In other words, the non-biophysical constraints limit any technical solutions for water issues in the Middle East. Examples of non-biophysical constraints include, among other factors: socio-political stability, security, land tenures, and low farm-grade prices. These constraints are coupled with the issue of addressing the wrong problem. Decision-makers focus on finding the technical solutions for water issues while neglecting the aforementioned non-biophysical constraints that are at the core of water issues in the Middle East.

Shifting the discussion to non-state actors and management of water resources, one can see that ISIS boldly uses water as a weapon. While, for example, in April 2014 ISIS withheld the Fallujah Dam to stop water-flow and to deprive Shiites downhill in Baghdad from access to water, the group did not damage the water infrastructure in Iraq. ISIS realized its need for water for its own uses and electricity, and for the populations living within seized territories in order to win their support. Such behavior by ISIS raises questions about the definition of “weaponization” of water. Would preventing access to water based on race, religion, culture, etc., during times of dispute and competition over shared resources be considered weaponization of water? Is targeting water infrastructure similar to using water as a strategic tool? The example of ISIS also raises questions around the use of water by hybrid violent actors: state actors, non-state actors, militias, regional powers, international powers, etc. Under what circumstances is water used for strategic purposes? And what are the drivers and motivations behind such use? In addition, there seems to be a gap in the literature on studying the cooperation between militant groups and international organizations to supply water to deprived people.

In terms of hydro-politics and relations with neighboring countries, participants discussed the case of Turkey and its relations with Iraq and Syria. Although competition over shared water resources is usually assumed among neighboring countries, in fact cooperation seems to be more prominent. Nonetheless, the extent to which one party dominates the cooperative arrangement remains unclear. In other words, how does hydro-hegemony develop? In Turkey’s case, for example, scholars ought to explore Turkey’s technocratic and technoscientific approach in its pursuit to hydro-hegemony over shared water resources with Syria. There is also a gap in the literature on the neighboring countries’ perceptions towards Turkey’s hydro-hegemony. For example, to what extent are the Turkish water installations in southeast Anatolia seen as having an impact on the downstream countries? On a different note, there is limited literature on the pressure added to Turkish water resources as a result of the government policies toward hosting refugees.

While discussing hydro-hegemony, the participants highlighted another form of seeking hegemony over water. Particularly, they discussed the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) quest for hegemony over the Red Sea. Over the past decade, the UAE has been in a race to acquire operational and management rights over ports and economic zones along the Red Sea. This race was coupled by a significant Emirati naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and Bab Almandab Strait, in addition to Emirati private naval security companies. The Emirati activities in the Red Sea provoke the assumption that the UAE aims to claim hegemony over the Red Sea, which embraces one of, if not the, most important global shipping lanes. In this regards, questions were raised about the rationale and objective of the UAE’s pursuit to hegemony in the Red Sea, and how international relations theory can explain such behavior by a small state; the various strategies of the UAE to claim such hegemony, and what that tells us about small states behavior; and the responses of regional actors, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and international players, such as the United States, China, and Israel to Emirati activities in the red Sea.

The working group concluded with a session devoted to the GCC crisis that began in the summer of 2017, and its impact on Qatar’s water security. The current GCC crisis did not develop suddenly and in a vacuum, but rather had its roots in the earlier diplomatic imbroglio of 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, and subtly threatened to close borders. In response, Qatar started preparing for a worst-case scenario, and enhanced strategic plans to contend with emergency conditions, particularly with regards to food and water. Given that Qatar relies heavily on imported food products, it started building closer trade ties with Iran and Turkey. Also since 2014, Qatar’s General Electricity & Water Corporation (Kahramaa) invested in lowering leakage in its water infrastructure, which reached below five percent in 2017. In addition over the past three years, Qatar has been investing in local industrial base for potable water, which was clear when the locally produced potable water quickly replaced that imported from Saudi Arabia after the severing of ties. Qatar’s main water issue, unlike the other aforementioned cases, lies in its lack of resources not mismanagement. There remains a critical dilemma with regards to how Qatar should deal with water scarcity. Given that Qatar’s limited groundwater is significantly depleted, investing in innovation and technology with regards to desalination, Qatar’s only option, is always on the table. However, the inefficiency of desalination plants and their limited capability to produce potable water remains a lasting problem.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Farah Al Qawasmi, Qatar University
  • Hussein A. Amery, Colorado School of Mines
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Nadim Farajalla, American University of Beirut
  • Mark Giordano, Georgetown University
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Bart Hilhorst, Water Resources Specialist
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Marcus DuBois King, George Washington University
  • Helen Lackner, University of London
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Sabika Shaban, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Tobias von Lossow, Freie Universität Berlin
  • Paul A. Williams, Bilkent University, Turkey

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS