Environmental Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Water and Conflict in the Middle East Working Group II

Water and Conflict in the Middle East

On April 15–16, 2018, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) hosted the second working group meeting of its research initiative on “Water and Conflict in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, scholars came together to present their research papers on a variety of topics including, water mismanagement in the Middle East, the “weaponization” of water by the Islamic State, Hydropolitical trends in Kurdistan, community-based water practices in Yemen, Emirati activities in the Red Sea and East Africa, Turkish hydro-hegemony, and groundwater use in the Middle East and North Africa.

Hussein Amery commenced the working group by presenting his draft article on “Water Mismanagement and Conflict in the Middle East.” In his article, Amery highlights how competition for water supplies between riparian states has become more intense due to the significant increase in water demand. This increase in demand has been a result of a number of factors such as rapid population growth, the improved quality of life, climate change, and geophysical conditions. Amery suggests that distrust between different water stakeholders within a country, unilateral development along international water basins, and gross mismanagement of water resources accentuate the problems facing several Middle Eastern states and raise the specter of water conflict. Amery’s paper is focused on two case studies: the Egyptian-Ethiopian conflict over the Grand Renaissance Dam over the Nile river, and the completion between different riparian states along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. While filling a huge reservoir, as part of a new large dam project, is the principal trigger of conflict in the aforementioned cases, historical distrust between governments, water mismanagement, as well as political instability remain the structural triggers for these conflicts.

Tobias von Lossow presented his paper on the “Weaponization of Water in the Middle East: ‘Lessons Learned’ from IS.” In this article, von Lossow examines how actors engaged in armed conflict use water resources as instruments of power and war. The Islamic State weaponized water both as a tactic of war, and also used water as a political and social tool for garnering people’s support and for state-building purposes. While von Lossow agrees that historically there have been numerous instances of water being deployed as a strategic weapon during conflict, he suggests that the way in which IS weaponized water was different from what had previously been seen. 

Marcus DuBois King’s article on Iraq examines hydro-political trends within Iraqi Kurdistan. Although Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys abundant water resources, water stress has been increasing over the last few years. Water stress is being driven by changing demographics, an increase of dam construction in neighboring countries, and an overall declining quality of water. King argues that as water stress increases in the region conflict over water resources will inevitably increase. He concludes that water stress is likely to have an adverse impact on the security of Iraqi Kurdistan unless the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) recognizes addressing water stress as a priority and subsequently develops a comprehensive strategy to achieve that goal. 

Helen Lackner shifted the discussion to “Revitalization of Community-based Water Practices in Yemen.” Lackner claims that in recent decades, there have been calls for public participation in addressing most development issues, whether rural or urban. Insofar as water management in Yemen is concerned, for many years the rules of customary water management were the officially recognized mechanisms by the state. However, these rules were transformed through political, social, and economic changes. Such transformation was driven by both domestic dynamics and external funding agencies. Lackner claimed that these developments had a significant impact on state institutions. The domestic- and external-led development interventions limited the control of water resources to state-bureaucrats and pro-state private beneficiaries. Finally, Lackner argues that these developments coupled the rhetoric of ‘community empowerment’, which has not empowered the community as much as it prioritized the concerns and interests of a minority at the helm of the state.

Islam Hassan presented his co-authored article with Nael Shama on “In Pursuit of Security and Influence: The UAE in the Red Sea and East Africa.” The article highlights how in order to safeguard its stability and security at home, thwart the threat of the burgeoning den of militant Islamists in Somalia, Yemen, and other East African states, secure its trade relations and oil transportation routes, and extend its regional influence, the UAE decided to retain a strong foothold in East Africa. The control of ports and islands, and the establishment and administration of military bases, training centers, and economic zones in the Red Sea, the Arabia Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Mandeb Strait has offered the UAE the chance to achieve these objectives. As illustrated by this case study, the authors argue that UAE’s foray into the Red Sea and East Africa is a manifestation of a significant transformation in the foreign policy of the UAE over the past few years. This transformation has not only involved a change in foreign policy means, but also in the identification of new foreign policy problems and goals.

Paul Williams discussed his article on “Turkish Hydro-hegemony and the Impact of Dams”. By focusing on the last three main dams of the Southeast Anatolian Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or GAP), Williams highlights how Turkey has exhibited positive and negative types of basin-centric hegemony. He argues that the legitimacy of Turkey’s hydro-hegemony and GAP depends not only on Turkey’s measurable progress towards meeting infrastructure targets, but also on the perception of GAP’s by both Turkey’s basin neighbors and intended beneficiaries living in Southeast Anatolia, including large numbers of ethnic Kurds. He concludes that Turkey’s past threats to halt flow or its actual stoppages and its intended use of dammed water to flood guerrilla transit routes could alienate both the downstream states (relatively silent during the Syrian civil war) and Kurdish nationalists. Such broadcasting of dams as military objects, Williams argues, could make them targets and trigger conflict between the different stakeholders.

Elizabeth Wanucha concluded the working group discussions by presenting an article on “Supply, Use, and Implications of Groundwater Use in the Mideast/North Africa: A Review” co-authored by Mark Giordano, Katalyn Voss, and Signe Stroming. Giordani et al. argue that groundwater in the Middle East/North Africa has emerged as a critical resource to support the drinking water supply for booming population centers as well as agriculture expansion to promote food security. While we know groundwater resources are overused in most of this region, as elsewhere, an overall, quantitative understanding of the available groundwater supply and use is missing as is an understanding of the social and political mechanisms that could help ensure equitable and sustainable management. In their paper, Giordano et al. investigate the interplay between the technical understanding of groundwater resources in the Middle East/North Africa and the political, economic, and social dimensions driving use. They summarize the existing data on groundwater supply and demand, discuss emerging points of tension among groundwater scarcity, food security, and global markets, and highlight the challenge of transboundary water management as it relates to shared groundwater aquifers as well as the interplay between international rivers and their respective groundwater basins.  The authors conclude with a commentary on the need to leverage emerging technologies and data to better understand trends in groundwater supply and use across the region, but more importantly, suggest approaches for dealing with the short and long term political consequences likely to emerge as groundwater resources continue to diminish, competition for water resources increases, and food availability declines.



Participants and Discussants:

  • Hussein A. Amery, Colorado School of Mines
  • Mohammed Al-Jaberi, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Marcus DuBois King, George Washington University
  • Helen Lackner, University of London
  • Anatol Lieven, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Tobias von Lossow, Freie Universität Berlin
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Paul A. Williams, Bilkent University, Turkey
  • Waleed Zahoor, Georgetown University in Qatar


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS