Background and Scope of the Project

The issue of water scarcity continues to be one of the critical challenges that the Middle East faces. The region is arguably the most water-impoverished in the world, and the effects of changes in climate, consumption and agricultural practices, as well as poor governance over water allocation have exacerbated concerns regarding the future of water resources in the Middle East. The United Nations estimates that 18 out of the 30 nations that will be water-scarce by 2025 are located in the Middle East and North Africa. These bleak projections are especially troublesome considering the foundational role that water serves for socio-economic needs such as food, energy, sanitation, and industry. 

Equality of access to scarce water resources within a state is considered a requirement if the region is to sustain healthy and safe populations within fragile states. Mechanisms to ensure water equity and mitigate perceived marginalization for different communities is essential within states that suffer from chronic issues of instability. Academic research on water in the Middle East has focused on expanding our understanding of how and when water scarcity affects and is affected by conflict and civil war, highlighting the conditions in countries such as Yemen that contend with enormous challenges when it comes to water. While the argument has been made that water can be and is used as a weapon of war, the case of Yemen also demonstrates that water is also often a casualty of war. The 2016-2017 horrors of the spreading cholera epidemic in Yemen has largely been attributed to improper sanitation and inaccessibility of clean water, and has placed the far-reaching consequences of water scarcity in the midst of conflict on full display. Before the Yemeni civil war even began millions of Yemeni citizens were contending with consequences of significant water stresses, but ongoing conflict and war have now elevated the condition to an even more critical level.

In addition to the focus on domestic socio-political conditions and water, there has been research on the challenges of transboundary waters in the Middle East. Much of the existing work has been centered on the three primary shared river systems of the region; namely the Jordan River Basin, the Nile River Basin, and the Tigris and Euphrates River Basin. Scholarly discourse has been devoted to exploring the relationship between the politics of the region and water allocation in terms of how the two affect each other, particularly in areas of complex political rivalries such as the Levant, and how this competition over shared water agitates mistrust and poor relations between states. The idea that water and security are intrinsically linked is upheld by both scholarly and policy-focused work, however there is no conclusive evidence that sharing scarce water always erupts in conflict between states. While some academic literature suggests that water competition serves to undermine cooperation between states and can be a trigger to inter-state conflict we have not as yet seen major “water wars” in the region. In fact a competing body of scholarship asserts that water is a highly complex resource that mostly creates cooperative relations, and at times can serve to mend even the most dysfunctional of inter-state relationships.

The Center for International and Regional Studies seeks to contribute to these current debates around society, water, and politics through its new research initiative on Water and Conflict in the Middle East. The goal for this project is to study the complex relationship between water and civil conflict within fragile polities as well as between different states in the region. In addition to examining water conflict from within the domestic contexts of Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Palestine – all of which are currently experiencing high levels of instability, through this project CIRS also hopes to shed further light on how conflict over water resources has influenced political relations between different countries in the region. This research effort will among other things interrogate how competition over resources may precipitate or affect conflict and war in the Middle East, and whether and how resource vulnerability impacts fragile states and societies in the region.

For this project we aim to combine a variety of multi-disciplinary perspectives that add original insight to the subject. This project will aim to address the role of water in the context of the economic and political transformations that the Middle East is currently undergoing and will continue to experience in the near future. Looking at nations currently entrenched in civil conflict, such as Syria and Yemen, we hope to develop a further understanding of the role that water scarcity played in the origin of these conflicts. Does water as a source of competition contribute to sustaining these civil conflicts, and also what role will or can water play in the post war reconstruction of these societies? In these fragile systems, does the provision of water security correlate with legitimization of authority and what are the implications of this relationship for the rebuilding of central power and society? A similar question may prove to be equally relevant for countries in the Gulf that are currently on a path towards dramatic socio-economic transformation in an effort to reduce oil dependency. For these rentier states, where political legitimacy is largely derived from the free or heavily subsidized provision of critical resources (water, food, energy) for the population, what will the relationship be between water sustainability and government legitimacy? How does a lack of water sovereignty affect domestic stability in water poor states, and how does a lack of full control over water resources impact a state’s dealings with its neighbours?

The Center also seeks to gain insight into the future of water allocation in the context of inequalities in the Middle East both between nations as well as within the nation themselves. Looking to the recent history of the region with the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath, inequality within nations and in the region and strong perceptions of this inequality were critical to the incitement of wide scale unrest across the region. Does the management of water as a resource threaten to follow similar patterns of the socioeconomic inequality that led to wide scale civil unrest? Is there something unique about water as a resource which will allow it to follow a path of equitable allocation both within and between nations in the Middle East as whole? Furthermore, in the water politics of the region, to what extent are past treaties honored and in what ways, if any, do governments approach the resource of water differently than resources such as oil? During the course of this project the Center will be supporting scholars examining the relationship between politics and water in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Syria to provide greater understanding of whether there is a legitimate connection between water and conflict.

Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Geopolitics of Natural Resources in the Middle East.”

Article by Sahar Naqvi – CIRS Summer Research Intern, 2017