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Challenges of Water Scarcity in the Middle East: The Burgeoning Trends
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Abstract:

The intricate web of challenges surrounding water availability in the Middle Eastern region, the converging factors responsible for the imbalance between supply and demand, has been reviewed to comprehend the socio-economic, environmental, and geopolitical aspects. The ever-growing population, rapid urbanization, and consumptive agricultural practices have further strained the overexploited water resources. The role of climate change i.e., rising temperatures, uncertain precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events exacerbate water scarcity in this arid region. The inefficiencies in water management further aggravate the situation. Geopolitical dimensions are also scrutinized to understand transboundary conflicts and the diplomatic intricacies involved in fostering regional cooperation from the perspective of current political tensions and historical disputes over shared water resources. The adoption of water-efficient technologies, desalination projects, and integrated water resource management policies are evaluated, with a focus on their applicability in the context of the Middle East. The importance of community involvement, stakeholder collaboration, and international partnerships are emphasized as crucial components in achieving sustainable water management. The present article outlines a plausible roadmap for future research and policy interventions, imperative for comprehensive, context-specific strategies to ensure water security and resilience in the region.

Introduction

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, reported the adverse impacts of growing population over water accessibility in the arid Middle East region. In the future, water disputes can even escalate into a militarized conflict where countries share river basins, e.g., the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin. The degree of water paucity may adversely aggravate the already politically volatile state of affairs. Water is the basic need for life; hence its shortage has direct implications on the prospects of existence for several countries. Therefore, the scope of socio-economic development of this region is conjoined with the existing water resources. Middle East is one of the most explosive regions globally due to various geo-political and economic dimensions. Rich in mineral and hydrocarbon resources, this region has witnessed several major regional and international conflicts. The traditional method of well-drilling for obtaining fresh water is no longer sufficient to cater to the enhanced demands due to disproportionate consumption. Consumerism and changes in lifestyles have created unexpected demand for water, therefore, to deal with it, water is an intrinsic issue within the policies of different countries. The paper examines the region's water resources, their effects on the habitations, and the conflicts surrounding the sharing of important waterways.

The Region's Water Resources

The Middle East region has three river systems the Nile, the Euphrates-Tigris, and the Jordan Rivers which fed freshwater to this region. Historically, these rivers have been lifeless since ancient times and played a definite role in the development of various cultures. The river Nile empties itself into the Mediterranean Sea after flowing north across northern Africa. The main catchment of the river receives inflow from several tributaries, including the white and Blue Niles. The general inclination of the East African Rift System contributes to the Niles' constant northward flow. The Euphrates-Tigris system has its source in the eastern Turkish highlands, after passing into Iraq, both rivers merge to travel southerly into the Persian Gulf. The Jordan River system has a combination of parallel and rectangular drainage patterns as it flows across the Jordan Rift Valley. It flows across Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria and empties into the Dead Sea, providing an essential supply of water to adjoining areas.

Issues with Water in the Area

According to UN estimates between 1940 and 1990, the world's population increased from 2.3 billion to 5.3 billion also the amount of water consumed annually per person quadrupled to 800 cubic meters at the same time (8.04 billion, 2023). WHO recommends between 50 and 100 liters of water per person per day to ensure basic needs while the current availability. It is projected that by 2025 the amount of water needed will have doubled once again. Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt are the most water-scarce countries in the region, 60% of the people in the region live under severe water stress also in the last 30 years annual rainfall has dropped by more than 15%.

The situation in water water-deficient Middle Eastern region is now more difficult. Few nations in the region have enough water resources to fulfill their demands presently but the future limitations widen for them as well as for other co-riparian nations. The contentious places where transboundary issues arise first are the catchment areas for instance Israel gets more than half of its water demands from its occupied territories. As a result, territory and hydro-politics are intricately linked and play a significant role in the interstate socio-economic paradigm. Water politics in the region took a new dimension with Arab – Israel disputes, Israel's absorption of the rich Arab areas, and its policy of “ownership of land and water” including control of the Golan Heights, south Lebanon, West Bank, and Gaza strip. Some analysts think that Israel's invasion of Bruit in 1982 was motivated by its need to control the Litany River to meet its water demands. While most Middle Eastern regimes may not prioritize water, the numerous marginalized populations are compelled to make, it due to subpar water or unpredictable supply. The Middle East’s poverty rates are relatively low by developing world standards, but there are still issues with political insecurity and undernourishment. Poor supplies and conditions have been left in their wake in both Iraq and Palestine due to the deliberate destruction of water and sanitation infrastructures during wartime, which in the former instances was compounded by the legacy of sanctions. It is scarcely remarkable in such circumstances that water supplies support thriving informal enterprises or water becomes a complicated source of both cooperation and conflict. An excellent example of a regional pattern of conflict and cooperation over water is seen in the West Bank. The broader framework established by Israel’s occupation; piped supplies are extremely unequally allocated. Not only do supplies differ across Palestinian cities and villages and Israeli settlements, but they also differ between Palestinian communities, generally based on a wide range of variables, including supply and demand trends. As a result of this unequal distribution, there is frequently intense rivalry over available water resources. Water is stolen from urban but particularly from rural. The local authorities utilize them as a kind of political leverage against other towns and villages. The local politics surrounding water on the West Bank have yet not been the focus of any comparative study. Therefore, it is difficult to summarize whether this scenario is indicative of the Middle East as a whole. The anecdotal data from cities such as Cairo, Amman, and Damascus indicate that a recurring cause of societal unrest is insufficient water supply. Thus, the geopolitical dimensions of water scarcity in the Middle East coupled with shared water resources, such as river basins and aquifers, are often a source of tension among neighboring countries, with historical conflicts and competing national interests, as it shapes the formulation policies including water management, influencing access to water and contributing to regional stability.

Water as a Tool for Peace Building and Development

A diverse perspective exists on the resolution of water-related disputes. Using an economic lens, one viewpoint contends that purchasing water would be less expensive than going to war. There is more research that connects the Middle East’s overall political climate to the issue of water shortage. These academics contend that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is essential to finding a solution to the water shortage because collaboration will be impossible in the long run if there is constant hostility. In a similar vein, the water crisis is portrayed in Arabic literature as a crucial aspect of the region’s overall political environment. The political regime's rhetoric about water rights and past demands for water resources is reflected in literature. It shows that the water crisis is never isolated from other conflicts. It also demonstrates that water conflict does not exist in the void but is linked to other conflicts like the Arab- the Israeli conflict.

Institutions for Regional Cooperation, which involve the creation of joint committees by nations that share a river basin to mediate a water allocation agreement, can positively contribute to finding equitable solutions. These organizations are transient and often have a focused attention. For instance, a task group mediated agreements over the Ganga River between Bangladesh and India and the Euphrates River between Syria and Turkey. Shared initiatives are important because they make nations more interdependent which raises the price of conflict and violent acts. It is beneficial for any nation to save cordial ties with its neighbors to reap larger economic rewards.

Addressing the challenge of water scarcity in the region necessitates a broader resolution to long-standing political conflicts that have persisted over several decades. Dolatyar and Gray rightly asserted that achieving lasting water peace requires more than technological solutions, waiting for an overarching peace agreement may not be feasible for the region. Cooperation on water-related issues could catalyze easing tensions and fostering sustainable development, acting as a precursor to a more comprehensive peace-building process. Bilateral and multilateral agreements should delve into root causes such as historical claims and unequal water distribution as happened between Turkey and Syria. Considerations would extend beyond water provision to include complex issues like the Hatay region dispute, by adopting a holistic approach to conflict resolution.

Conclusion

There have already been many significant conflicts in the Middle East over natural resources in the past. According to predictions, the region’s most likely conflict in the twenty-first century will center on water resources. To nullify this forecast, the concerned nations must work amicably to resolve the issue to fulfill human requirements. There are multiple ways to resolve the impending problem. The degree of collaboration, a cornerstone of peace and development, determines the solution at the regional level as the issue is inherently entwined with complex geopolitical dynamics. The shared river basins, transboundary water resources, and historical disputes over water allocations add layers of intricacies to the challenge. The latent tensions over water access and management remain a significant geopolitical concern. Solutions demand scholarly insights into the resource potential, supply and demand gap, geopolitics, regional cooperation, and diplomatic efforts, for the development of equitable frameworks. The nexus between water scarcity and conflicts, often manifesting as military interventions, underscores the urgency of addressing the profound implications of dwindling water resources. In population-driven water scarcity hotspots, competition over limited water resources will amplify geopolitical tensions. Historical and contemporary instances of water-related disputes indicate that the potential for conflicts to escalate in the region is quite high. Adoption of sustainable water management practices coupled with equitable distribution and diplomatic efforts are imperative to mitigate the risk of water-induced conflicts.

Taha Ali is currently pursuing a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.

References

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