Water and Conflict: Environmental Peacekeeping in the Middle East


Recently, an eager undergraduate student interviewed me as part of her research: “Will World War III be fought over water?” While this was a great starting point for her project and our (hours long) discussion, it is, of course, an over simplified (but popular) view of water scarcity and conflict.

It seems like a simple equation. If you multiply:

·  Increasing population

·  By increasing water demand (due to economic development)

·  By disruptions in the hydrologic cycle (due to climate change, specifically rainfall distribution and increased droughts)

Then you will get increasing water scarcity, not to mention disease, death, poverty, migration, uprisings, geopolitical tensions, and of course wars. Surely, we’re doomed! Not so fast. Each of the points above contains layers upon layers of complexity, and I argue that subtle connections between the finer points have the potential to save the world.

Looking to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), arguably the world’s driest and most disputed region, we can glean important lessons about the intricacies of water and conflict as we head into a future that will surely be less water secure.

The MENA region is known as the Cradle of Civilization and its rich history harbors some of the first examples of water management schemes and of complicated conflicts – as well as how the two interact. Throughout history, about 25% of water related conflicts have occurred in the Middle East, despite its small size (and not including clashes in the likes of Egypt or Sudan).

Many headlines and studies are drawing much needed attention to the impact of climate change upon water resources and conflict in the Middle East: Some dramatically (“Hellish Heat Could Spark ‘Climate Exodus’ In Africa And Middle East”) and some capturing the nuances of the situation (“Syria and Climate Change: Did the media get it right?”).  Either way, experts predict that climate change (droughts and heat waves in particular) will inevitably push this tense, arid landscape into increased hostilities, both armed and political.

But let’s flip this argument over: In the face of climate change and its impending impacts upon water scarcity, what can the parched MENA region teach the world about how to use water to AVOID and RESOLVE complex conflicts rather than perpetuate them?

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Tri-State Environmental Peacemaking in the Jordan River Valley

The work surrounding the Lower Jordan River and water supply in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan is one of the most successful examples of water based cooperation and peace building in perhaps the most complicated conflict zone in the world (see text box below).

The water-peace projects are led by a regional NGO called EcoPeace Middle East (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East, FoEME) in what they call a “Bottom Up / Top Down” approach. Environmental Peacemaking, at its most basic level, seeks to use the concepts of sustainable development to actively build trust between parties, in this case Israel, Plaestine, and Jordan. Their approach reaches top levels (for successful Parliamentary action in all 3 countries), local leadership (for example Mayors on all sides of the borders), faith-based initiatives, as well as engaging with businesses, youth and schools, and everyone in between when opportunities present themselves. Additionally, the nature of their work is not limited in scope: it encompasses a wide variety of infrastructure projects, cross-boarder integrated ground and surface water management plans, conservation plans, faith based action, general community action and awareness raising, education, sustainable business opportunities and so on.

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Their work has been recognized through numerous awards and they are exporting their methodologies around the world, most recently with work in Bosnia and India/Pakistan.  I would need to write a thesis, not a blog post, in order to do justice to the immense breadth and impact of the EcoPeace Middle East’s projects, but one of my favorites is the Good Water Neighbors project. It is “…based on sets of cross-border partnering communities sharing a common water source, promoting environmental awareness & peace building.” The Good Water Neighbors program has grown from 11 to 29 paired communities (here’s a map) since 2001 and they are currently implementing Phase V.

The organization’s monitoring and evaluation activities are public (on the project page, linked above), and they mention specific challenges and threats that they have encountered during the last 15 years. It is interesting to see how the project has evolved from Phase I, as direct hard and software primarily focused on community environmental awareness, to Phase V where it includes basin wide management plans, cross boarder municipal cooperation, high level ministerial events, Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping, Eco-tourism, international trainings, and all the while sustaining their grassroots community environmental education programs.

Based on my experience working with water resources in high-tension environments, EcoPeace Middle East’s programs are successful for 3 key reasons:

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 9.29.23 PM·  First, the organization does not gloss over the regional tensions, but rather discusses them explicitly to highlight the urgency for water resource sharing and peace, and how interconnected they are.

·  Second, this openness works because they do it at appropriate levels (in particular, with Mayors) where lasting, meaningful relationships can be built.

·  Third, the leadership of the NGO itself models what they seek: Peace between people on all sides of the divide, rallied around a common cause, The Jordan River (see text box).

Both sides are comfortable enough to be honest and take risks with the other. I imagine them saying: “Normally, I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me. But right now, we have a common goal, we have an advocate (the NGO), and I know you well enough to risk it because we are neighbors. Let’s take a chance.” When the gamble pays off on a small project then a little trust is built on both sides, and it snowballs into their other relations, as well as into neighboring communities. When successful, this becomes a powerful, positive feedback mechanism to build trust within a scared populace and to push political action at high levels.

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Water issues are connected to every facet of human existence (basic needs, energy, development, politics etc.), and climate change itself is a complex of positive and negative feedback loops, interconnected physical process, and it too, is linked to human behavior. As our demand for fresh water increases and our global climate changes, water will continue to magnify and exacerbate existing tensions (political, religious, economic etc.), it will continue to cause flare-ups, and (sadly) it will continue to be used as a political and military tool.

The fact that this problematic is complicated, a web of environmental and human factors, means that we can be optimistic. It means that small, but strategic actions can support larger political goals: The growth of environmental peacemaking initiatives by EcoPeace Middle East demonstrates how small successes can be powerful peacemaking tools.

Local leadership, civil society, and heroes who take chances and risks (trust each other, invest economically, work out of the box) are key to environmental peacemaking. Actions need to happen at the right scale, at the right moment, and in the right place: Hence the importance of the key leaders mentioned above. For example, Mayoral leadership is so key because they are close enough to act appropriately to help their community (they know what they need and are held accountable) and powerful enough to make a difference, to make changes.

Of course peace in the Middle East is still illusive, but environmental peacemaking built around the Lower Jordan River by EcoPeace Middle East and their partners has provided many positive political, economic, and social lessons that otherwise have been few and far between.

IMG_7454Trayle Kulshan graduated in 2002 with a Master’s of Science (MSC) in Hydrogeology from Stanford University (California/USA).

She then spent 10 years as an aid worker specialising in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) in conflicts and natural disasters.

In 2012 she shifted to Education, initially teaching environmental science. Today she lectures in Geography at the American University in Dubai (UAE).