War and water: what is their relationship?

Alexis Tessaro
24 September 2018
Although often drowned out by the constant stream of information about more immediate topics, such as terrorism, the Syrian conflict or the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the availability and management of water in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region crystallizes both inter-state and intra-state tensions. But to the point that it could constitute the major cause of conflicts emerging in the region in the future? That is unclear.

Water, a potential factor of war?

Some people believe that the 21st century will be characterised by the intensification of a new type of conflict: the conquest for water resources. The combination of multiple factors in the region tends to corroborate this hypothesis: strong demographic growth, political instability, lack of awareness and education of the local population about water use and economy, global warming, deficiencies in both central and decentralised governance. These elements directly increase the pressure on limited and, moreover, transnational water resources. The result is an inevitable class struggle and/or battle in terms of water rates, for the protagonists to gain a monopoly, or even establish a more global sovereignty. The challenge is not simply about sharing water, but also ensuring food and energy security for each country and the region.

Card with the main cross-border aquifers in the Middle East and North Africa

On the other hand, according to other observers, this issue of water scarcity is more of an indicator of underlying tensions rather than a cause for conflict in itself, since starting a war with the sole objective of meeting the water needs of the clan, tribe or country would be far too costly for all of the actors and their leaders. This is the main reason why few, if any, "wars for water" have broken out throughout the history of the region. The Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and its neighbouring Arab countries, often considered the first of its kind, perfectly illustrates this argument. The clashes between the two sides were part of a larger conflict that goes beyond the single issue of water sovereignty in the region. However, the territorial gains of this war had a major impact on the current hydro-political context, since 57% of Israel's resources come from the territories conquered during the conflict. As such, some people have speculated that it was Israel's intention, among other things, to secure these strategic areas to its own advantage. Water can therefore rightly be considered as an additional factor of tension in the context of neighbourly relations that have already deteriorated.

In reality, water-related tensions are aggravated when a State acts unilaterally, or changes the way it uses water. A peremptory decision taken to the detriment of other countries in the same water basin or aquifer further exacerbates political tensions, to the point that the water dimension is temporarily overshadowed. The issue of water resources, which are genuine instruments of power in the context of conflicts - diversions of rivers, closures of dam gates - add to the antagonisms that seriously compromise possible negotiations, and contribute to the possible outbreak of conflict in the region. The Turkish project to build 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (GAP project) in 1989, or the current project to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, which alone accounts for almost 60% of the flow of the Nile, are perfect examples of this. These unilateral actions prompt the other countries of the basin to build new dams, to compensate for the shortage of electricity and especially the lack of water.

Water can therefore rightly be considered as an additional factor of tension in the context of neighbourly relations that have already deteriorated.

Furthermore, although more prominent in the media, potential inter-state conflicts to control water are less frequent than local or intra-state wars, in other words at the decentralised level, since central governments are not the only players competing for access to water resources. In situations of water scarcity, due to an increase in demand and/or a decrease in available quantities, the risks of inter-community and inter-ethnic clashes are exacerbated.


Hotbeds of tension in the region

In the MENA geographical area, three basins are the subject of serious tensions: the Tigris and Euphrates basins, the Nile basin and above all the Jordan River basin.

The first is a stand-off between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Within this triangle, Turkey benefits from an undeniable position of strength due to its role as the dominant country, but also due to the lack of unity between its two neighbours and the fact that it is the upstream country, with the Tigris and Euphrates taking their sources in Anatolia. Turkey exploited these advantages when it built the Kedan dam in 1973, before implementing its GAP project which started in the late 1970s. However, Syria and Iraq have no real means of exerting pressure against Turkey in such a strong position.

The situation in the Nile basin differs slightly, in that Egypt, the downstream country, is the most militarised regime and could use its military strength, although not its air force, if the lack of water threatens its current standard of living. However, its geographical position puts it at a disadvantage since its water security relies almost entirely on the Nile, which is itself dependent on the flows of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, taking their sources respectively in Ethiopia and Uganda. As such, the start of the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2011 on the Blue Nile fuelled anger in Egypt, and also in Sudan initially, as both countries enjoy a 'colonial' right of use (1959) on the river, and a right of veto on any project modifying its flow.

Israël dévie les eaux du Jourdain pour s’approvisionner, distribue inégalement les ressources en eau au profit des colonies et revend l’eau pompée aux Palestiniens.

Champ fertil irrigué par pulvérisation en Israël
© Shutterstock

Finally, on the one hand, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, on the other, the thawing of relations between Israel and the surrounding Arab States who share the Jordan River basin - Lebanon, Jordan, Syria - are intrinsically linked to the issue of available water. Since the end of the Six-Day War, Israel has taken control of most of the Jordan Valley, the aquifers of the West Bank and the Golan Heights. It diverts water from the Jordan River to supply itself, unevenly distributes water resources to the settlements, and resells pumped water to the Palestinians. Moreover, in addition to rationing, the Palestinians also see their wells or pipelines destroyed by the Israeli army. Such actions prompt them to take refuge in Jordan in particular, where their arrival intensifies the already very high hydric stress.


Fostering inter-state dialogue

Every state must accept that the 'blue gold' is not a national asset in any sense, but a natural resource to be shared, a common good, an individual and collective right to be asserted. The management of water in upstream countries must not be to the detriment of those downstream. To this end, inter-state cooperation and dialogue in the MENA region must be established as models to be followed, in order to avoid the escalation of violence or even the emergence of conflicts. This can be reflected not only by signing treaties or conventions, such as that of the United Nations of 1997 (UNECE-water convention) advocating the equitable sharing and reasonable use of water, but above all by establishing a diplomacy based on water and technology, which brings all the actors involved in water management around the table, with the aim of fostering cooperation and the organised exploitation of water, to benefit everyone. This approach has already proved its worth in the context of the management of the basin of the Orontes River which crosses Lebanon and Syria.

Water and water management are of such vital importance - water is life - that it obliges states and their political and technocratic leaders to cooperate with each other, even if their relations prove to be particularly confrontational. In this sense, water is, in itself, neither a factor of war, nor a factor of peace: it all depends on the respective willingness of the actors involved to continually cooperate and engage in dialogue.  


(1) Around 60% of the region's surface waters are dissected by a national border, and all countries share at least one aquifer with another country: https://bit.ly/2L0wXvM



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