Managing the Politics of Water

AMMAN – This year’s World Water Day, on March 22, provides an opportunity to highlight what in many countries has become a grim reality: The availability of fresh water is increasingly a defining strategic factor in regional and global affairs. Unless water resources are managed with extraordinary care, the consequences could be devastating.

Last year, the United Nations World Water Development Report once again highlighted how the growing gap between supply and demand could create conflict. The World Economic Forum has ranked water crises as the most worrying global threat, more dangerous than terrorist attacks or financial meltdowns, and more likely to occur than the use of weapons of mass destruction. And research by the Strategic Foresight Group has shown the importance of wise management: Countries engaged in the joint stewardship of water resources are exceedingly unlikely to go to war.

The Middle East serves as a tragic example of what can happen when regional cooperation is lacking. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have fought over every cubic meter of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. All have lost as a result. Non-state actors control important parts of the two river basins. And water shortages have aggravated the region’s refugee crisis (itself the apotheosis of poor governance).

The bitterest part of the tragedy is that it could have been avoided. In 2010, at the West Asia-North Africa Forum in Amman, we proposed the creation of “circles of cooperation,” which would have institutionalized collaboration among Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey on water and environmental issues. A similar arrangement would have helped manage environmental resources shared by Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.