Water security for whom? Water and security in the Middle East

July 23, 2012

Eran Feitelson is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The opinions expressed are his own.

Water is essential for life.  This is a basic premise underlying the water discourse in all arid and semi-arid regions.  Nowhere is this perception better acknowledged than the water-scarce Middle East.

Lately the discourse about water has increasingly been couched as a security issue. Yet, such framing may impede the provision of water to people, and hence obstruct the ability to secure water to all people.

The availability of water varies over space and time.  In the Middle East rains fall almost exclusively in winter, and the quantities vary greatly between different parts of the area, and between years of plenty and years of drought (which may be successive).

Hence, the supply of water requires that water be stored from winter to summer and from years of plenty to years of drought. It is also necessary that water flow, either naturally or in canals or pipes, from the areas where it is relatively plentiful to areas which are heavily populated but waterless.

As population grows the pressure on the water resources exacerbates. Hence these needs become more acute. To address this growing complexity it is necessary for people in an increasingly widening area to cooperate. This is where the problems lie.

Most countries in the Middle East view water as a national security issue. This has led them, with very few exceptions, to undertake expensive schemes that will allow to maintain control over all water resources, often over cheaper options to supply water, but that are premised on transboundary cooperation.

Thus, Saudi Arabia attempted to grow wheat, a water-intensive crop, under a food security rationale.  Jordan advances an expensive water conveyance and desalination scheme from the Red Sea rather than conveying water from the Mediterranean through Israel, which is cheaper.

Palestinians and Israelis haggle over “water rights” and do not treat the wastewater of Palestinian cities and Israeli settlements on the West Bank due to the political implications of cooperation, thereby polluting their joint groundwater and under-supplying the population in need.

Turkey builds massive irrigation projects at the expense of Syria and Iraq, while Syria does the same to Jordan. There can be an alternative view.

That water has to be secured at the household level. That is, the needs of people come first, before national level considerations.

That may seem improbable. Yet experience teaches us that transboundary water agreements are reached only when the parties address real needs, rather than abstract principles.

Thus, if security is not to be an impediment to addressing the real water needs of people, it has to be re-defined as the water security of households, rather than as a national security issue.

As this is unlikely in the current Middle East atmosphere, it is perhaps better to de-securitize water and talk of peoples’ needs instead.

This blog is part of a special multimedia report on water produced by AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For more visit: “The Battle for Water”.

Picture credit: A young Jewish settler rides a bicycle in front of the West Bank settlement of Susiya June 24, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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