In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, countries use more than 80% of their water resources in agriculture, according to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund. As climate change and migration exacerbate already scarce water supplies, the Blue Peace Strategy works to promote cross-border cooperation and help ensure food security and political stability in the region.
According to the REACH initiative, more than 5 million people along the Euphrates, which stretches from Turkey to Syria and Iraq, are at risk of water shortages and power outages. Among this number are 1 million displaced Syrians. Rising temperatures, reduced rainfall and a historic drought are reducing water levels in the river, and aid groups are warning of an unprecedented water and agricultural crisis.
“Water is life. Without water there is no life, there is no development,” said André Wehrli, senior water policy advisor at the Directorate for Development and cooperation (SDC), to Food Tank “Fair and equitable access to water is necessary for long-term peace and stability.”
Wehrli advises SDC’s Blue Peace Strategy, an initiative to promote water cooperation and generate peace in the MENA region, the most water-scarce region in the world. Of the 33 most water-stressed countries, 14 are in the Middle East, according to the World Resources Institute.
The Blue Peace strategy promotes relationship building between countries by combining ongoing dialogue with baseline studies, knowledge and capacity building, and building trust.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022 names water security as one of the top risks in terms of impact for the tenth consecutive year. In 2017 alone, water was a major factor in 45 global conflicts. And an article published in Geneva Solutions exposes the use of water both as a weapon of war and as an instrument of peace.
“While international treaties and water legislation are absolutely necessary, they are not a silver bullet,” says Wehrli. “It is important to strengthen the entire global water governance system.”
Wehrli says building relationships enables cross-border cooperation, which is essential to achieving peace. “It’s not just about water allocation. We need a new narrative; water is a key factor in social and economic development.
The SDC is working to mitigate conflicts in Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as well as to use the Yarmouk River as common ground for negotiations between Jordan, Syria and Israel.
“When you look at a complex region like the MENA region, you understand that there are many factors that could facilitate or hinder access to water cooperation,” Wehrli told Food Tank. These factors include climate change, poor governance and inefficient water management by agricultural sectors.
A recent SDC report finds that agriculture is the main consumer of water. Wehrli tells Food Tank that efficient water management in agriculture can help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Along the Jordan, farmers typically get 60% of the water resources they demand. Werhli says many are turning to water conservation methods such as drip irrigation to deal with water shortages. But when climate change-induced drought leaves farmers without water, “countries have to adapt in other ways. This is already a challenge for countries that are experiencing water scarcity,” Wehrli told Food Tank.
“If you look at the entire food supply chain, 30-50% of food is wasted. Improving the supply chain and logistics could create opportunities for improving water efficiency,” said Anders Jägerskog, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at the Global Practice of Water. World Bank water, at Food Tank.
Many MENA countries facing water scarcity may be dependent on food imports, Jägerskog said, raising food security concerns. Supply chain disruptions from the Russian-Ukrainian war are also increasing the need for more water and arable land to meet food security needs.
Jägerskog explains that in addition to the climate crisis, population growth and dependence on global water imports are challenging water cooperation in the MENA region. Water scarcity also creates hygiene and sanitation problems by exacerbating disease and other health risks in refugee camps and host communities.
Both Jägerskog and Wehrli maintain a positive view of water cooperation in the MENA region. According to Jägerskog, in some cases, “when countries don’t cooperate on other issues, they cooperate on water”.
And while many countries facing political tensions, migration and the climate crisis continue to “blame their neighbour” for water scarcity, Wehrli adds that in general there is more cooperation than conflict.
“Usually what makes the headlines is when there is a conflict,” says Jägerskog. “Water scarcity not only aggravates conflict, most countries want to work together.” “The interdependence of water demonstrates the need for countries to come together.”
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Image courtesy of NASA, Unsplash