Water of the Middle East and North Africa

What role for environmental peacebuilding in addressing the water challenges of the Middle East?

Sinai desert
Photo 1: Vegetation in Sinai desert, Egypt (Source: Ruben Vermeer, 2022).

Authors: Ida Meyenberg, Juliane Schillinger

Environmental peacebuilding is a field of research and practical action at the intersection of peace, conflict and the environment. It addresses issues such as the role of natural resources in fueling and funding conflicts, the potential of environmental activism to mobilize communities, and the opportunities for trust- and peace-building through joint resources management. From February 1 to 4, 2022 the Second International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding brought together more than 2000 people to take stock of current work in environmental peacebuilding and to discuss its contribution to the larger field of sustainable development. Hosted by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, the online conference featured more than 350 speakers from 66 countries, providing a platform for exchange and learning from different experiences around the world.

Throughout the conference, water and environmental issues in the Middle East were discussed in several sessions, exploring the role that environmental peacebuilding can play in addressing regional water challenges.

Joint data collection and anticipatory governance for transboundary water management

Spread over two sessions, the opportunities and challenges in transboundary water cooperation in the Indus, Mekong, Amazon and Jordan river basins were discussed, focusing on science and environmental diplomacy and on anticipatory governance. Both sessions highlighted the various obstacles regarding the distrust between riparians and the importance of participatory data collection.

Drawing from their work on the Jordan River basin with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Clive Lipchin and Sharon Benheim noted that distrust and the absence of official ‘track I’ water diplomacy (government-to-government) between Israel, Syria and Lebanon hampers collaboration in water management. Existing formal processes and agreements are not sufficient either. For instance, the lack of an overarching agreement on flow monitoring between Israel and Palestine limits the possibilities for data-driven transboundary water management.

On the local level, the lack of water data and of appropriate governance structures exacerbate existing environmental issues. Based on a case from the West Bank, where communities face water quality problems related to brackish groundwater and wastewater treatment, Lipchin emphasized the potential of citizen science and community-led management, as new technologies allow for localized water quality monitoring and small-scale reuse of wastewater. Both solutions need to be embedded in decentralized water governance structures that empower communities to effectively address their own water challenges.

Reflecting on hydro-diplomacy and the importance of water quality

A session convened by the Universities Partnership for Water Cooperation and Diplomacy reflected on the latest developments in the field of hydro-diplomacy, highlighting the need to consider water quality and its multi-scalar impacts on the development of cooperation and conflict resolution. The deterioration of water quality affects basin communities worldwide, with severe ramification for water and food security and for environmental health. Accordingly, water quality has increasingly been emphasized in transboundary water agreements and can provide opportunities for joint action to alleviate risks. However, to realize this potential for the Middle East, water quality considerations need to include both surface water and groundwater resources, with the latter still underrepresented in international agreements.

Looking at the instrumentalization of water in hydro-politics, the case of the Turkey-Syria Friendship Dam on the Asi (Orontes) River was discussed in the same session. Hannah Hilbert-Wolf presented the political dynamics leading to the initial conception of the dam, identifying international cooperation and questions of security as main drivers. Together they led to a short window of opportunity between 1998 and 2011, when cooperation between the Turkey and Syria was high and water-related tensions relatively low. The research project at the University of Geneva shows the importance of assessing water-related issues in conjunction with domestic and international security interests of the riparians to identify opportunities for collaboration.

Wadi Rum, Jordan
Photo 2: Solar panels in Wadi Rum, Jordan (Source: Ruben Vermeer, 2018).

A ‘Green Blue Deal’ for transboundary benefit-sharing and dialogue

As part of their advocacy campaign for a ‘Green Blue Deal for the Middle East,’ EcoPeace hosted a conference session on the potential for cross-border benefit sharing beyond water in the Jordan River basin. In the context of regional climate change impacts and the impending loss of livelihoods, the initiative advocates for action in four key areas: (1) an exchange of desalinated water for solar energy between Israel, Palestine and Jordan, based on the geographical natural assets of each country; (2) the rehabilitation of the Jordan River as main water carrier and of its former rich biodiversity; (3) a change of the water paradigm and advancing in the water reallocation between Israel and Palestine; and (4) a public awareness and education program on resilience diplomacy in water and climate as a means of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Presenters Nada Majdalani and Yana Abu Taleb argued that the envisioned ‘Green Blue Deal’ could create strategic alliances between the countries to reduce the loss of livelihoods and address environmental challenges, and serve as an instrument of transboundary dialogue.

Empowering regional environmental activism

In the absence of effective government-led environmental initiatives, civil society organizations play a key role in enabling environmental peacebuilding, building trust between communities, and addressing local environmental issues. However, environmental activism is not without challenges and security concerns, as was shared by various activists from around the world in a session on the position of environmental defenders.

Building on the experiences of Humat Dijlah in Iraq, Salman Khairalla reflected on the challenges of environmental activism in a context of natural resource securitization, for example when addressing pollution caused by the Iraqi oil industry. At the same time, he remarked that when it comes to activism in politically instable settings, there is strength and safety in numbers, and highlighted the contributions of the ‘Save the Tigris’ campaign for transboundary activism in the Euphrates-Tigris basin. However, calling for regional collaboration is not always easy. As EcoPeace regularly experiences in their work in the Jordan River basin, their cross-border peacebuilding initiatives have been criticized as normalizing the status quo and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Balancing local and regional environmental peacebuilding with the risks of persecution or social ostracism thus remains a challenge for civil society in parts of the Middle East.

A case for collaboration in conflict-affected regions

With several ongoing armed conflicts in the region, maintaining water management and basic service provision during conflict is crucial to uphold livelihoods and public health, and to minimize environmental damage. Bringing together researchers and practitioners working in the Middle East, a session convened by the University of Twente took stock of the current state of knowledge on water management in conflict-affected settings, and discussed the need for improved collaboration and joint knowledge building.

Given the protracted nature of conflicts in the region, Guillaume Pierrehumbert from the International Committee for the Red Cross emphasized that short-term humanitarian interventions are no longer sufficient to address local water-related needs. As the boundaries between emergency and development aid are blurring, relevant local and international actors need to strengthen their collaboration to ensure long-term access to water services. This includes supporting the resilience of local service providers and including local civil society organizations with intimate knowledge of pressing environmental and water issues.

Improved collaboration between scientific researchers and practitioners, as well as data sharing by all involved actors were additionally highlighted as important steps towards a joint knowledge base on water management in conflict-affected settings.

Challenges and opportunities for environmental peacebuilding

The different sessions of the Second International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding reinforced the notion that water can be a powerful instrument to bring people together, and that transboundary water resources lead to cooperation between states much more frequently than to conflict. Across scales, neighbouring states and communities alike can find common ground in jointly faced challenges like regional climate impacts and environmental degradation. Environmental peacebuilding can provide a framework to address these challenges in the context of broader environmental and geopolitical processes, and connect them to other key societal issues such as community empowerment, environmental justice, gender equality, and youth representation.

At the same time, environmental peacebuilding processes require diligent work and a constant re-evaluation of current practices. Throughout the conference, speakers emphasized the importance of broad community participation and evidence-based action, as well as the need to learn from past successes and failures. Building a knowledge base on environmental peacebuilding in the region is an important step in this progress. The ‘Ecosystem for Peace’ compendium on environmental peacebuilding, launched during the conference, is an example of such an exchange of lessons learned, including several entries from the Middle East.

Civil society has a key role to play in environmental peacebuilding processes, both in the form of advocacy campaigns by non-governmental organizations on different levels, and in the form of local community-led action. This is particularly the case in settings of political dispute or conflict between countries, where civil society can build bridges between peoples despite the stalemate of political processes. The experiences in navigating such settings gained by environmental activists in the Jordan River basin were particularly sought after by fellow environmental peacebuilders from around the world, indicating an interest to learn lessons from the Middle East.