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Water & conflictWater scarcity a contributing cause of wars, terrorism in Middle East, North Africa

Published 1 April 2015

The UN defines a region as water stressed if the amount of renewable fresh water available per person per year is below 1,700 cubic meters. A region is experiencing water scarcity if the figure is below 1,000 cubic meters, and below 500 amounts to “absolute water scarcity.” Water scarcity driven by overuse, poor land management, and climate change, is one of the causes of wars and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. If governments fail to respond, shortages of major resources, including food and energy, will cause greater insecurity and conflict.

Water scarcity driven by overuse, poor land management, and climate change, is one of the causes of wars and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. If governments fail to respond, shortages of major resources, including food and energy, will cause greater insecurity and conflict.

The United Nations (UN) defines a region as water stressed if the amount of renewable fresh water available per person per year is below 1,700 cubic meters. A region is experiencing water scarcity if the figure is below 1,000 cubic meters, and below 500 amounts to “absolute water scarcity.”

Between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris-Euphrates basin comprising Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Iran “lost groundwater faster than any other place in the world except northern India.” The Ecologist reports that about 117 million acre-feet of stored freshwater were lost due to reduced rainfall and poor water management. If this trend continues, “trouble may be brewing” for the region.

A study in the Journal of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) reports that countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, and China. Many of these countries are experiencing civil unrest and lack of access to water is playing a major role in sectarian violence.

Before Syria’s civil war began, 60 percent of the country experienced a drought that led over a million mostly Sunni farmers to migrate to coastal cities dominated by the Alawite sect. The migration fueled tensions that eventually contributed to the current cycle of civil unrest and violence. Water security experts have also noted water scarcity as a key driver in the inter-tribal and sectarian conflicts in Yemen (see “Climate change and the origins of the Syrian war,” HSNW, 3 March 2015; and “ISIS uses control of water as a tool of war,” HSNW, 12 December 2014).

Water management expert Roger Patrick, author of the AWWA study, observes that Yemen is consuming water faster than it is being replenished. He notes that even the 2011 uprising in Egypt was partly initiated by spikes in grain prices caused by “droughts in major grain-exporting countries” like Australia, triggered by climate change.

Furthermore, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could threaten Egypt’s access to the Nile River, which supplies 98 percent of the country’s water supply. As Egypt’s population is estimated to double to 150 million by 2050, future unrest and conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over access to the Nile seems inevitable, especially since Ethiopia’s dam would reduce the capacity of Egypt’s Aswan Dam by 40 percent (see “Egypt asks Saudis to mediate in the intensifying Egypt-Ethiopia conflict over Nile River water,” HSNW, 10 March 2014; and “Egypt asks Saudis to mediate in the intensifying Egypt-Ethiopia conflict over Nile River water,” HSNW, 10 March 2014).

With proper management and cooperation with regional partners, governments facing water scarcity can avoid conflict. The Israeli government has been able successfully to cooperate with Jordan on their shared water resources for years through a combination of efficient water management methods and desalination technologies. Neighboring Gaza, however, could become “unlivable” according to the UN, due to its worsening water crisis, amplified by discriminatory policies, including Israel’s effective forced privatization of the Palestinian water supply. The Israel-Gaza case shows that while efficient water management and distribution methods can offset water crises, inequalities and repressive government policies “can be a precursor to social breakdown and violent conflict.”

— Read more in Roger Patrick, “When the Well Runs Dry: The Slow Train Wreck of Global Water Scarcity,” Journal of the American Water Works Association 107, no. 3 (March 2015): 65-76 (DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5942/jawwa.2015.107.0042)