Water cooperation: The solution for regional conflicts in arid areas?
Updated on 07 August 2022
The already politically vulnerable Middle East is experiencing a surge of water-related conflicts, while global demand for water is expected to grow by more than 40% by 2050. By 2025, almost 2 billion people will suffer from (fresh) water scarcity, which inevitably will lead to civil unrest or even war. Even the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria has shown that water scarcity not only causes conflict, it also can be used as a military tool to expand control over territory and to subjugate the population. Traditional conflict management is no longer enough; as many conflicts break out within states, it is very difficult for the international community to play an active role in conflict resolution without encroaching on the affected state’s sovereignty. It is therefore safe to say it is time for innovative conflict management.
Water resources in an arid region like the Middle East are of great political and economic consideration. Water cooperation – a tool familiar to Dutch society for centuries (‘work together, or drown’) ‒ could become the key to finding solutions for mutual gain in order to satisfy opposing parties, and eliminate the possibility of using force and turning to armed conflicts. Our immediate task should be to identify possibilities for more collaborative water conflict management by means of mediation, soft power diplomacy, and water cooperation.
A particular conflict eligible for water cooperation is the one concerning the West Bank’s Mountain Aquifer, which is of major importance for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. In their larger conflict, the water dispute component is critical. Israel and Palestine share Mountain Aquifer – a network of groundwater reserves that spans the border between Israel and the West Bank. It supplies about one-quarter of Israeli water usage, mostly for domestic and urban use, and serves as the major water resource for Palestinians in the West Bank for all purposes: domestic, urban, industrial, and agricultural.
The dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis on water resources, as a regional water conflict, is difficult to deal with within the context of international law. Historically, international peace-building efforts have primarily been directed at interstate conflicts, and international law has primarily served to deal with wars and disputes between different states, although the Palestinian bid for statehood may change this dynamic. Moreover, traditional mechanisms (like bilateral and multilateral treaties) used to deal with such conflicts have not been very effective.
In my dissertation for DiploFoundation’s Master of Contemporary Diplomacy, I used conceptual models ‒ Barrier Analysis, Transboundary Water Opportunity Analysis, and Strategic Environmental Assessment ‒ as prime examples to demonstrate that a more holistic approach would provide both Israel and Palestine with multiple opportunities to create a ‘basket of benefits’. The dissertation elaborates on the general study done on this subject by Philips and a shorter Master’s dissertation based on Philips’s work by Baltutis. Their research also pointed in the direction of soft power as a better option in comparison to traditional negotiation tactics. The basket of benefits stemming from a well-executed water cooperative process could facilitate economic growth, accompanied by a sustainable peace.
I recommend a practical approach towards water cooperation in the West Bank, providing the cooperative process with a transparent framework, thus providing the basis for levelling the playing field for all players. The hydrological issues of the West Bank should be viewed in a broader, socio-economic spectrum. For a sustainable cooperative solution to water management issues in the area which satisfies Israel as well Palestine, it is essential that both parties are convinced a positive-sum solution is on the cards, that both can gain from a basket of benefits concerning socio-economic growth, political and military security, as well as climate and ecological protection. Israel, even more than Palestine, needs to be encouraged by the idea that traditional water allocations are less beneficial for its economic growth as well as its internal and external security than the (equal and fair) distribution of water benefits. Then, it is up to the international community to offer both parties an objective and structured approach to obtain a sustainable water cooperative agreement.
Lutine F. de Boer, LL.M MA (Melit.), is a Senior Policy Advisor on environmental policy, urban planning, and water for the Dutch government. In 2015, she completed her Master in Contemporary Diplomacy with the University of Malta and DiploFoundation, with distinction. Last year she started her own company concerning international water cooperation and environmental policies, inspired by her dissertation on regional water cooperation in the Arab/Israeli conflict.
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Also of interest: Did you know the University in Geneva, a partner of DiploFoundation, will run an online course on international water law?
 Eliassen J (2015) The rising pressure of global water shortages. Nature (517, 6), 1 January. [Accessed 1 July 2016].
 Philips DJH et al. (2008) The TWO Analysis: Introducing a Methodology for the Transboundary Waters Opportunity Analysis. Report Nr. 23. Stockholm Water Institute. [Accessed 1 July 2016].
 Baltutis J (2009) Fairness and Equity in Transboundary Water Resources: A Comparative Analysis of the TWO Analysis and WAS Models as applied to the Jordan River Basin. The London School of Economics and Political Science. [Accessed 1 July 2016].
Jägerskog A et al. (2009) Addressing Transboundary Water Management Challenges: Getting it right. Stockholm Water Institute. [Accessed 1 July 2016].