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[WebDebate #33 summary] The diplomacy of natural resources in the Middle East

Published on 24 December 2019
Updated on 05 April 2024

In our November WebDebate, we discussed the diplomacy of natural resources in the Middle East. In particular, we focused on water in the Middle East and conflict and co-operation around this scarce resource. We were joined by Nadav Tal, water officer and Jordan Valley field co-ordinator at EcoPeace, and Lutine F. de Boer, senior advisor on environmental policy, urban planning, and water for the Dutch regional government, and DiploFoundation alumna (Master in Contemporary Diplomacy).

Regarding water security, what is the current situation in the Middle East and the world?

Water security is a problem around the world, but regions such as the Middle East and North Africa are some of the most affected. These regions in particular, face political instability due to water shortages. Population growth, immigration, and climate change add further pressure. In the Middle East, Tal identified a lack of transboundary water management and a lack of a comprehensive multi-sectoral approach, due to conflict and political disagreement. Unsustainable water management has, for example, affected the Jordan river significantly and there is a dire need for regional co-operation to rehabilitate the river. The Syrian war has added further pressure on the management of water resources in the region. The Nile basin is another example of political tensions between states around a shared resource.

How do we begin working towards successful water management?

F. de Boer began by pointing out that water can be a source of conflict. States might act as so-called basin bullies; water might become a tool in warfare; and, water can be used as a way of having power over others through more subliminal actions. She stressed that tensions and conflict around water resources will increase due to climate change, especially in vulnerable areas like the Middle East. This means that new strategies and ways of peaceful coexistence are needed.

F. de Boer offered a checklist for working towards successful water management. First, it is important to take a step back and (a) look at what defines good co-operation, (b) define (together with all the relevant partners) what co-operation means in the specific context, and (c) start at the community level to learn lessons that can then be applied at other levels of water management. Second, it is crucial to realise that economic inequity and power asymmetry are significant barriers to effective regional co-operation. In order to overcome this, the help of third parties, capacity building efforts, and objective standard setting can be useful. Third, the focus of water management should be on win-win solutions by finding ways to create meaningful exchanges and ensure the fair allocation of benefits from a resource.

What are the key elements for building regional water security?

Tal suggested that regional water security builds on five key elements:

  • facilitating the exchange of knowledge and good practices of water management
  • fostering the exchange of know-how and technology between countries
  • developing and improving mechanisms of transboundary water management at the sub-regional level
  •  building a regional platform to identify and develop regional projects with shared benefits to all
  • incentivising spill-over to other sectors

Looking at it this way, co-operation around water resources is a way towards peace. Historically, the development of the European Union out of the European Coal and Steel Community can serve as an example of how co-operation around resources can lead to lasting peace and deeper integration between countries.

Should political conflicts and resource conflicts be treated separately, or is there substantial interplay the two?

Tal highlighted that political will is needed in order to create co-operation. Regional and national interests need to be well understood. As the example of the Middle East shows, co-operation, Tal argued, is actually in everyone’s interest. F. de Boer stressed that the question is best addressed in a context-specific way. She gave the example of the Netherlands where the political management of water resources has been separated from the resource management side through the creation of a separate water board. In this way, she argued, water issues do not have to compete with other issues in the political arena. However, it is also clear that a total separation between the two spheres is not possible and often not desirable.

Does technology play a particular role in bringing about co-operation and managing scarce resources?

Tal attributed a key role to technology in solving conflicts around water. In the Middle East, desalination technology, waste-water treatment, and sophisticated irrigation techniques are key to providing enough water, reducing scarcity, and ensuring water security. Technology transfer and capacity building in these areas are key elements of co-operation. F. de Boer described how the Netherlands have invested in big data and open source mapping in order to ensure integrated resource management. Digital innovations for resource management are key. In this regard, availability of all the policy-relevant data and technological literacy remain challenges.

In conclusion …

It is clear that it is urgent to find ways to co-operate and overcome ignorance and conflict. Tal argued that co-operation can be built from the ground up by bringing people together and building trust one step at a time. F. de Boer stressed that a paradigm shift from competition to co-operation is urgently needed, and expressed the hope that any partnership can thrive, if approached in the right way.

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