Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 44, Fall/Winter 1998
Conflict Resolution and Transboundary Water Resources

Water, conflict resolution and environmental sustainability in the Middle East

by Bertrand Charrier, Shlomi Dinar, and Mike Hiniker

"The link between environmental degradation, water scarcity and violent conflict is a serious threat. Water is becoming a commodity that even peaceful neighbors are willing to battle over. For the sake of the region it is crucial that water scarcity and environmental degradation be dealt with in a manner that will ensure essential water demands are met sustainably. GCI has already undertaken several actions to support this goal, and is planning more for the future."


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Freshwater resources are finite, unevenly distributed worldwide, and often shared by more than one country. Thus, fresh water can be a trigger for conflict--but it can also become a reason for cooperation, as parties in water-scarce regions join together to manage this crucial shared resource. Nonetheless, the disparities between countries are wide and some are already faced with constraints in meeting domestic water demand owing to physical, socio-economic and political factors. As a result, water and water-supply systems may become instruments of political confrontation and objectives of military operations as the global population expands. Water quality has also become a crucial factor in the discussion over water availability, conflict and cooperation. In many countries, both developing and developed, current water use is not sustainable because water is poorly allocated and/or managed. The situation is especially grim in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Green Cross International (GCI) is an international NGO founded in 1993 with the goal of helping to create a sustainable future by cultivating harmonious relationships between humans and the environment. GCI is currently concentrating its efforts on five major international programs, one of which is the Water and Desertification program. Through this program, GCI and its president, Mikhail Gorbachev, are acting as mediators to help find cooperative solutions to existing and potential freshwater conflicts in the Middle East (Jordan River basin), North Africa (Nile River basin) and South America (Pilcomayo River basin). This article focuses on GCI's recent and planned future actions in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region.

The Middle East and North Africa: A priority

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In general, the MENA region accounts for about 5% of the world's population, but only 1% of the freshwater. Per-capita water availability in the MENA region has fallen by 62% since 1960 and is expected to fall by another 50% in the next 30 years. Eighty-seven percent of all freshwater resources in the region are used in mainly low value agriculture; water losses in municipal distribution systems often exceed 50% of the water supplied for urban use (World Bank, 1995). The highly tapped Jordan River basin provides critical water supplies to Israel, Jordan, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon and has been a source of frequent conflict in the region. In the Jordan basin, the situation is exacerbated by politics: while some of the riparians are at peace with one another, others are still at war or in the process of slow reconciliation. In North Africa, nine sovereign states share the Nile basin's water, key to development and revival in the region. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia are most vocal about problems in the basin, and the Nile's water is becoming increasingly subject to demands by riparians which previously did not necessarily insist on their share. Throughout the MENA region, water quantity is the most serious issue, followed by water quality.

Central to these problems is the assertion that resource scarcity and certain forms of environmental degradation are major factors in political instability or violent conflict at local, regional and interstate levels. In short, there is a growing perception that local, regional, and global environmental deficiencies or resource scarcities may increasingly lead to conflict (Gleick, 1998a). In both the Middle East and North Africa, increasing poverty in certain countries, population pressures, unsustainable water withdrawals, continuing territorial dispute and growing nationalism, environmental degradation and water scarcity are factors that may increase regional tension. Furthermore, Middle Eastern leaders, both past and present, have stated that water is the factor most likely to lead to war.

The link between environmental degradation, water scarcity and violent conflict is a serious threat. Water is becoming a commodity that even peaceful neighbors are willing to battle over. For the sake of the region it is crucial that water scarcity and environmental degradation be dealt with in a manner that will ensure essential water demands are met sustainably. GCI has already undertaken several actions to support this goal, and is planning more for the future.

Facing international freshwater conflict: From talk to action

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In October 1997 GCI and Global Green USA, GCI's national organization within the USA, convened a Freshwater Symposium in Los Angeles to explore the issue of freshwater conflict and conflict resolution. The symposium brought together a dozen leaders from key stakeholders in the agricultural, environmental, and urban sectors, as well as several leading academics from California and abroad. The goal of the meeting was to explore models of mediation and conflict resolution currently being pursued in different parts of the world around freshwater issues. Of particular interest was the status of longstanding water conflicts in California, how those conflicts were being mediated, and what lessons on freshwater conflict resolution could be learned from the California experience and applied elsewhere. (1)

Building on these activities, GCI developed a concept paper for a water forum focused on the Middle East (Hiniker 1998a). The concept paper not only described the forum's possible structure and key players, as described later in this article, but also led directly to GCI's March 1998 workshop, described in the next section.

Making water a mechanism for Middle East cooperation

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On 18 March 1998 GCI, in cooperation with UNESCO's International Hydrological Program, convened a one-day workshop in Paris. Workshop objectives included building networks of individuals and institutions, disseminating information, and identifying and designing possible directions for GCI's water conflict resolution activities in the region. Fifty people from a broad cross-section of countries and disciplines participated in this wide-ranging discussion on water conflicts in the Middle East. Intergovernmental development organizations such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), funding institutions such as the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and governmental agencies such as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also took part in the meeting.

The workshop comprised three sessions. The first session introduced the workshop, objectives and desired outputs. During this session, participants suggested several general methods for averting potential water conflict, including:
  • Promotion of greater water-use efficiency
  • Decrease agricultural consumption by developing more efficient crops and methodologies.
  • Sustainable use and management of surface and ground water
  • Promotion of education stressing that water shortages are a common problem requiring cooperative solutions
  • Improvement of communication among those who determine water policy within and across watersheds.
  • Consideration of decision-making at a regional level encompassing multiple watersheds
  • Establishment of a regional commission to manage water jointly, and
  • Greater use of strategic scenarios as management and education tools

The second and third session included presentations by key experts on different aspects of Middle East water issues, and raised the following points:

Management and resolution of water problems in the Middle East are intimately linked to the solution of the broader political problems in the area. Some experts asserted that once the political problems in the region are solved the water problems will take care of themselves; others asserted that water can become a vehicle to further political progress.

Agriculture consumes more than 85 percent of available water in the Middle East. Hence, any effort to avert water crises in the Middle East must examine agricultural water use and management. Changes may be required in the types of crops planted, the types of irrigation systems employed, the cost of water, and in other technical and management factors leading to greater water-use efficiency.

Several participants argued that the real issue is less water security than food security. Where domestic sources of water are lacking, they say, water embodied in imported food can make up for the shortfall. Thus, water shortage in the Middle East may not be as serious as sometimes portrayed, at least where countries can develop healthy export markets that generate the income to buy "virtual water". Some participants cautioned, however, that countries that became completely dependent on virtual water could become highly vulnerable to strategic blackmail.

Some participants noted the large potential for water markets as a tool for promoting greater water use efficiency. Treating water as an economic good would then give water true value. Other participants cautioned that the water marketing may be problematic for agricultural workers, and that the establishment of markets in the near term, given the large economic discrepancy among countries in the region, is probably not feasible.

Participants broadly agreed that the best means to manage water include fairly allocating a basin's water resources among all countries with territory in the basin, jointly managing ground and surface water, and considering needs for flood control, recreation and other purposes. It was also recognized, however, that such comprehensive management is more easily discussed in the abstract than implemented, especially given the political situation in the Middle East.

It was agreed that the private sector may be able to play a much greater role than it does at present in some aspects of water resource management. Private sector involvement is particularly attractive because of the management expertise and financial resources it provides.

Participants also asserted that maintaining water for environmental purposes is an important but often overlooked aspect of Middle East water resources management. This may be problematic as the local population increases and greater demands are made on already scarce water resources.

Ideas for the future: Scenarios

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The use of scenarios for business planning, discussed at GCI's March 1998 Paris meeting, was pioneered by Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1970's. The originators of this technique, as members of Global Business Network, continue to help others use scenarios within their organizations. Today, scenarios are recognized as a fundamental tool for strategic future planning. In an environmental context, they are a tool for envisioning the possible future of regions in terms of water availability, environmental sustainability and potential for conflict.

In general, strategic scenarios and computer modeling complement each other as a means for bringing diverse people together for integrated water basin discussions, "brainstorming" and real strategic planning. Scenarios are plausible and challenging "stories" about what the future may hold, which differ from quantitative forecast modeling in being qualitative and imaginative. They are based on understanding the key forces that largely determine future outcomes. Scenarios are also designed to illuminate human relationships and interactions, and help decision and policy makers conceive, articulate and evaluate possible developments (Hiniker 1998b).

After considering the use of scenarios at its Paris workshop, GCI adopted this technique into its overall strategy and is acting as a catalyst to motivate other organizations to use it for environmental planning. The link between scenarios and water is based on informing water experts on Royal Dutch/Shell's view of scenarios as business tools while informing business scenario experts on water modeling tools. Currently the World Water Council Commission is planning workshops on the use of scenarios for environmental planning. Other organizations with which GCI is currently discussing this use of scenarios include the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Global Business Network--Europe, Stockholm Environmental Institute and Case Western Reserve University.

The Water Forum in the Middle East

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The idea for a Middle East Water Forum was initiated in 1995 by Kermal Davis, Vice President of the World Bank for MENA. Green Cross International took on this call for action and is actively working to arrange a Water Forum in the Middle East, to take place in Amman, Jordan (or possibly in Cairo, Egypt) in March 1999.

The planned forum recognizes the following essential fact: the ultimate success of all future scenarios, technical solutions and economic valuations of water rests on approaching water as a regional resource and on developing inter-state cooperation in all international river basins. Fresh water, whether from a river basin or an underground aquifer, has no nationality and does not recognize political boundaries. Therefore, a necessary condition to peaceful solutions of disputes over shared water resources is continued communication between the concerned states, strengthened by future incentives for cooperation. Innovative ideas and technical solutions, if they are to succeed, must be introduced and adopted within such a cooperative scheme.

In particular, closer cooperation would lead river riparians to share information and ideas on technological innovations such as: ways to decrease agricultural consumption by developing and adopting new water-efficient irrigation technologies, developing and sharing waste-water re-use capabilities, cooperating on public education (research and training) strategies and making common decisions at the technical and political level. GCI President Mikhail Gorbachev believes joint action on water has the potential to lead to greater cooperation in the wider political arena, since resolution of water problems may help key Middle East actors slowly build the trust needed to settle other issues that divide them. Conversely, arrangements that are not perceived to fairly allocate one of life's most important necessities or inaction by the parties in a river basin can only perpetuate conflict (GCI 1997). Therefore by "expanding the cake" and searching for other means to cooperate, parties may recognize that they are dependent on one another for the promotion of a sustainable future of their respective region.

In addition to gathering experts and representatives from key nations in the region, the Water Forum in the Middle East will also invite and assemble representatives from different sectors of society to work together in creating synergistic solutions to fresh water problems. This effort will involve grassroots organizations and the private sector to generate support, employ innovative participatory mechanisms and involve outside specialists to mediate and encourage cooperative relations and negotiation processes (Samson and Charrier, 1997).


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In the past half-century, and specifically in the past decade, the need to regulate and maintain the use of international river basins has come to the forefront of international concerns. Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security remarks: "Traditional, political, and ideological questions that have long dominated international discourse are now becoming more tightly woven with other variables that loomed less large in the past, including population growth, transnational pollution, resource scarcity and inequitable access to resources and their use" (Gleick, 1998b). Therefore, issues such as environmental degradation and water scarcity have not only been linked to issues of sustainability but also to issues of regional security. Furthermore, it is certain that water resources will be directly affected by climate change at the global level. These trends may endanger the integrity of natural ecosystems, threaten human health and quality of life and constrain socio-economic development (Charrier 1998).

The Middle East and North Africa is a region plagued not only by lack of water but also by ancient political tensions. While action and cooperation among the states is necessary in arenas other than water and the environment, water stands to become a vehicle which can enhance peaceful relations between the parties and may even assuage tensions in other political dimensions. Since water is vital for the survival of the entire regional citizenry, parties may find it necessary to cooperate and costly to defect. There is no doubt that no single set of actors holds the key to effectively addressing the challenge of equitable and sustainable management of precious water resources. It is also important to realize that it is not enough just to seek to increase the availability and usability of water. It is essential to reduce the demand for water by managing population size, enacting conservation measures, promoting awareness and adopting water-saving technologies and pricing techniques, especially in agriculture. Governments, both national and local, hold the key responsibility. However, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, international agencies and national agencies can play a major role both as investors and as managers of utilities. In fact, it is the common responsibility of all actors of society: businesses, governments, scholars, researchers and individuals, to contribute to the elaboration of numerous solutions (Charrier 1998). In addition to learning from their efforts and efforts in other regions, interested parties must promote a new water and environmental ethic, educate the masses and facilitate discourse.


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1. Global Green is in the process of preparing a report on the 17 October 1997 Symposium in Los Angeles, Facing International Freshwater Conflict: Common Issues and Strategies in Three Regions of the World. As of publication date of this issue of ALN, this report was not yet available online, but interested readers are urged to check for it on the Global Green web site (see URL below in "Additional web resources" section). (back to text)

References cited

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Charrier, Bertrand. 1998. Involvement of civil society in international rivers management. Internet:

GCI. 1997. Roundtable proceedings: Water and international solidarity: The Geneva questions. Internet:

Gleick, Peter. 1998a. Conflict and cooperation over fresh water. Global Green Newsletter Summer 1998, Vol.4, No.2. Internet:

_____. 1998b. The World's Water: 1998-1999. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Hiniker, Mike. 1998a, March. Concept paper and project proposal: Water forum in the Middle East. Internet:

_____. 1998b, August. Averting a water crisis in the Middle East: Make water a medium of cooperation rather than conflict: Report of a workshop held in Paris on 18 March 1998. Internet:

Samson and Charrier. 1997, August. International freshwater conflict: Issues and prevention strategies. Internet:

World Bank 1995. From scarcity to security: Averting a water crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. Internet:

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Author Information

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Bertrand Charrier is the Executive Director of Green Cross International, based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be reached for comment by email at:

Shlomi Dinar is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Mr. Dinar is also working for Global Green USA, the American affiliate of Green Cross International. He is scheduled to deliver a paper titled "The Israeli-Palestinian water conflict and its resolution: A critique of international relations theory" at the International Studies Association Conference in Washington, D.C., in February 1999. He can be reached for comment by email at:

Mike Hiniker is Program Coordinator and manager of the Middle East Water Project for Green Cross International. He can be reached for comment by email at:

Additional web resources

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Green Cross International
This web site gives information on GCI's organizational structure, recent and future planned events, publications, affiliated organizations, and five major international programs -- including the program discussed in this article:
Water and Desertification Program

Global Green
Global Green is the United States affiliate of Green Cross International. Its web site provides information on all of its projects, as well as an online newsletter.

Global Business Network
The Global Business Network specializes in scenario thinking and collaborative learning about the future. Its web site includes several articles concerning the use of scenario planning.

Water Scarcity in River Basins as a Security Problem
(from the Publications page, select ECSP Report 3)
This 1997 report, prepared under the auspices of the Environmental Change and Security Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, includes case study summaries on both the Jordan and Nile River basins.

Between the Great Rivers: Water in the Heart of the Middle East (online report)
This 1996 paper describes water stress in the region between the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates river systems. Written by David Brooks, the paper comprises chapter 4 of Water Management in Africa and the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities, published--and made available online in its entirety--by Canada's International Development Research Centre.

Water Disputes in the Jordan Basin Region and Their Role in the Resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (online report)
Written by Stephan Libiszewski, this online report is identical to the hard copy report published as Environment and Conflicts Project (ENCOP) Occasional Paper No. 13.

A Decision Support System for the Nile River (online report)
This report from the Georgia Institute of Technology describes a decision support system for the Nile River basin. Developed under the aegis of the FAO, its purpose is to quantify the pros and cons of the various development and operational options and water uses within the basin.

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