“Water shortages have aggravated the region’s refugee crisis (itself the apotheosis of poor governance)”
This year’s World Water Day, on March 22, provided an opportunity to highlight what in many countries has become a grim reality: The availability of fresh water is increasingly a defining strategic factor in regional and global affairs. Unless water resources are managed with extraordinary care, the consequences could be devastating.
Last year, the United Nations World Water Development Report once again highlighted how the growing gap between supply and demand could create conflict. The World Economic Forum has ranked water crises as the most worrying global threat, more dangerous than terrorist attacks or financial meltdowns, and more likely to occur than the use of weapons of mass destruction. And research by the Strategic Foresight Group has shown the importance of wise management: Countries engaged in the joint stewardship of water resources are exceedingly unlikely to go to war.
The Middle East serves as a tragic example of what can happen when regional cooperation is lacking. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have fought over every cubic meter of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. All have lost as a result. Non-state actors control important parts of the two river basins. And water shortages have aggravated the region’s refugee crisis (itself the apotheosis of poor governance).
The bitterest part of the tragedy is that it could have been avoided. In 2010, at the West Asia-North Africa Forum in Amman, we proposed the creation of “circles of cooperation,” which would have institutionalised collaboration among Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey on water and environmental issues. A similar arrangement would have helped manage environmental resources shared by Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.
If a supranational organisation had been created, it could have introduced joint strategies to manage drought, coordinate crop patterns, develop common standards to monitor river flows, and implement investment plans to create livelihoods and develop water-treatment technologies.
Other regions have done exactly that. Countries sharing rivers in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have recognised that national interests and regional stability can be mutually reinforcing if human needs are given priority over chauvinism.
Last fall, the international community adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which promise to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Part of this pledge is a commitment to “expand international cooperation.”
Those in charge of implementing this commitment must bear in mind that water cooperation is not merely about signing treaties and holding meetings. It also entails jointly planning infrastructure projects, managing floods and droughts, developing an integrated strategy to combat climate change, ensuring the quality of water courses, and holding regular summits to negotiate tradeoffs between water and other public goods.
The Water Cooperation Quotient, a measure of collaboration created by the Strategic Foresight Group, can help countries sharing river basins and lakes monitor the intensity of their cooperation. Out of 263 shared river basins, only a quarter benefit from properly functioning collaborative organisations. It is crucial that such organizations be