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Threat multiplication: Water scarcity and refugees in the Middle East

Image credit: Oxfam International (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The refugee crisis in the Middle East is a human disaster of untold magnitude and one with no apparent end in sight. The complexity of the relationships between key actors in the region, the enormity of the number of people in need of assistance and the divisiveness of international powers on how best to intervene are all factors that affect how issues are securitised in the region. However, there is no resource more essential for Middle Eastern countries to secure than water.

So what happens when an arid country such as Jordan, which has very limited water supplies, finds itself hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees? What happens to the political stability of a nation when it finds itself unable to provide its citizens with something absolutely necessary for all human life?

Climate change is often referred to in security discourse as a “threat multiplier”, and increased evaporation of water from critical basins in the Middle East could certainly agitate already tense relations between neighbouring states. Agreements and negotiations between states in the region about water security are nothing new; water was securitised by nation states long ago due to its unequal distribution temporally and geographically in the Middle East.

By successfully “securitising” an issue, states can often shift the dialogue surrounding the issue from one of everyday politics into one of emergency and urgency. A critical factor in the evolving securitisation of the limited water sources in the Middle East is that the main sources are transboundary. According to WHO (2007), transboundary rivers in the Middle East account for approximately 60% of its freshwater supplies, the highest level of dependence on international basins anywhere in the world. When considered in conjunction with the political tensions in the region, water security should be discussed with urgency.

The link between water scarcity and political stability in the Middle East is evident in recent history. Water shortages and drought are said to have contributed to the civil unrest in Syria that flared into civil conflict in 2011, as it was estimated there were over 1 million internal refugees in Syria, primarily farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods. The strain of so many refugees either fleeing or being forced into populous cities and camps, whether they remain within the state boundary lines or cross into neighbouring territories, poses a significant and ongoing problem for Middle Eastern states.

Jordan is lauded as being a stable nation in an increasingly unstable region. It’s praised for its attitude towards the thousands of Syrian refugees who are now within its borders, the same borders that have already accepted some 2.5 million Palestinian refugees. It also carries the unenviable title of being one of the driest countries in the world. In 2015, the Jordanian Minister of Water and Irrigation Hazim El Naser stated in an interview that the water scarcity situation is one beyond the country’s ‘capability, affordability and caring capacity’. But despite the enormity of the situation Jordan was aiming to transform this challenge into one of ‘investment opportunities, regional cooperation and peace building’.

2015 also saw the signing of a landmark agreement between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which planned for a water conveyance project between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Naser stated that ‘the urgent need for water makes people keep silent [about political problems] and accept this regional cooperation’.

However, research into the potential effects climate change will have on security in the region, particularly Israel-Palestine, makes the point that policies aiming to combat climate change are usually centered on a country-level response. But when it comes to water in the Middle East, it’s an unavoidably transboundary issue and will necessitate a transnational response. And whilst there does currently exist some level of regional cooperation with regards to water resources and their distribution, droughts are predicted to continue to plague the Middle East. Modelling by the Water Resource Institute predicts that by 2040, 14 of the 33 countries most likely to be severely water stressed are in countries in the Middle East.

There’s a risk that as water becomes even scarcer and more precious, regional cooperation will disintegrate. Political posturing between neighbouring countries looking to safeguard state security may inhibit their capacity to create policy that’s adaptive to climate change. If state stability is threatened by a lack of an essential resource, gaining adequate access to that resource could overwhelm any longer-term needs to protect the future of their transboundary resources.

While water security presents an issue that is of key concern to all states in the region, it’s also an issue with the potential to unite neighbouring states as much as it could divide them.

Georgia Collins-Jennings is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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