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EghtesadOnline: Leaders in the Middle East and North Africa region lack the political determination to solve water tensions in drought-stricken countries and a water conflict is looming, a former member of the World Water Council said.

“The MENA region is hot and arid, and 12 out of the 17 most water-stressed countries, including Iran, Qatar, Israel and Lebanon, are located in this area and the scale and impact of water crisis today is unprecedented,” Abbasqoli Jahani was also quoted as saying by ILNA.

So long as countries like Turkey and Afghanistan extract as much water as they like from shared water resources, namely cross-border rivers, it is very likely that the thorny issue could trigger not only environmental disasters but also provoke regional conflicts, he added.

Water has become more valuable than oil, as rising demand from people, industries and agriculture puts pressure on limited supplies in dry regions, especially in MENA.

Countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar do not have renewable water resources and annual precipitation in these parts of the world is almost zero.

“Although such nations have invested petrodollars in developing desalination projects, demand is gradually outpacing supply due to population and economic growth, and the whole region is prone to serious clashes,” the former member of WWC said.

Jahani noted that the critical issue can be resolved through negotiations and by respecting other countries’ rights regarding joint basins. Nonetheless, water-rich neighboring states are reluctant to discuss the crisis and they use other nations’ share of water to safeguard their own interests, so the prospect of resolving the conundrum is gloomy.



Water Diplomacy

Political leaders insist that water is a key contributor to peace, yet they seem to be oblivious to the fact that absence of water diplomacy has started to take its toll and MENA region is suffering from a plethora of irreversible ecological damage, one of which is dry lagoons that give rise to intense sand and dust storms lashing Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan Province.

The very survival of children is at stake in MENA region, with around 41 million people in the area lacking access to safe drinking water services and 66 million people lacking basic sanitation services, leading to more disease and fragility.

Water scarcity hits agriculture, causing food insecurity and driving conflict, displacement and migration across the region. Furthermore, rising food demand, urbanization, poor water management and climate change have combined to threaten children, the poor and the marginalized.

Water resources are getting increasingly scarce and the benefits derived from them – water supply, electricity generation, food production and industrial uses – decrease. 

As individuals, communities, provinces or entire states experience water challenges and fear for their benefits, they engage in competition over these resources with other actors. This can lead to minor disagreements or full-fledged violence. 

Examples most commonly referred to include violent clashes over water between herders and farmers in Iran, West Africa and around the Horn of Africa as well as the verbal threats of war by Uzbekistan against Tajikistan over the Rogun Dam or by Egypt against Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

At the same time, it can lead to situations in which governance structures erode and state legitimacy is questioned, with people sometimes turning toward other activities than those for which they require water resources – ranging from leaving their lands to joining violent groups.



Hazardous Environmental Plans 

Asked about diverting water from the Caspian Sea in the north to the drought-hit central plateau, Jahani noted that such plans will have severe and negative environmental impacts.

The plan to transfer water through a 200-kilometer pipeline from Mazandaran Province to Semnan Province has been promoted as a solution to help meet growing demand in the agricultural, industrial and household sectors of the water-stressed region.

“Pumping water from Caspian Sea would eventually increase the sea’s salinity and endanger the habitats it supports,” he added. 

The proposed plan involves siphoning 100 million cubic meters of water out of the sea per year to Semnan Province after desalination. 

Desalination extracts mineral components from saline water, but it also produces huge quantities of brine, which is usually dumped back into the sea and eventually eradicates all marine life.

Experts note that brine is denser than seawater and therefore sinks to the bottom of a water body, directly harming the ecosystem.

Furthermore, the destruction of the sea’s biodiversity will also take a toll on local communities that largely depend on fishing to make a living.

Another contentious issue is the path through which the pipeline would reach Semnan. 

Jahani warned that the pipeline would run through the Hyrcanian forests, necessitating the felling of trees in the ecologically-rich but vulnerable woodlands.

The forests in northern Iran covered 3.6 million hectares 50 years ago. Today, that figure is 1.6 million hectares.

Implementing the controversial project will result in large-scale deforestation in Hyrcanian Forest that borders the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.

Moreover, water will have to be pumped upward from 21 meters below sea level to a height of 2,000 meters.


Water conflicts