Sharing the blue gold in the land of black gold

Article published on May 14, 2003
community published
Article published on May 14, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The EU should propose a Middle East Water Community taking the European Coal and Steel Community as a model. Peace will not come all at once to the Middle East but through the creation of a de facto solidarity.

According to UNESCO, by 2050 between two and seven million people will be in need of water. But today this problem crops up with particular intensity in the Middle East. On the one hand, the majority of the region is situated below the aridity threshold and regularly faces droughts (the last being in 2000); the regions hydro-capacities are treated like gold, are already insufficient (those of the Palestinian territory are already smaller than the minimal threshold of 125m3 per year and per person, and Israel and Jordan will approach this level between now and 2025) and sometimes overexploited (up to 217% for the aquiferous zone in the Gaza Strip) with serious consequences for the environment. On the other hand, because of the demographic and economic development of the region and its growing urbanisation, demand for fresh water will continue to grow while resources remain stable. And yet, the problem is not so much the lack of water as its unequal distribution.

Turkey, and to a lesser extent Iran and Syria, serve as a water tower for the region. There are two distinct geographical groups possessing significant resources: the Euphrates and Tigris basin shared between Turkey (the source of the two rivers), Iraq and Syria, and the Jordanian basin that waters Syria, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. Furthermore, Iran and Qatar, Turkey and Israel, and Iraq and Kuwait (in 1989) have signed agreements or supported commercial relationships concerning the provision of water. What is striking is the profound interdependence of the countries of this region when it comes to this precious liquid.

The 'Jordan Valley Authority'

Water is, alas, often a source of tension between users of the same source. It is thus at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict, whether in terms of control of tapping the aquiferous zone in the West Bank, or in the framework of negotiations between Israel and Syria in the Golan, whose sources feed into the Tiberiade lake and represent a third of Israels water consumption. It was recognised as being a leaver for Turkey when Syria was supporting Ocalons PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) (1). As for the conflict between Iran and Iraq, is it was due to a difference over the Chalt-al-Arab, where the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers merge. The examples are legion. In a region marked by a difficult political atmosphere, a great mistrust between States and fear of dependence, for the Middle East more than elsewhere water appears to be a strategic resource that is often instrumental. And yet, one of the recognised ways of assuring effective management of this resource is co-operation between those involved. Precedents do exist. Thus, in 1936 a plan, inspired by work undertaken in the Tennessee Valley in the US, implementing a 'Jordan Valley Authority', to be placed under international supervision. Equally, the 'Johnston Plan' of 1954 anticipated the distribution of Jordanian water between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, supervised by a neutral authority. Later in 1991 Turkey proposed an international conference on the water problems the region faced, which in the end did not take place because of Syrian and American reticence. Moreover, the multi-lateral discussions in Moscow in January 1992, following the Madrid conference, included a working group on water.

Far away, on another continent...

Turkey, again, proposed constructing (at a cost of 21 million dollars) a 'pipeline for peace' that would transport 5.7 million m3 of water per day (from the two rivers that flow as far as the eye can see into the Mediterranean: the Seyhan and the Ceyhan) to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and eventually to Israel and the occupied Territories, supplying between 15 and 20 million people. The project did not see the light of day due to the high cost of the operation and reticence from those dependent on Turkey for their supply. Numerous examples of bilateral co-operation also exist, for example between Israel and Jordan following the 1994 peace treaty.

It has, nevertheless, been impossible to put extensive and long-lasting regional co-operation into place which is, according to the experts, the best way of managing the shortage. This lack of local co-operation is probably due to mistrust among partners about giving up part of their sovereignty over such a strategic resource. Nevertheless, by retracing our steps back to an earlier time and another continent, Europe, and with regard to other strategic resources, coal and steel, there is an example of regional co-operation that experienced unequivocal success. With all the necessary precautions related to the historical and geographical situation, it would not be unthinkable to put into place, following the example of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a Middle East Water Community (MEWT).

Friendly Pressure

Such a community, by placing the management of water in the region under the supervision of a supranational authority, could finally reach beyond rivalries to create a de facto solidarity between the region's countries, driving forward the foundations of greater co-operation towards a common aim of development. In the Israeli-Arab conflict it would allow water to leave the field of negotiations, making a final settlement easier. By reducing the tensions linked to water, by making the exchange of good practice and technology between partners easier, by preserving resources and the environment by maintaining a distribution that gives everyone the necessary quantities of water for its own development, such a community would become a tool for long-lasting, more powerful regional development. In the face of such promising perspectives, people will bring up the lack of goodwill of those involved, a presumed irreconcilable position. People will say that the example of the ECSC does not transpose onto the Middle East and its tormented situation. And yet, five years after the Second World War, France, Germany and four other countries succeeded in sharing highly strategic resources because they were driven by a long-term political vision concerning their common development. They were also aided in this sense at the time by friendly pressure from the US who had a strategic interest.

In the light of this experience, it is not the specificities of the Middle East that make its situation difference from the obstacles overcome by the ECSC. Even at the current time there is a strong sense of American goodwill concerning 'redrawing the map of the Middle East', if necessary by force. Lets dare to say today that the EU should exert friendly pressure on those countries, that it is in its interests. The Union can shake off American militarism by playing on the mood of co-operation and by offering its own experience and assistance to the people involved. It possesses a margin for manoeuvre. The US seems more preoccupied with pipelines of back gold that, from Kabul to Baghdad, do not symbolise peace.

(1) The PKK, the Kurdish separatist party, led by Abdullah Ocalan before his capture by the Turkish authorities on April 18th 1999, led guerrilla operations in the south east of Anatolia and had training camps in Syria at its disposal.