The Middle East, already a flashpoint of conflict, may soon face one of the greatest challenges to its stability yet.

Water insecurity is a growing threat throughout the arid region. But just as conflict over water can fuel instability, sound water management and regional cooperation on water issues can bolster harmony, according to His Excellency Hazim El-Naser, Ph.D., Minister of Water and Irrigation for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. “Water is the bridge to peace and trust building in the Middle East,” El-Naser said during a 2014 talk at the Stanford Woods Institute.

El-Naser is an important supporter of the Stanford Woods Institute’s Global Freshwater Initiative through the Jordan Water Project, an interdisciplinary effort funded by a consortium of G-8 country science agencies, such as the National Science Foundation. The project is aimed at improving water security by developing new approaches for enhancing the sustainability of freshwater resources in Jordan and, ultimately, arid regions throughout the world.

Water security has an important role to play in the search for solutions to poverty and other conditions that breed extremism, according to the Global Freshwater Initiative’s director, Steven Gorelick, the Cyrus Fisher Tolman Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute. Jordan, a stabilizing force in the region, is the ideal place to tackle the problem. “It is, by our measures, the most water-vulnerable country in the world,” Gorelick said.

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Jordan’s many freshwater challenges include long-term drought, transboundary water competition and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Jordan Water Project research indicates that average rainfall in the country has been declining and variability has been increasing in higher rainfall regions during the past two decades. Climate models predict a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperatures by mid-century, further complicating the situation.

Despite the challenges, countries like Jordan could go a long way toward water security just by overhauling their approach to long-term management of water systems. “So many of these issues are institutional, about government, finance and upkeep,” said Jim Yoon, a graduate student in Environmental Earth System Science and a researcher on the Jordan Water Project.

That’s where the Jordan Water Project comes in. Its team of hydrologists, economists, political scientists, geographers and engineers is developing a sophisticated planning model that integrates a wide range of water sector components, from biophysical modules such as groundwater, surface water, crop yield models to human modules that represent water manager and consumer behavior. “There have been few, if any, planning studies that try to integrate all of these modules,” Yoon said.

When fed with scenarios and potential policy interventions, the model will provide simulations of how various decisions might affect water security. The end result: more effective water management and stronger water security.

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See Also

- Stanford’s Global Freshwater Initiative is developing strategies that promote the long-term viability of freshwater supplies for people and ecosystems threatened by climate change, shifts in land use, increasing population, decaying infrastructure and groundwater over-pumping. Read more…

- In Latin America, the Natural Capital Project, a joint venture of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and other organizations, developed a free, open-source software tool to identify cost-effective ways to help countries assess conservation financing and water security mechanisms known as water funds. Read more…