What if peace in the Middle East arrived via water?

Just as conflict over water can fuel revolt, sound water management and regional cooperation on water issues can create stability, 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 recently during a talk on water security in the Middle East as part of the Stanford Woods Institute’s Environmental Forum series (see slides from El-Naser’s presentation).

A lack of clean water – a basic necessity for life – can drive people into the arms of extremists, El-Naser argued. “They will ultimately join whoever promises to improve their dismal situation.” The Arab Spring uprisings that have spread across the Middle East since 2010 came about in part because of water scarcity and related issues such as high food prices, El-Naser said. “It has not very much to do with freedom and democracy.”

The future of water access in the Middle East portends more unrest. Countries around the region are overpumping groundwater, the source of 80 percent of all drinking water, and the Middle East’s water deficit is expected to triple by 2030. In Jordan, groundwater levels drop more than 12 feet every year, according to El-Naser. Global warming and the resulting extreme weather will only complicate the situation. Last year, for example, Jordan saw an unprecedented snowstorm and, later, 40 percent of its annual rainfall in three days.

Jordan is also dealing with refugees from Syria’s civil war. The influx has put into stark focus this arid land’s struggles with freshwater scarcity. The United Nations estimates the number of refugees at 600,000, while El-Naser believes the total is closer to 1.3 million, or 15 percent of the Jordan’s entire population. “It’s like Canada moving to the U.S.,” he said. “There are two options: Pray to God or dig a well.”

There is a way forward, though: Link water and sanitation goals to peace and stability goals. One such example is the Red Sea – Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Program. This historic agreement by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority is focused on saving the Dead Sea from environmental degradation, desalinating water and generating electricity. Getting Israeli and Palestinian representatives to talk with each other, much less forge a major agreement, might seem implausible. To El-Naser, the agreement is not such a surprise, however. Water is an issue that everyone wants to settle, he said.

To help solve Middle Eastern water issues, the Stanford Woods Institute's Global Freshwater Initiative is coordinating the Jordan Water Project, an international, interdisciplinary research effort aimed at developing new approaches for enhancing the sustainability of freshwater resources in Jordan and, ultimately, arid regions throughout the world. The project, headed by Woods Senior Fellow Steven Gorelick (Earth Sciences), is focused on developing a hydro-economic model to evaluate new water allocation strategies.

El-Naser warned that in the future even rich countries will see water conflicts. “It’s coming,” he said. Unless Middle Eastern regimes, new and old, do a better job of water management, they will not last, El-Naser said. He believes countries in the area need to:

  • Better engage citizens in water governance processes
  • Devote more attention to regional cooperation and planning
  • Collect regional funds to overcome disparities in water access
  • Build more efficient and effective water infrastructure
  • Improve transparency and accountability around water governance
  • Account for weather variability driven by global warming

In the meantime, Jordan is moving from crisis mode in the wake of Syrian refugees’ influx to plans for long-term stability. The country, where 99 percent of wastewater is reused and digging an illegal well is punishable by up to four years in prison, plans to soon launch $750 million worth of water and sanitation projects.

The Stanford Woods Institute is finding practical ways to meet growing demand for freshwater, both in developed and developing nations, including the use of recycled water and water resources. Learn more about Woods-sponsored freshwater research.