The Data Dead Zone

In 2018, scientists measured a marine dead zone in the Arabian Sea more than 10 times larger than anything they had seen anywhere else. Autonomous underwater vehicles had provided the first opportunity in decades to explore the area that was previously unreachable due to violence and piracy on the surface.

Conflict and instability have regularly hindered collecting water data in the Middle East. In fact, much of the region is a water data dead zone. The absence of data frustrates water management strategies that could contribute to more equitable development and sustainable peace. Even worse, sometimes peace negotiators use water as a bargaining chip or a conciliatory measure, leading to even more unsustainable water usage. Improved water data collection and sharing seems hard now, but failing to do so creates huge problems in the future.

Water data is helpful in many places, but nowhere on earth is it more consequential than in the Middle East. The region is the most water-scarce in the world, and fully a third of the countries are embroiled in protracted conflicts. Unregulated water use and poor wastewater treatment is a problem within and across borders, worsening violence and uncertainty.

Despite the importance of data collection and monitoring in protracted crises, the crises themselves often lead to their neglect. Donors grow fatigued, but political issues are also at play. Local authorities often oppose independent data collection, and humanitarian agencies may acquiesce to maintain access to vulnerable populations. Negotiators struggling to end conflicts sometimes seek to defer difficult longer-term issues, and water is one of them. More than a decade ago, a CSIS study noted how Middle Eastern governments often use water to support their domestic allies and maintain their grip on power. Water is politicized, and hydrological data becomes a potential political threat. Neda Zawahri notes as Middle Eastern countries struggle with water shortages, they are not only wary of sharing water, they are also wary of sharing water data.

Politicians emerging from war use water politically, too. In Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah provided clean water to a historically neglected population in the midst of the country’s civil war and won their support. But the haphazard way in which Lebanese groups divided and monetized water in the postwar period has been disastrous, making it nearly impossible to collect comprehensive data and implement the national strategies for the water and wastewater sectors. By some estimates, today there are over 20,000 illegal boreholes in the Beirut area alone.

Photo: HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

A Lebanese boy fills his palms with water to drink from a mineral water tanker that says “Hezbollah” on it in the southern Lebanese village of Frun on November 2, 2006.

Photo: HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

NGOs, academics, and researchers are trying to resolve the technical challenges when it comes to data collection in conflict-affected areas. A consortium of NGOs in northeast Syria told CSIS that satellite imagery allowed them to measure reservoir levels behind the Ataturk and Assad dams to assess Turkey’s claims that it cannot release more water to Syria as a 1987 agreement required it to. Satellite imagery has also allowed researchers to identify where clusters of makeshift oil refineries pollute water sources. Open-access global data repositories can also be used at national and regional scales, but such data tends to lack the detail required for targeted interventions to tackle water stress and quality issues.

Satellite remote sensing is useful in assessing changes at the national level, but assessments at the local town or village level are still needed to develop comprehensive water management plans that target the source of the problems and target solutions. For example, in Yemen, satellite remote sensing data combined with previously generated data of monitoring individual wells can show changes to the groundwater levels but not how much is left. Engineers estimate that the Sana’a area has exhausted much of the water accumulated over eight millennia in just three decades. No one knows how much longer it will last, but some new wells are drilled more than a kilometer deep. Having comprehensive data on water resources could better inform a political settlement that incorporates water management into a peacebuilding strategy.

But data that threatens to expose negligence and corruption may endanger local authorities. Especially in conflict-affected environments, donors, NGOs, and UN agencies should provide more support to collect and share data. Violent actors often target enumerators, whistleblowers, and researchers in efforts to suppress data gathering. Government agencies may also refuse to share their data. UN agencies and development organizations have leverage with all the parties in a conflict, and they should use it to secure data.  

Though some governments fear data, it can actually empower them. In Iraq, for example, a robust analysis that combines data about Iraq’s sometimes wasteful water usage with comprehensive data of water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers would actually empower Iraq’s government in its water negotiations with its riparian neighbors.

Once a data dead zone forms, it tends to grow in the same way marine dead zones do. The violence and corruption that accompany conflict degrade the capabilities and trust needed to collect and share data, and the resultant water shortages and selective distribution foster more conflict. Prioritizing data collection and sharing during protracted conflicts lays the foundation for evidence-driven negotiations. It is something to do now that stops the tide of conflicts in the future.   

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.