Event Summary: Advisory Board Meeting on Water Security in the Middle East

Advisory Board Members 

Eileen Burke

Lead Water Resource Specialist and Global Lead for Water Resources, The World Bank

Francesca de ​​​​​Châtel

Acting Head of the Coordination Office, Blue Peace Middle East

Andrew Gilmour

Executive Director, The Berghof Foundation

Peter Gleick

President-Emeritus & Senior Fellow, The Pacific Institute

Charles Iceland

Director of Freshwater Initiatives, World Resources Institute's (WRI) Food, Land, and Water Program

Marcus King

Professor of the Practice in Environment and International Affairs in the Science and Technology in International Affairs (STIA) program, Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service

Claudia Sadoff

Former Executive Managing Director, CGIAR

Aaron Salzberg

Director, Water Institute & the Jennifer and Don Holzworth Distinguished Professor, Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, University of North Carolina

Ashok Swain 

Head, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, UNESCO Chair of International Water Cooperation, & Director of Research at the School of International Water Cooperation, Uppsala University, Sweden

Jeannie Sowers

Professor & Chair, Department of Political Science and International Affairs, University of New Hampshire.

Michael Talhami   

Senior Program Manager for Critical Infrastructure and Essential Services in the Near and Middle East, International Committee of the Red Cross 

Erika Weinthal

Professor of Environmental Policy and Public Policy, Duke University

Neda Zawahri  

Professor, Department of Political Science, Cleveland State University

Advisory board members stressed that understanding water insecurity necessitates understanding the local, state, and global politics impacting the availability of water. Since politics and water availability are also not static, advisory board members stressed the need to identify points of resistance and opportunity where evolving political changes worsened water insecurity or provided an opening for improving water security. 

Members also discussed the difficulty of divorcing the root causes of conflict from causes of water security as water availability and water governance are heavily tied to conflict. Several members noted that one way to decrease conflict may simply be to improve access to water services – taking at least one element of conflict out of the equation. Others noted that even with the funds, improving water infrastructure equitably for a population in conflict can be challenging. Often, even those with the best of intentions may leave out significant segments of the population that are marginalized.  

The political nature and governance issues creating water insecurity are in play throughout the region. Advisory board members particularly discussed the salience of water insecurity in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt. Water insecurity has been a serious issue in Palestine for decades, and efforts to improve water availability have fallen victim to conflict. Libya and Iraq both represent rentier states seemingly with the resources to improve water security but have failed to do so. While common wisdom suggests that rentier states have the resources to combat water scarcity, Libya showcases the ramifications of water becoming a weapon of conflict, as internal actors have degraded infrastructure and service provision to harm opposing factions. Though Egypt has not been impacted by conflict, water security is a significant issue. Egypt faces a serious transboundary water-sharing challenge with the creation of The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which creates a potential for increased migration and a turn to technologies such as desalination. The current situation in Egypt reflects the consequences of those affected by water insecurity not having a voice in their political processes. 

Members also discussed current approaches to addressing water insecurity and why they are ineffective. One such approach is climate financing, which the region receives on a far smaller scale than the rest of the Global South. Much of what Middle Eastern countries have received is also for mitigation efforts, rather than adaption to help citizens weather the impacts of climate change. Members also noted the general need to focus on establishing better connections with local entities, including utilities, local government, and farmers. International actors are also largely addressing water insecurity through humanitarian assistance or development. However, there is little evidence that development or humanitarian aid is effective in combating the effects of climate change, including water insecurity. Similarly, humanitarian organizations often lack the mandate and resources to improve infrastructure or build back better.