Event Summary: Water Security in the Middle East



Tobias von Lossow

Research Fellow, Clingendael – Netherlands Institute of International Relations & Affiliate Researcher, IHE Delft 

Tom Wilson

Infrastructure Advisor, Norwegian Refugee Council  

Ahmed Alwadaey

Water Conservation Specialist, Faculty of Agriculture- Sana'a' University

Nadim Farajalla

Program Director for Climate Change and the Environment, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs

Neda Zawahri

Professor, Cleveland State University 

Niku Jafarnia

Yemen and Bahrain Researcher, Human Rights Watch 

Shada el Sharif

Founder and Senior Advisor, SustainMENA


Nora Fayssal

Professor, Lebanese American University  

Musaed Aklan

Senior Researcher, The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies


The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program held its first working group meeting of the Water and the Future of the Middle East initiative on May 30, 2023. As part of the Middle East Transformation Initiative, this working group will aim to identify hot spots of water insecurity, ways to energize the policy environment, and politically feasible solutions to improve water security. The first meeting brought together technical and policy experts to define the most water insecure areas in the region and identify critical challenges in these hot spots and potential recommendations for these complex contexts. This event summary presents the major themes discussed.

Water Management and Governance 

Working group participants discussed the nature of water insecurity, noting that mismanagement and corruption significantly degraded water supply and quality more than inherent scarcity. As a result, conflict-affected countries face some of the most acute transboundary and internal water security obstacles. Therefore, the discussion focused on areas where conflict degraded water security either directly through years of neglect and targeting of critical infrastructure or indirectly as a result of mass displacement. Participants noted that water insecurity also causes insecurity in the hot spots discussed: Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. These cases coincide with the University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Index which ranks countries according to their vulnerability to climate change and economic and governance readiness to adapt. By focusing on conflict-affected countries’, humanitarian and development agencies, donor governments, and regional governments, would not only prevent future wars but also strengthen the governance needed to stabilize the region.

Case Studies

Iraq and Syria: The Tigris-Euphrates River Basin

Climate change and shifting power balance on the river basin threaten to exacerbate water scarcity and intensify tensions and conflict between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Tobias von Lossow emphasized the need to explore alternative approaches to the classic water diplomacy and river basin management to promote dialogue among the four riparian countries – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. He encouraged the international community to identify small, practical steps to improve water quality and demand at the local level.

Neda Zawahri noted how satellite data could monitor countries’ adherence to water use protocols. For example, satellite imagery from southeastern Turkey revealed that the country’s recent (2021 and 2022) agricultural yields were substantial when compared to crop failures in Syria and Iraq. This data controverted Turkish claims that drought was an obstacle to their obligation to a 1987 agreement, meant to ensure a minimum flow of 500 cubic meters per second of the Euphrates River to Syria, 58 percent of which goes on to Iraq. Several participants raised the concern that Turkey and other countries may begin to use climate change as an excuse to skirt water sharing agreements.


Unlike other countries in the region, Lebanon has the water resources to meet demand. Dr. Nora Fayssal explained the intersection of Lebanon’s water insecurity and energy crisis. Lebanon lacks the energy necessary to pump, distribute, and treat water, resulting in a 70 percent decrease in water supply over the past three years. She underscored the need for green energy solutions such as solar and the implementation of the national water and wastewater strategies to meet demand. However, the government has failed to collect the data needed to target interventions and renew national water strategies according to climate change predictions. As Dr. Fayssal noted, the country requires a detailed scheme for different sectors’ water consumption, economic benefits, and investment. Currently, Lebanon does not have data on how much water is consumed, who consumed it, how it is distributed, and whether it is consumed locally or used for exported goods.

Dr. Farajalla discussed the importance of the private sector, suggesting that the region has become accustomed to the government providing subsidized services like water. But without the ability to track consumption habits, it will be impossible to attract the private sector.


Shada El-Sherif emphasized the importance of the water-energy-food-environment nexus in Jordan. Shada highlighted that almost 20 percent of Jordan’s electricity bill is allocated to water pumping, underscoring the need for a green transition in the energy and water sectors. She praised Jordan’s development of green growth strategies but emphasized the need to translate them into tangible projects. Jordan has made significant progress on strategies and it is time to showcase successful large-scale and entrepreneurial successful projects, to inspire others and attract international collaboration and accelerate the implementation of bankable climate responsive projects.


Dr. Musaed Aklan and Dr. Ahmed Alwadaey discussed the challenges of groundwater depletion and potential solutions in Yemen. Yemen heavily relies on rainwater and groundwater sources since there are no rivers or lakes. Concerned about food security, the government subsidized diesel for farmers to pump groundwater in the 1970s. The government recognized their mistake in addressing food security without considering water security and began in 1990s to gradually lift the subsidies. Today, many farmers are still dependent on groundwater. Even when diesel prices skyrocketed during the war, groundwater was still disappearing at an alarming rate, with water levels dropping by two to six meters each year. Aklan discussed how NGOs provided solar pumps for irrigation during these tumultuous years, which complemented or replaced diesel. Though NGOs claim to only distribute solar pumps to farmers with a specific capacity, farmers have been able to expand the systems – reaching nearly 500 meters deep. Some farmers are able to use both solar and diesel to pump even more water. The continued pumping without rules or strategies to control groundwater use has been disastrous. Dr. Aklan added that large rainwater harvesting or gravity dams have also diminished water resources due to the high evaporation rates. Floods can also destroy these dams wreaking havoc on the local population. Aklan emphasized the importance of considering local habits, experiences, and weather conditions when implementing projects in Yemen, particularly in relation to water harvesting systems. He suggested that decentralized, small-scale water harvesting systems aligned with traditional practices could be more sustainable and have less impact on downstream areas.

Dr. Alwadaey reminded the group of how manageable the issue is. He estimated that around 1.3 million hectares are used for agriculture. Only 300,000 of that is irrigated and the rest is rainfed. Since the majority of Yemen’s water is used in agriculture, water usage for these 300,000 irrigated hectares must be the focus. He also highlighted that traditional water harvesting techniques could be a potential solution.

Dr. Aklan confirmed that Yemen faces a dire water crisis exacerbated by conflict, weaknesses in water public utilities, and an absence of sustainable water management. Over 50% of Yemenis lack access to clean water as aquifers are depleted, infrastructure deteriorates, and agricultural use is inefficient. Addressing Yemen's water crisis will require the international community to support and work through public authorities as this will build resilience and ensure the future sustainability of human capital and infrastructure within public authorities.

Dr. Alwadaey added that the responsibility for water management in Yemen should lie at the ministerial level. Aklan, however, noted that environmental issues are not a priority for most politicians or even many international communities. Often workshops and conferences focus on politics, economic issues, and justice. The environment is an afterthought even though the current conflicts in many parts of Yemen are about water and environmental issues. Dr. Alwadaey confirmed the need to include the environmental issues and natural resource management in the peacebuilding process and negotiations. Dr. Aklan added that water issues in conflict countries, including Yemen, could become an opportunity for peace and progress amid the crisis. 

Moving Forward in Conflict-Affected Countries

The participants discussed whether water management, equitable practices, and sustainability should be built into the onset of peace negotiations, when there is still leverage over the warring parties. Natasha Hall, the moderator, noted that in contexts like Iraq and Lebanon, water management is often overlooked for the sake of peace. However, this approach allows warring parties to seize control of basic services, ensuring the loyalty of their constituencies. As a result of this bargain, water remains free in many places in the Middle East, disincentivizing water conservation.

All participants noted the focus on increasing water supply rather than considering alternatives like water reuse has effectively delayed more comprehensive sustainable water management solutions. Tobias von Lossow noted that much time has been lost in implementing action and reforms since water insecurity was flagged as a serious challenge decades ago. Participants concluded that the regional governments and the international community need to move towards implementing feasible smaller-scale projects rather than waiting for the perfect large-scale solution in such complex contexts.

Members of the working group will make presentations of their individual research on the intersection of water and conflict. The group will also work together with select policymakers to generate realistic, actionable, and effective steps to mitigate water-driven conflict in case-study countries.