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Published:April 25th, 2007 16:29 EST
Cooperation in the Middle East, Water not Oil

Cooperation in the Middle East, Water not Oil

By SOP newswire

Washington – During the 1990s, there was a common belief that the arid conditions in the Middle East would place water at the center of future wars in that region, but U.S. officials helping to coordinate water resource management in the region report that water is more often a source of cooperation than conflict.

Chuck Lawson, senior adviser for science and technology in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near East Affairs, worked closely with Israelis and Palestinians as the parties sorted through water management issues in the context of the peace process during the 1990s.  Speaking to reporters in Washington April 16, he said he found that “we and the parties themselves have been able to use water to cooperate rather than actually fight over it.”

He said water remains a disputed political issue, “but on a practical level, the Palestinians and Israelis have been working together for years just to be able to provide water to their people.”  He said Palestinian and Israeli water officials realize that water is scarce and that if they stop cooperating they would harm their own citizens.

“So for instance in the second Intifada, between 2000 and roughly 2005, when there was a lot of violence on the ground, the water officials on both sides – Israeli and Palestinian water authorities – continued to work together to try to provide water for their people,” he said.

This cooperation was the fruit of a long-term process to build confidence.  Lawson said U.S. officials worked with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian water officials from the outset of the peace talks to build an understanding that they all faced similar problems and should work together to allocate water resources from the Jordan River, Lake Tiberius and the Israeli and West Bank aquifers.

Lawson speculated that a future peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians could open additional possibilities for cooperation such as the development of new water resources through jointly operated desalination facilities.

COOPERATION BENEFITS BROADER MIDDLE EAST

Aaron Salzberg, who manages transboundary water issues in the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and Environmental Science, said Israel and the Palestinian Territories are not the only parts of the Middle East that benefit from cooperation in water resource management.

“The reality is there are few regions in the world that would benefit as much from regional cooperation as the Nile basin countries,” Salzberg said.  Ten countries share the Nile waters.  Nine of those countries formed the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 to coordinate management of the waters for the 180 million people living along the river and its tributaries.

Egypt is a primary consumer of Nile water, but all the river’s waters originate elsewhere, primarily in the Ethiopian and Ugandan highlands.  Salzberg said Egypt’s efforts to store water in Lake Nasser result in a 25 percent water loss through evaporation.  He said it would be far more efficient to store water in the cooler Ethiopian highlands, leaving more water for everyone to use.

But even without adjusting water-storage arrangements, Salzberg said regional cooperation in water management benefits Egypt by promoting economic development throughout the basin and creating trade opportunities.

Lawson pointed out that the Nile Basin Initiative already has grown from mere water management to cover a host of regional development issues including agriculture, energy and trade. “This Nile Basin Initiative has gotten people to look not just at the river itself and the water flowing through it, but the broader context of how they can all benefit from regional cooperation in a whole range of areas,” he said.

Salzberg said common international practice offers conflicting principles for assigning water rights to countries, one looking at historical patterns of usage and another looking at where the water falls.  He said the only way to reconcile these issues is through negotiation, and this is where the United States can help.

“Often in the first phase of any transboundary process, the parties are actually trying to understand what’s going on:  Where is the water?  Who has the water?  When does the water come?  When does it flow?  What is the quality of the water?  …  What is the state of the ecosystems being supported by the water?  Who needs the water for what purposes?  …  These are very technical questions,” he said. 

Salzberg said the United States can offer its technical support through geological surveys, environmental studies, agricultural assessments and engineering reports to help the parties understand the parameters of the issues they need to address.  He said, however, that the United States never makes any attempt to determine what the division of water rights should be, leaving that issue to negotiation between the parties.

Agriculture is the single largest drain on water resources, using 75 percent to 90 percent of water in the Middle East, according to Salzberg.  He said countries could free up tremendous water resources by using more efficient irrigation systems, eliminating subsidies on agricultural water and importing water-intensive agricultural products rather than producing them locally.

By David Shelby
USINFO Staff Writer