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Climate Change as a Catalyst for Instability and Conflict: The Need for a Water-Energy Nexus in the Middle East

Climate Change as a Catalyst for Instability and Conflict: The Need for a Water-Energy Nexus in the Middle East

June 6, 2014 | 4688 views

Climate change is a reality, already being strongly felt in many parts of the world. The alarming security implications of climate change received last week renewed attention from the CAN US Military Advisory Board’s report entitled National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change,. The report concluded that “the projected impacts of climate change will be more than threat multipliers; they will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict” (CNA MAB, May 2014).

Increasing natural water scarcity in the Middle East is likely to further destabilize the volatile socio-economic and political situation in this region – one of the driest and most conflict-ridden on earth. The eastern Mediterranean in particular has been experiencing significant drop in natural water availability per person since the 1950’s as a result of rapid population growth, economic development, and political conflicts. The region can ill afford further water scarcity due to climate changes, as already reported by local water authorities. While Israel has managed, due to large-scale desalination and wastewater treatment and reuse, to transform itself from a water scarce country into one with an excess water economy– Palestine and Jordan remain in dire need for more water and sanitation solutions.

Development of the Palestinian water economy in the West Bank has been hindered due to the Oslo Accords’ interim water arrangements that left Israel with de facto control over shared water resources. Water consumption in the West Bank averages 70 liters per capita per day (c/d), well below the World Health Organization’s declared necessary volume of 100 liters. In Jordan, average consumption is 100 liters c/d, but this figure is dropping by some estimates to an average of 80 liters due to the flood of Syrian refugees since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. In the Gaza Strip the situation is the worst in the region, with the Coastal Aquifer – the Strip’s almost sole source of fresh water – in a state of collapse that is predicted to be irreversible by 2020 if current extraction rates continue.

Despite being addressed less frequently than the other core issues of the Middle East conflict, the failure to cooperate over water has significant implications for security and stability in the region. The water crises in Gaza, is one example where 1.5 million Palestinians will soon run out of fresh water. No military will be able to stop thirsty people from knocking down security fences in search of drinking water in Israel. In northern Jordan 1 million Syrian refugees have been straining the country’s water sector to the point of breakdown, further reducing the government’s ability to meet their own population’s water demands.

The shared nature of the region’s water resources, entail joint management to preserve and sustain them. However, rehabilitating and preserving the natural resources is no longer enough to build the population’s resilience to current and future impacts of climate change. Most of the region does not enjoy the socio economic conditions that usually foster the technological innovation that is so crucial for the development of long term solutions for extreme water scarcity. The one resource that the region enjoys is ample sunshine, yet as an energy source it remains untapped.

A water-renewable energy nexus approach is a mid to long-term integrated solution with the potential to strengthen the region’s ability to successfully overcome social, economic and political challenges exacerbated by climate change. The long-term relationship suggested is one of interdependence where Israeli, Palestinian and potentially Lebanese Mediterranean shores provide the much needed additional water to the Levant through coastal desalination, in the short term fuelled by the natural gas reserves discovered in the region, but in the medium to longer term to be fueled by extensive investment in solar energy production in Jordan – the best candidate in the region for large scale production of solar power.  Trans-boundary sales of water and natural gas are already well evident between Israel, Jordan and Palestine, indicating that even under the current political stalemate the importance of the water energy nexus is understood.

Interdependence of interests has a stabilizing potential wherever trans-boundary cooperation is mutually beneficial. Within the context of building resilience to climatic changes in regions such as the Levant, already suffering extreme natural as well as socio-economic and political conditions, an interdependence based on the water- renewable energy nexus should be favorably considered.


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