The Middle East Needs a Water NATO
Meir Javedanfar, @MeirJa
The Middle East needs a NATO-like regional pact whose mission would be to defend its inhabitants against one of the most serious region-wide threats: drought. In 2016, NASA confirmed the seriousness of this threat. That year, it published a 14-year environmental study of the Middle East. It found that during its research timeline of 1998-2012, the Middle East faced the worst drought in 900 years. Since then, the region’s drought problems have not improved. One could even say that they have worsened.
The impact of the drought is visible almost everywhere. With 102 million inhabitants, Egypt is the most populated country in the Middle East. It’s also facing a drought problem. Its population has increased by almost 400% in 60 years, pushing water demand. However, lack of rain and government investment in Egypt’s water resources and management have increased water scarcity. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has made matters worse by reducing the flow of the Nile into Egypt. The future looks bleak for Egypt’s water resources. One study estimates that by 2025, Egypt’s water supply will “drop below five hundred cubic meters per capita, a very low level that hydrologists typically define as ‘absolute scarcity.”
Iran is another country in the Middle East that is grappling with a major drought problem. With approximately 84 million inhabitants, Iran, after Turkey, is the third most populated country in the Middle East. “There is no water left in our ecosystem. If we continue with the status quo, approximately 70% of Iran’s total population, meaning the equivalent of 50 million, could be forced to migrate abroad to stay alive”.
This stark warning was issued in 2016 by Dr. Isa Kalantari, the chief advisor on water, agriculture, and environmental affairs to Iran’s former Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri. The warning is still valid today. Iran’s worsening drought problems have led to demonstrations in Iran’s Khuzestan and Isfahan provinces, and Iran’s security forces arrested scores of demonstrators and killed and injured others. The authors of the same NASA report made another observation: the drought was at least partly the result of climate change caused by human activity.
Just as humans are partly responsible for the current drought in this region, we could also be part of the solution. However, we in this region must work together to fight this challenge, as an old Persian proverb says, Yek Dast Seda Nadarad, meaning one hand does not make a sound, and you need both hands to work together.
The same applies to this region. As we can witness, our drought challenges, and their impact, are region-wide. No single country is responsible for the drought. At the same time, the implications and consequences of the current water shortage does not impact a single country, and it affects all of us. For example, the 2006 drought in Syria destroyed crops and killed many farm animals. Consequently, it forced many people from the countryside to move into major cities such as Damascus. Therefore, when the 2011 uprising began, there was already a large population of displaced and disaffected individuals who were victims of the drought. They subsequently joined the demonstrations and, ultimately, the Civil War.
Today, the entire Middle East is paying for the consequences of the current civil war in Syria. The war turned millions of Syrians into refugees and forced them to move to neighboring countries. Turkey alone is home to 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Additionally, water-poor Jordan is home to 670,000 Syrian refugees, while crisis-hit Lebanon hosts an even more significant number: 844,000. The mass migration of displaced Syrians has significantly pressured the economy and environmental resources of the host countries. This includes their water resources. Drought is not only impacting essential sectors such as agriculture, but it's also leading to land subsidence. For example, because of disappearing water resources, the plains around Tehran have subsided by as much as 36 centimeters. This is believed to be a world record. The subsidence could soon start to impact Tehran’s Mehrabad and Imam Khomeini airports. This could prevent planes from landing and taking off.
In NATO, all member countries promise to come to the aid of any nation attacked by Russia. In the case of a Middle East pact to fight drought, all countries would promise to assist any country impacted by the shortage of water resources. This would be in the form of pooling technical resources and relevant knowledge. The member countries would also share or trade best practices in farming, irrigation, and desalination areas.
The proposed Middle East defense pact against drought could have its headquarters in a neutral regional country such as Jordan or the United Arab Emirates. Both of them have good relations with all countries in this region. The H.Q would have at least one scientist from each country in this region, and the organization would also have a local representative in each country.
Another advantage of such an organization would be its ability to attract help, both financial and technical, from global international environmental organizations. After all, a multinational environmental organization would carry more weight than any single country, making it more difficult to ignore.
Cooperation in sharing water knowledge through a regional drought defense pact could be a gateway to improving bilateral relations in this region, especially between countries that have strained ties. This is not an impossibility. Today, as we speak, Israeli water technology is being used in the refugee camps of Syria to provide water for people displaced by the tragic Civil War in that country. There are other precedents too. For example, during the heyday of the cold war in 1967, Soviet and American scientists started working together as part of a joint project to eradicate smallpox. At the start of this project, in 1967, smallpox had infected 10 - 15 million people and killed 2 million. Within a decade, the number of infections had decreased to zero.
The rare and consequential cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union made the impossible possible. I'm not suggesting that a regional pact over water management would completely eradicate the problem. However, such a regional initiative would make it much easier for countries to work together against this threatening phenomenon. Cooperation, especially sharing technology, would make the fight against drought stronger and more efficient.
Such a pact is also likely to have widespread support among the peoples of this region. Many religious, ethnic, and nationalistic problems exist in different countries in this region. However, when it comes to applying science to solve problems, the people of this region have repeatedly shown that they're willing to put their differences aside. For example, patients from countries with whom Israel has been at war have visited Israel over the last 50 years for medical treatment.
Time is running out for the Middle East. The region already has numerous threats and challenges to deal with. However, dealing with drought is not getting the attention and cooperation it deserves. Forming a regional defense alliance against drought could be a good start.
Meir Javedanfar, Ph.D. teaches Iranian security and diplomatic studies at Reichman University, Israel.