World View

Managing the politics of water

AMMAN—Yesterday, World Water Day, provided an opportunity to highlight what in many countries has become a grim reality: The availability of fresh water is increasingly a defining strategic factor in regional and global affairs. Unless water resources are managed with extraordinary care, the consequences can be devastating.

Last year, the UN World Water Development Report once again highlighted how the growing gap between supply and demand could create conflict. The World Economic Forum has ranked water crises as the most worrying global threat, more dangerous than terrorist attacks or financial meltdowns, and more likely to occur than the use of weapons of mass destruction. And research by the Strategic Foresight Group has shown the importance of wise management: Countries engaged in the joint stewardship of water resources are exceedingly unlikely to go to war.


The Middle East serves as a tragic example of what can happen when regional cooperation is lacking. Iraq, Syria and Turkey have fought over every cubic meter of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. All have lost as a result. Nonstate actors control important parts of the two river basins. And water shortages have aggravated the region’s refugee crisis (itself the apotheosis of poor governance).

The bitterest part of the tragedy is that it could have been avoided. In 2010, at the West Asia-North Africa Forum in Amman, we proposed the creation of “circles of cooperation,” which would have institutionalized collaboration among Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey on water and environmental issues. A similar arrangement would have helped manage environmental resources shared by Jordan, Israel and Palestine.


If a supranational organization had been created, it could have introduced joint strategies to manage drought, coordinate crop patterns, develop common standards to monitor river flows, and implement investment plans to create livelihoods and develop water-treatment technologies.

Other regions have done exactly that. Countries sharing rivers in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have recognized that national interests and regional stability can be mutually reinforcing if human needs are given priority over chauvinism.

Last fall, the international community adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which promise to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Part of this pledge is a commitment to “expand international cooperation.”

Those in charge of implementing this commitment must bear in mind that water cooperation is not merely about signing treaties and holding meetings. It also entails jointly planning infrastructure projects, managing floods and droughts, developing an integrated strategy to combat climate change, ensuring the quality of water courses, and holding regular summits to negotiate trade-offs between water and other public goods.

The Water Cooperation Quotient, a measure of collaboration created by the Strategic Foresight Group, can help countries sharing river basins and lakes monitor the intensity of their cooperation. Out of 263 shared river basins, only a quarter benefit from properly functioning collaborative organizations. It is crucial that such organizations be extended to cover every shared river basin in the world by the SDGs’ target year, 2030.

For poor people in the developing world, such transboundary cooperation generates significant dividends. When countries agree on the construction and management of critical infrastructure, there are no delays. Costs are saved. Benefits are shared in an optimum way. If all developing countries with shared river basins embraced transboundary cooperation, their GDP growth easily could rise by a percentage point.

The international community should encourage countries to embrace such cooperation by creating financial instruments that make concessional and preferential funds available. A global Marshall Plan for shared river basins might at first seem like an expensive proposition, but the cost of inaction—consider the threat to Europe alone posed by massive refugee inflows—can easily be several orders of magnitude higher.


Likewise, the international community should act promptly to save critical water infrastructure from acts of violence and terrorism. Many rivers, including the Tigris and the Euphrates, have been and continue to be cradles of human civilization. The United Nations should consider creating special peacekeeping forces to protect them.

Finally, international law should be designed to prevent, not just resolve, conflicts. In particular, a robust global treaty is needed to regulate emissions into bodies of water. Today, most disagreements over water concern the quantity parties are to receive. In the future, conflicts will increasingly be about water quality, as irrigation practices, industrialization and urbanization contribute to rising pollution levels.

World Water Day was the ideal occasion to launch a new agenda for water wisdom. But every day must be a day when we work together to manage one of the planet’s most important resource. Project Syndicate

Prince El Hassan bin Talal is the founder and chair of the Arab Thought Forum and the West Asia-North Africa Forum, and a distinguished member of the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace. Sundeep Waslekar is president of Strategic Foresight Group.

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TAGS: rivers, UN World Water Development Report, water, World Economic Forum, World Water Day
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