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Refugees exacerbate water crisis in Middle East

Influx of people displaced by conflicts across borders has led to an increase in the number of water-insecure areas

  • Women who fled from Tikrit, Iraq, because they feared Islamic State militants take water for washing clothes aImage Credit: AP
  • Girl fetches water during a visit of German Development Minister Gerd Mueller at a camp of the United Nations Image Credit: AFP
  • Syrian refugee children play on a broken water point at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, Image Credit: AP
Gulf News

Amman: The number of Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan is 1.5 million. This is equivalent to the volume of people arriving from Canada to the US, Prince Al Hassan Bin Talal noted at the conference ‘Exploring the water-peace nexus — Blue peace in West Asia’ held in Amman last week. Refugees now represent a quarter of the Jordanian population.

The refugee population has put considerable strain on local water resources, causing water scarcity problems in several areas. As of February 2015, there are a total of 17 million displaced people in five countries (Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.)

“TIM is our challenge — territoriality, identity, and migration,” said Prince Bin Talal.

He pointed out the increase in demand for water after the 2014 Syrian crisis was due to ‘natural’ population growth. Emphasising the need to develop a sense of regional wellbeing, he said: “Let’s look at people as people and remove the labels for a moment — this is an existential battle we are engaged in today.”

Prince Bin Talal highlighted the need to listen to the view of local civil society groups on assessing water challenges they are facing, and providing them with solutions to build capacity.

“Everyone needs to be given a second chance, a second chance to build their environment, a second chance to a decent social income, a second chance to an equitable and efficient water policy.”

Also addressing the conference, Sa’ad Abu Hammour, Secretary-General of the Jordan Valley Authority, said that the influx of Syrian refugees had put immense pressure on Jordan’s water services. Latest numbers show that there are a total of 3.5 million internationally displaced people (IDP) in Jordan, of which half a million live in hydro-insecure governorates.

“The population of the Jordan Valley is relatively poor, and has recently grown with more refugees coming in from Syria and Iraq,” said Abu Hammour.

The growing number of refugees is not improving the existing political debate about water in the Jordan River Basin, which is considered a major issue in both the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The joint water committee intended Palestine and Israel to be equal partners, but Israeli influence over the West Bank gave them control of the water systems,” said Maysoon Al Zoubi, former secretary-general of the Jordan Valley Authority.

She pointed out that reports show the joint water committee has fallen short of meeting the Palestinians’ needs. “Since 1991, projects are still awaiting approval from the committee, and Israel alone has the virtual veto on all water resources,” Maysoon said.

Currently, only 31 per cent of Palestinians are connected to the sewage system.

Similarly, Jordan and Syria set up a joint plan to utilise the water resources of the Yarmouk River in 1953 - an agreement that proved unsuccessful due to violations of the terms and poor construction of dams.

“We need a new body that will accord equal rights to both sides in all water resources,” said Maysoon. She added that the issue of water scarcity should be a priority for each country in the Middle East as water is linked to the economy, social life, and power. ‘The Hydro Insecure: Crisis of Survival in the Middle East’ report highlights that water insecurity does not occur alone, but is accompanied by one or more issues such as poverty, war and conflict, low women’s development and environmental degradation.

The misconception that the water problem is only a result of government mismanagement and not capacity can be altered through awareness and education, said Maysoon. “We need to work on a capacity-building programme that should include officials, decision makers and the people — along with international water laws.”

The two-day conference, which took place on March 18-19 in Amman at the King Hussain Club brought together political figures and experts on water from around the globe to discuss possible strategies and solutions given the increasingly desperate water situation in the Middle East.

The Strategic Foresight Group, one of the organisers of the event, launched two reports; ‘the Hydro-insecure: Crisis of Survival in the Middle East’ report, and another on ‘Water and violence: Crisis of survival in the Middle East.’ The West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Institute acted as partner organiser of the conference.

Water insecurity — the reality

Iraq: 33% of Iraq’s population of 32 million is water insecure

Jordan: 27% of Jordan’s population of 6.4 million is water insecure

Lebanon: 13% of Lebanon’s population of 4 million is water insecure

Syria: 44% of Syria’s population of 22.3 million is water insecure

Turkey: 16% of Turkey’s population of 74.5 million is water insecure

Source: ‘The Hydro Insecure: Crisis of Survival in the Middle East’ report


Daesh using water as extortion tool

Amman: Currently a common threat to countries in the Middle East and others around the world, the extremist group Daesh is also strategically using water as a weapon for furthering its agenda and to exert control on resources in the region.

“Using water resources as a weapon in conflict is equal to using weapons of mass destruction,” said Dr Walid Hamed Shiltagh, Head of Regional Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iraq, at the water peace conference.

Daesh currently has control of four dams that block two of the main rivers in Turkey — the Tigris and Euphrates.

History shows that water has been a target in previous conflicts, which have seen water supplies cut off, water flows diverted, and pipelines disrupted. However, the use of water by Daesh goes beyond the usual tactics.

The latest report on water and violence in the Middle East shows that the strategy of Daesh includes using water and its infrastructure as a tool for expansion and extortion, and as a financial asset used for various processes in oil production.

“Terrorism takes different forms to destroy cities and states. Daesh is controlling water resources and using them as revenge against uncooperative villages and areas,” explained Dr Shiltagh.

The group’s goal is to expand their control across Iraq and nearby regions through the control of more water bodies and dams, and using the tactics of flooding or water deprivation to weaken communities.

— J.K.