Women who fled from Tikrit, Iraq, because they feared Islamic State militants take water for washing clothes and dishes at a refugee camp outside Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, March 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim) Image Credit: AP

Amman: Cooperation between countries on issues concerning water has become a modern necessity. This was how John Roa Nyaoro, Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative in Kenya, began his address at the conference on ‘Exploring the water-peace nexus — Blue peace in West Asia’ held in Amman on March 18-19.

Nyaoro said he believes there is still hope to address the water insecurity situation in the Middle East. He referred to the Nile Basin initiative, which was launched in 1999 to promote dialogue and cooperation among nine countries in Africa that share the river’s resources. Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo continue to be bound by the accord to date.

“If regional cooperation in water resources is possible in the Nile River, the most complex and longest river in the world with a length of 6,700 km, then it is possible in the Middle East,” Nyaoro said.

Water cooperation plays a major factor in the region’s development, and has become a matter of urgency. The latest ‘Hydro insecure: Crisis of Survival in the Middle East’ report that was launched by Prince Al Hassan Bin Talal at the conference, shows that the total population of five countries — Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey — is roughly 140 million, out of which 40 million people are hydro-insecure. Turkey hosts the highest number of people facing such difficulties, with around 30 per cent or 11.8 million of the total 40 million hydro-insecure populationn — making 17 per cent of the Turkish population hydro-insecure.

Nyaoro said the need for negotiations between countries who share a water resource is essential not only for sustainable development, but also due to its role in solving conflict and ensuring peace in the region. “Countries need to put mechanisms in place that allow all basin states equitable and reasonable utilisation of scare water resources,” he said.

Reports show that any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever. Common obstacles that countries face in cooperation pacts relating to water resources include climate change, insufficient water infrastructure, mistrust between states, and the use of water as a weapon.

Nyaoro also referred to the UN’s 1997 water convention, which states that countries have the right to utilise any shared resources in their territory as long as they don’t cause significant harm to basin states. According to international laws, all countries — whether a member of the convention or not, must cooperate by allowing the utilisation of shared water resources, explained Nyaoro. “This also applies during conflict, war, and political turmoil. An environmental impact assessment should also be conducted for every project, and shared with basin states to maintain resource management.”

Fearing the possibility of a world war based on water, Nyaoro discussed steps that can be followed by every country to include all parts of the community in the management of resources. “Cooperation brings about trust,” he said.

Empowering local communities through education and awareness about the reality of water scarcity is one of the first steps, he said. Community empowerment must be backed up with a mandate on the national and regional level in order for it to work, he added. “When there’s an agreement, there is a budget and the community can be empowered through activities that help in the management of this scarce resource.”

Meanwhile, Helena Rietz, the Swedish Ambassador to Jordan, highlighted that women and children are the worst-affected members of society in times of conflict and lack of accessibility to water. “We need to strengthen the role of women and empower them for truly inclusive water cooperation,” she said.

Inaccessibility to water impacts agriculture along with people’s livelihood, households, and health, Rietz added.

“Women and children should be included in water programmes and given the highest priority as they are the most vulnerable when it comes to water scarcity,” she said.

She pointed out that conflict resulting in massive displacement of people and violations of human rights has become too common in the region today. “We all have a role to play in the way forward. The future of water is in our hands and the time to move is now.”