A Call for Humanitarian Priorities

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Peter J. Jacques, Ph.D., professor in the UCF Political Science Department, was recently published on The Cipher Brief regarding Water Security in the Middle East: a Call for Humanitarian Priorities.

The Cipher Brief is a digital security-based conversation platform that connects the private sector with the world’s leading security experts.

Dr. Jacques teaches environmental security in the UCF Security Studies Ph.D. Program, along with global and domestic environmental politics and sustainability.  Among other publications, he is author of “Sustainability: the Basics” published in 2015.

His opinion piece below provides expert commentary on water security in the Middle East:

From 2007-2010, Syria suffered the worst drought since record-keeping. Amidst corruption and mismanagement, the drought caused crops to fail and over a million farmers abandoned their land for the cities. Not long afterward, social crisis in these cities ensued and then revolution. With the support of Russia and Iran, Syrian President Barshar Al-Assad repressed the uprising with brutal tools, like chemical weapons, pushing massive numbers of refugees into the neighboring countries and Europe—an example of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls “loss and damage,” which are climate impacts that will cause ghastly social damage because we will not adapt to them.

The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) expanded in the bedlam, with important pushback by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey continues to bomb, highlighting the regions’ tangle of historic antagonisms. For those who remain in Syria, the situation is dire.  For instance, today, over two million people have been cut off from water in Aleppo. International assistance and diplomacy is imperative for the survival of these families.

This grisly cascade of events shows us how absolutely critical it is that we think of water insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as an existential humanitarian problem within complex social-ecological systems. War over simple water scarcity is not as likely as catastrophic humanitarian crises created by war and instability, made progressively worse by the structural problems and government mismanagement that endanger potable water, sanitation, agriculture, and energy provision. Water security is attained when domestic and international institutions protect the welfare of people and the ecosystem conditions that produce water, a task made nearly impossible in the chaos of war.

For example, the necessary cooperation for managing the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, or correcting the utter mismanagement of Yemeni groundwater, is impossible in the middle of regional wars. Meanwhile, millions of people in these areas are caught in a desperate search for water, food, and energy. Unfortunately, this vulnerability can be used strategically by violent actors, as, for example, when ISIS uses water as a weapon against the Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

As in Syria and Iraq, conflict and water insecurity in Yemen have hit everyday people the hardest. Yemen is a country with centuries of sectarian cooperation and the capital, Sana’a, is among the longest inhabited cities in history, but is now the scene of a sprawling humanitarian crisis caused by a proxy war between rebels – presumably backed by Shiite Iran – and a US-supported coalition led by Sunni Saudi Arabia to restore deposed Sunni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The foreign sectarian influence is clear since Hadi served as Vice President to Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Shia, since 1994. Now, almost three million internally displaced people have been pushed from their homes, and 14 million people do not have enough food or access to safe drinking water or sanitation. Meanwhile, most Yemeni are farmers who, according to Chairman of the British Yemeni Society Dr. Noel Brehony, “face an existential threat from Yemen’s rapidly depleting aquifers.”

As the groundwater disappears, 90 percent is allocated to agriculture, and half of that water is used for an amphetamine crop called Qat, despite the severe malnutrition of Yemen’s population. Like Iran, Yemen has managed its groundwater sustainably for centuries, but it recently abandoned these traditions for drilling enabled by fuel subsidies. This war is not over water, but the Houthi political wing, Anser Allah, organized massive protests against subsidy cuts enacted by Hadi after the November 2011 Yemen Spring that deposed Saleh; this backlash fed the uprising. Now, Yemen is on the verge of famine.

Key structural forces – steeply rising populations, human-driven climate change, and the political-economic conditions – are all collaborating in vicious synergy to make these problems even more dangerous.

As MENA populations have doubled and sometimes quadrupled in a matter of decades, climate change will further worsen water scarcity. The MENA climate will become hotter and drier by early mid-century, and then even hotter and drier by end of this century. Meanwhile, droughts should be expected to occur with increasing frequency. The Tigris-Euphrates riparians—Turkey, Syria, and Iraq—will probably lose 25-55 percent of their total surface runoff from the Eastern Anatolian mountains around the middle of this century. Indeed, the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, Syria, Northern Iraq, Northeastern Iran and the Caucasus will have less precipitation, and probably lose roughly 170,000 square kilometers of rain-fed agricultural land by late century, tying climate changes to food and water security. Accelerating heat extremes may also threaten the ability of  people to continue inhabiting the Gulf region by mid to late century.

Market forces can also create fast-moving water insecurity. In 2010, Russia, China, the Ukraine, and Argentina experienced droughts – again, a climatic issue – that reduced their grain harvests. This raised food prices and inspired riots and revolt in cities around the world, including Arab Spring countries dependent on that grain. This means that water problems outside of MENA also affect humanitarian conditions in the Middle East. In the GCC, they have been trading oil for water for decades via oil-fed desalinization but this cannot last. In Saudi Arabia, even the groundwater must be desalinized, so although the GCC is not facing a water shortage per se, there is little-to-no freshwater.  Water production reaches a dead-end if they do not receive enough oil revenue to import food and other goods in the long-term. The GCC has wisely invested in better desalinization and solar technology, but they have also financed what some call “land grabs” – like leasing massive agricultural plots in sub-Sahara Africa –which threaten a new form of imperialism in the sub-Sahara.

However, as much as decisions by governments, civil society, and international relations can pitch a country into chaos, they can also attenuate vulnerabilities. Efforts to manage consumption can go a  long way, just as ecological conservation of catchments, wetlands, and aquifers can provide long-term resource options while protecting biodiversity. These are important solutions that can counter some of the structural problems on the doorstep of MENA.

View Dr. Jacques’ opinion piece on TheCipherBrief.com. 

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