DE-MYSTIFYING THE CONFLICT: Equity to Deter Hydro-hostility in the Middle East

Water is a real problem in the Middle East. In such a semi-arid region, the scarcity of water affects the Middle Eastern political arena as much as it affects the lives of its inhabitants. With so much hostility and resentment among the competing riparian states, namely the Israelis and Palestinians, water has become an essential venue in the geopolitics of the whole region. As the population of the region grows, the demand on water increases, while the region’s overall water reserve does not change. All vie for their fair share of water for different purposes, including urban, irrigation, recreational, industrial and environmental uses. This exacerbates the situation and evokes a state of sever hydro-hostility among the disputing nations. Thus, the compatibility of the distribution of water resources in the clash between the Palestinians and the Israelis has become prominent.

To better understand the conflict, one must be cognizant of the overall political and cultural clash that fuels almost every decision made by riparians involved in such a weighty conflict. Part of this conflict mystique stems from the fact that it has many layers of complexity. Not only does this conflict reflect the political and cultural differences, but it also has environmental and ethical dimensions that tend to produce an irreducible complexity. As such, equity in allocating fresh water is a major concern that constitutes a profound momentum that initiates and drives the conflict. Environmental equity is one of the key components that could offer substantial opportunities for sustainable and robust solutions to this troubling dispute. Achieving peaceful solutions is a function of equity in sharing the natural resources of the region, namely fresh water. Conversely, the lack of equity in sharing these natural resources has emerged as one of the most severe and pernicious conundrums. This is evident in light of the fact that Israel’s annual domestic water consumption is more than five times as much as that of Palestine and more than three times as much as that of Jordan (PASSIA, 2002).

The picture becomes more illuminated when we look at the historical data of water consumption. While significantly lower than that of Israel, per capita water use of the Palestinians demonstrates declining trends over time. The current water use data shows that one Israeli consumer uses more water than five Palestinians put together.

The Jordan River is another example of how inequitable water allocation practice in the Middle East has become. Although all five nations adjacent to the river, namely the Israelis, Palestinians of the West Bank, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrians, have the right to use a portion of the river’s water, reality suggests otherwise (Abukhater, 2006 a). Israel diverts 75% of the overall river water before it reaches the West Bank (PASSIA, 2002).

Since access to water is determined by the power structure of the region, the most powerful state tends to acquire substantial amounts of fresh water, leaving other nations in a precarious situation. It is often the case that the most powerful state tends to pursue large-scale schemes unilaterally, to maximize its allocation of the shared water resources with little, or no, regard for other nations’ interests (Abukhater, 2006 a). Unilateral decisions regarding water allocation projects by certain states will only produce coerced cooperation and fragile peace agreements at best. In the absence of insightful application of equity and efficient water allocation and use, a few nations will continue to receive more water than they need, whereas many others will strive to secure the bare minimum allotment of water to meet their basic daily water demands (Abukhater, 2006 a). Under this state of inequitable distribution of water, competition between the Arab and Israeli nations is likely to intensify as their population and development needs grow; a situation that never promotes stability. The desire to acquire as much water as possible permeates through most influential political decisions made by the disputing riparian states regarding cooperation or altercation.

The issue of water scarcity is a byproduct of a severe clash of water rights and ownership, and water needs and usage. There are many arguments that often view the issue of water access entitlement as the basis for water allocation practice. Water ownership entitlement, although relatively tangible to other situations, remains peripheral to the issue of water inequity in the Middle East, given its epidemic magnitude. It is no longer the case that focusing on the issue of water rights can offer a positive outcome for the current water crisis. The severity and hostility of the water crisis in this particular region of the world call for other innovative practices of water sharing to cater to a compelling and immediate demand (Abukhater, 2006 b). With this in mind, rather than relying on measure that propagate rights- or desire- based water allocation, the needs of each nation for this resource must be recognized as the basis for water resources allocation.

Since equity is an illusive concept, defining its constituents is by no means an easy prospect. Equity calls for recognizing and preserving the basic inalienable right for all people to have access to water of adequate quantity and quality for the sustenance of human wellbeing (Agarwal, Anil, Marian S. delos Angeles, et al. 2000). It is imperative to incorporate the right of the environment as an integral part of the definition. As such, the environment must not be perceived as a commodity, but rather as a precious entity that needs to be protected. Balancing human and environmental needs is an indispensable request and a crucial parameter of equity. By incorporating sustainability in the meaning of equity, this perception reflects a range of philosophical principles of water allocation. Under this thought paradigm, equity can be defined as fostering fair ways of balancing human needs with environmental concerns. In this regard, both equity and sustainability are synonymous and indistinguishable. The rights of the environment and the future generations should be recognized and established.

The notion of equity must also incorporate a moral and ethical responsibility. Those who live upstream have a moral responsibility toward those who live downstream and toward the environment. The definition of equity must be based on balancing the different needs of multiple users and uses. In that sense, the definition of equity must be solely and exclusively based on actual needs. This precept, although related to the crux of the issue of equity, is often understated or ignored (Abukhater, 2006 a). For conflicts between nations, equity that incorporates culturally agreed upon principles of fairness is a prerequisite for maximizing the acceptance of any water allocation policy and therefore fostering cooperation and rejuvenating stability.

Since both water demand and supply fluctuate greatly from one year to another and from one season to another, there are no general rules of how to share water. This depends solely on the situation. Therefore, a more advanced form of equity emerges in the concept of “situational equity,” where an ongoing reevaluation process of water allocation decisions and a periodic allocation of water resources take place based on new circumstances. Flexibility in water allocation calls for a dynamic and proactive process of situational assessment, in which allocations of water change as a function of new circumstances to achieve regional satiety for all.

It is to the detriment of the whole region to skip the conclusion that promoting a win-win situation calls for third party involvement and equitable water allocation policy, where positive-sum solutions immerge instead of a zero-sum situation (Wolf, 1999). Unless quick and effective water allocation strategies that account for environmental, economic, and equity concerns are to be implemented to entice cooperation along the volatile watercourses of the Middle East, the region will soon be spiraling toward a larger and more severe form of hydro-hostility. It is imperative to utilize both technologically- and policy- driven solutions as well as societal reform techniques in the search for sustainability on a regional rather than national level. Moreover, suggested remedies should not be separated from the actual political conflict. However, the political dispute, although tangible to the current hydro-conflict, should not impose obstacles to reaching agreements regarding water allocation. Recognizing the importance of equity in water allocation, this article suggests the need to develop universally agreed upon criteria for equity to facilitate more durable and reasonable grounds for negotiations.

Original post: DE-MYSTIFYING THE CONFLICT: Equity to Deter Hydro-hostility in the Middle East

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