Diplomacy Key to Easing Regional Water Crisis

It is time for regional governments to join hands to prevent a further decline in water supplies, which could give rise to a host of social and political challenges
West Asia, home to over 350 million people, is the world's most water-scarce region.West Asia, home to over 350 million people, is the world's most water-scarce region.

A top Foreign Ministry official said West Asian governments are seriously in need of pursuing water diplomacy to address the severe water crisis gripping the region, noting that they can work toward turning a potential source of tension into an opportunity for cooperation.

"Water diplomacy is the most important necessity for West Asia and it should be part of security discussions [among governments in the region]," IRNA quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi as saying in an address to a recent meeting at the University of Tehran.

The meeting, titled "Environmental Hazards and Regional Security in West Asia", was held as part of preparations for the second edition of the Tehran Security Conference scheduled for Jan. 8.

The conference is an Iranian initiative aimed at restoring sustainable peace to the region, which brings officials, scholars and academics together to discuss a multilateral security regime for the troubled region.

Araqchi said a combination of factors has aggravated the serious water crisis in regional countries which had already been prone to water conflicts, particularly Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Iran.

"Repercussions of climate change including a constant decline in rainfall, rising population, the [rapid pace of] industrialization, a rise in standard of living ... and worrying patterns of water consumption are among these factors," he explained.

West Asia, home to over 350 million people, is the world's most water-scarce region.

According to Energy Ministry statistics, Iran gets only about 242mm of rain a year, about a third of the global average, and 75% of it falls on only 25% of its area.

The region's water supplies depend heavily on underground aquifers, but these are drying out at alarming rates. However, the region has the lowest rate of water productivity in the world, which means how much return is gained for every drop of water used. In Iran, for example, consumption level stands 70% higher than the global average.

  Water-Resource Depletion Imminent

Experts believe West Asian nations are using far more water than can be replenished and the region will definitely face major constraints to freshwater availability in the near future. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has estimated that the Jordan River may shrink by 80% by 2100 and that ground water supplies will deteriorate further as demand increases.

"These issues have created a quite dangerous water crisis in the region, which could become even worse in the future," Araqchi said. The deputy minister said it is time for governments in the region to join hands to prevent a further decline in water supplies, which given the linkage between environmental impacts will have severe repercussions for millions of people.

"Territorial disputes, security challenges, social crises, ethnic violence, wars, poverty, threats to food security, health problems, high unemployment and migration are among consequences of [acute] water shortage and drought in the region."

Araqchi warned about scary prospects for regional peace, as increased water stress could exacerbate conflicts in the already chaotic region, threatening economic development and national security of countries.


  Cooperation or Confrontation?

"Water has become a strategic commodity in this region and a strategic approach is needed for [managing] it," he said.

Water crisis could, at the same time, be a pretext for higher tension in the region or a ground for closer cooperation, he noted.

"Experience shows that water shortages have mostly led to cooperation, not confrontation. Instances where dwindling water supplies have resulted in increased collaboration are far more than those where water disputes have ended up in a war."

Araqchi said hundreds of agreements have so far been signed on management of water resources of 260 transboundary rivers across the world.

"The big question is whether water can be an instrument for cooperation in this region or we should expect clashes over shortages."

"What water diplomacy does is turning water from a source of friction to a source of cooperation. Although this is very tough, it's possible."

  Need for Urgent Action

Araqchi warned that urgent action is crucial to heading off a ripple effect of the deepening water crisis on stability and growth, saying West Asian governments ought to take a holistic approach to improve the critical situation.

He proposed that governments encourage their universities and research centers to explore ways of developing more effective cooperation on water-related issues and working out mechanisms to better utilize shared water resources.  

"We need hydrological agreements for managing water resources in the three main basins of the region, namely the Jordan River, Tigris and Euphrates, as well as smaller basins."

The senior diplomat said governments would do well to promote "resilience" within water systems and avoid pushing the hydrological cycle to its edge.

"We have two approaches to tackling water shortage. The first is transferring water from other sources or finding new sources, and the second one is … to consume water more efficiently."

"We must modify water consumption patterns and boost water productivity [to ensure sustainability]."

Araqchi said countries should also pay more attention to the issue of virtual water trade and take into account the state of their water supplies before engaging in international trade.

"Each country should decide to produce goods [and agricultural products] based on its [comparative] advantage and the amount of water needed."

Virtual water is the water used to create the goods and services that we consume and use.

Virtual water trade refers to the idea that when goods and services are exchanged, so is virtual water.


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