International Cooperation: Climate Change in Fragile Territories

  1. Preface:

The conflict in Syria over zones of influence has political leaders and international policy-makers divided. The United Nations Security Council has since 2011 been unable to act unanimously in drafting a resolution condemning the violence that was used by Syria’s current sitting president Bashar el-Assad. Civil war has engulfed the region since and has led to the uprise of military muslim extremist groups like the – most successful and most powerful- self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS.

ISIS its role in the region can be traced back to 1916, in time of the division of the Ottoman Empire by the United Kingdom and France with the assent of Russia. The Sykes-Picot agreement drew a line between British and French influence in the region, or the current drawn border between Syria and Iraq. Although ISIS its goal of redrawing borders that were set by European colonialists, disregarding he local populations their tribes and cultures takes root in the Arab resentment of Western influence through century long occupation, the extremism of ISIS addresses its opponents with violence and with no space for dialogue with these same cultural minorities in Syria. The regime of el-Assad is under threat of being toppled by this violent group and Russia and the United States have in late-2015 come to an agreement to combat ISIS.

Syria’s civilian uprise, like in most countries in North-Africa and the Middle-East, wasn’t as far-fetched or as perceptional complicated the before-stated goal of ISIS likes to believe. Western influence in Syria was brought down with Syria’s independence after WWII in 1946, and its government resentment against international powers continued in its 1948 involvement in the Arab-Israeli War, opposing the UN resolution of 1947 that called for the Partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. Syria’s relation with Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine, raised tensions in 2002 with the US under president Bush who included the el-Assad’s regime in his “axis of evil” speech.

The displacement of the Syrian population can be traced back to the period preceding the Arab Spring of 2011, most specifically between 2006 and 2010, when Syrian rural families abandoned their homes due to poverty to live in the city (Greenwood, 2014) (Lund, 2014). An estimated 800,000 people lost their entire livelihood, “blamed on a combination of climate-change, man-made desertification and lack of irrigation”, according to the humanitarian news and analysis website IRIN News (IRIN, 2009). The refugee crisis involving European leaders in the discussion, is most often framed around the conflict and economic insecurity in the region.

The results of climate change that have currently redefined its definition has not yet been considered to be taken into account; aspects such as food security and health, aside from its obvious environmental terms. In 2011, the United Nations Security Council has recognized climate change as a threat to world peace. However, at the time, it did not specify to what extend resource conflicts are addressed in the debate around climate change. To address water as a source of life to humanity, and its adequate management to support its sufficiency may therefore also apply in the transition to ‘positive peace’ in the region.

Regarding the vulnerability of the region its countries such as Jordan, Iran, Iraq: climate-change and its environmental impacts should also encompass the risk for conflict, food shortage and a decline in health. In broader terms, what are the potential effects of global warming in the Middle East?

  1. Potential Effects Of Global Warming in the Middle-East

Global warming, resulting in regional climate change in the Middle East, already has a great effect on food security. It drives the most vulnerable people of societies into hunger and malnutrition. Food security is therefore part of economic security since it comprises of its availability, access, utilization and stability (Hyun Maeng, 2012). Climate change furthermore causes loss of labor productivity due to decreased food production and increases vulnerability to diseases. In terms of economics, a transition to positive peace – implying that ‘peace’ as “a state of individual and collective tranquility, calm and satisfaction” – is affected when poverty physically exists (poor housing and inadequate sanitation) and people are influenced by the psychological effects of “perceived injustice and inequality” (Barash & Webel, 2002, p 485) (Barash & Webel, 2002, p 487).

National security, the protection of a state and its citizens against power politics by reinforcing economic power and military might, may not be perceived as it is intentioned by this particular vulnerable group. Wider preoccupations, such as the threat of nuclear weapons, the condition of the natural environment, the state of peace and war seem almost irrelevant to this vulnerable group’s immediate poverty problems, that violence might drive the political agenda when non-violent protests remain unanswered to public outrage (Barash & Webel, 2002) (Ginsberg, 2013). The absence of ‘peace’ due to the effects of poverty may then be regarded as a presence of (class) warfare and the indirect killing due to malnutrition may then fuel intrastate conflict. For el-Assad’s Syria, how is national security defined through its policies?

  1. The Definition of National Security in Syria

“Food insecurity,” a term introduced by the World Bank, refers to people who lack sufficient food for normal health and physical activity (Barash & Webel, 2002). Due to the destruction of productive soil, agriculture in important parts of Syria has become unsustainable. And although food insecurity is a theme that recurs in Western nations, the authoritarian regime in Syria of el-Assad has regarded the civilian uprise as a greater threat to national security then the poverty that fueled the conflict. Liberalism, the thought that human beings naturally possess equal rights, and has in some countries resulted in more economic egalitarian policies, was to some extent a driving force behind the 2011 Arab Spring: environmental issues that come from the demand for energy security, water security and food security; but also the demand for basic human rights due to a lack of freedoms has proven to be considered controversial at the very least.

In retrospect, the food security crisis in Syria is likely responded to in the realistic and conservative philosophy, that the nation-state is the highest form of political organization, that regards civil obedience as a virtue; society over the individual, order, hierarchy (Barash & Webel, 2002). This approach could be explained through the issue of face-saving for president el-Assad. This tactic is moreover illustrated in Syria’s approach to international water disputes with Turkey and how both countries are unable to reach agreements on the sharing of river waters: where Turkey refuses to concede the international character of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and speaks of rational utilization of a transboundary river, both Iraq and Syria regard these rivers as international and claim their share (AQUASTAT, 2008).

Syria’s centralized water management through the Ministry of Irrigation (MOI), an institute responsible for making suitable water resources available for all water using sectors and to control well-drilling and the licensing of future wells was banning new wells since early-2002 (AQUASTAT, 2008). This resulted in a low 60% efficiency of field irrigation, and productive land decreased 10%. And although the prohibition of these wells occurred after ten years of crises: the pollution of water through uncontrolled discharge of industrial wastewater resulting in 900,000 cases of waterborne diseases in 1996, typhoid and hepatitis infections between 1991-95 and 1995-2000, and the inability of managing Syria’s waters has reduced the availability and quality of what is generally considered a “public good” for the country (AQUASTAT, 2008).

Considering that the water crisis in Syria lies at the root cause of the country’s food insecurity and civilian uprise, what can other countries in the Middle East that share the same potentially harmful extremist groups such as ISIS, learn from Syria’s failures in regulating its water management and how may the effects of global warming be dealt with?

  1. Decentralized Water Management in Iran

Iran has a prospect for 2030 to be short of water. Also, the international sanctions do not help in bettering its current economy, although a nuclear deal with the US could change its dealing in private sector financing. Different from the case of Syria, Iran’s preoccupation with water supply dates from thousands of years ago. The agricultural land has never been a constraint for Iran, however, its water availability is. And although the provision of water has been the responsibility of the government, the private sector invests in well-drilling after which it is operated and managed by farmers (AQUASTAT, 2008). Also, plans to recycle water nationwide and use the treated effluents for agricultural purposes are considered to be inevitable (Mahdian & Yousefi, 2015). Yet, in terms of national security ruled by the political class, a US-backed Israel remains Iran’s number one issue.

  1. Cooperation in the Middle East

Countries in the regions of North-Africa and the Middle-East have a reputation of disputing over water resources. Especially poorer states with no means of decentralizing their water management for lacking fair government oversight, international disputes and the subsequent resource mismanagement as is the case with Syria, remains a challenge in building towards positive peace. One of the most celebrated regional cooperations, of which its first meeting took place in 2001 in Geneva, Switzerland, the International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile is considered to be the a major milestone in water management for fragile regions (AQUASTAT, 2008).

With this, Egypt has indicated to shift its role as the central actor in the development and management of the water supply systems in the region, promoting participation in water management such as irrigation systems and cost sharing. Institutional and legislative measures have been taken to promote the establishment of associations that are willing to participate in a sustainable matter. Surface irrigation, for example, is not permitted outside the Nile Bassin and all areas have to use sprinkler irrigation (AQUASTAT, 2008).

Disputes between Turkey, Iraq and Syria over water issues resulted in early-2008 in the establishment of a water institute to work towards a solution of water-related problems among the three countries, headquartered at the Ataturk Dam in Turkey. Dams have been planned to build, called the ‘Friendship Dam’, in order to control the river flow of the Asi-Orontes to the Mediterranean sea.

In the same region, however, Syria has been in a dispute with the state of Israel over the control of the Golan Heights since 1967 when it was conquered. Israel’s identity in the Middle East has always been a delicate one; a region appointed by the United Nations for the Jewish refugees from WWII to reside and to live in the then Arab state Palestine, has since its inception been under constant attack by Arab nations, answered by expanding itself territorially over the past 70 years to the discontent of neighboring countries. Yet, Israel identifies itself as a liberal democracy in that it stands for equality for all citizens. This, however, has been disputed internationally in the face of the apartheid system that negatively affects Arab Palestinians who cary an Israeli citizenship. In the light of the international allegations that it faces and the regional disputes between authoritarian neighboring countries, how has the democratic political system of Israel bettered cooperation between states in the region in terms of resource management?

  1. Democratic States

Israel has been in interstate conflict over water resources since its inception. Military skirmishes with Jordan in 1953 were the result of Israel’s construction of its National Water Carrier in response to Jordan’s plan to divert rivers for irrigation of the Jordan Valley. The dispute over the water source escalated into conflict when in 1964, a plan was devised by members of the Arab Summit the divert the waters of the Jordan River to Syria and Jordan (AQUASTAT, 2008). Along with other factors, this conflict came to be known as the Six Day War in 1967 and Israel destroyed the opposition and took control of the Golan Height, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The Jewish State gained control of the Jordan River’s headwaters and groundwater resources. Later on, in 1978, Israel invaded Lebanon, from which it gained temporary control over the Wazzani springs that actually feed the Jordan River. The Golan Heights have since been under Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration since 1981. However, it has never been recognized by the UN Security Council. A Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel was eventually signed in 1994.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was followed by laws and practices that targeted land and water resources of the area. The resources were confiscated to the benefit of the Israeli settlements and Palestinian irrigation and pumps on the Jordan River were destroyed or confiscated soon after the 1967 war. Palestinians are not allowed to use them and quotas were introduced on existing irrigation wells to restrict the flow of water. New wells became not allowed to be drilled by Palestinian farmers, while the drilling of new wells for irrigation purposes at the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were allowed (AQUASTAT, 2008). In 1995, Palestinian water rights were finally recognized by Israel over the “Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

As these conflicts illustrate, water resource management in the Middle East is invoked over disputes and conflict. But even having expanded their sources, Israel faces challenges to make the Water Commission free from political pressures and allowing the facilitating of water permits to promote market-based water allocation. This avoids the centralization of the water sector by public agencies. Private sector interference allows more international cooperation and loosens the creation of institutional structures for sharing water with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli settlements in Palestine and the imposition of restrictions on the use of Palestinian wells and other water resources has fueled poverty and resulted in the formation of military muslim extremist groups in the region. Hamas, Hezbollah, and the formation of the Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine are byproducts of Israel’s foreign policies, focussed on taking away water resources.

The international disputes and mediation by the international community has created a static situation of ‘negative peace,’ making it unlikely for the Jewish state to build towards relations of positive peace between neighboring and regional states. As a democratic state that in many respects celebrates the liberal philosophy of ‘equality for all human beings’ in the eyes of the beholder, food insecurity seems less likely to occur than in the case of el-Assad’s Syria. Its harmful relationship with Arab citizens of the Gaza strip and Westbank, however, has so far resulted in ultimately unsuccessful international mediation. In general, national security in Israel is concerned around the livelihood of Jews in the region. It is safe to assume that still today, resource management such as water and food is favored towards Israelis instead of Muslim Palestinians.

  1. Curving Conflicts

Liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes have different ways of handling resource-management, whether by their leaders’ political philosophy or how they regard the effects of climate change to the current national security framework. Iran and Israel are different from Syria’s centralized water management system through the privatization of well-drilling, making the water sector more efficient when it comes to dealing with short-term water scarcity.

In the process of building to positive peace, however, Israel, with its discriminatory polity towards Muslim Palestinians, resembles much the state of Syria in how the most vulnerable of people become marginalized. Aside from the interstate conflict with Syria and Iran and other Arab countries in which Israel has engulfed itself over the last 70 years, Israel has to deal with an Arab population in the Gaza strip and Westbank through national security measures that systemically favors Jews over Muslims in its resource management through the restrictions imposed on the Palestinian peoples and their areas. This has fueled violent groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine. Should egalitarianism become a tool in the national security debate? Cooperation between states to help the vulnerable peoples of fragile regions in their fight against food insecurity contributes to individual ‘peace’. The psychological effects of perceived injustice and inequality in their observation of the very wealthy results in mental suffering and becoming preoccupied over their own poverty. Class warfare. It threatens the security of the region and the health of all.

We all inhabit this same small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal. – John F. Kennedy (1962)

Literature list:

AQUASTAT (2008) Irrigation in the Middle East region in figures. Food and Agriculture Organization

of the United Nations.

Barash, D. & Weber, C.P. (2002) Peace and Conflict Studies. Sage Publications.

Ginsberg, B. (2013) The Value of Violence. Promotheus Books.

Greenwood, S. (2014) Water Insecurity, Climate Change and Governance in the Arab World. Middle

East Policy Council.


Hyun Maeng, M. (2012) Climate, Food Security and Conflict. Stockholm International Peace Research


IRIN News (2009) Syria: Drought driving farmers to the cities. IRIN News.

Lund, A. (2014) Drought, Corruption, and War: Syria’s Agricultural Crisis. Carnegie Endowment for

International Peace.

Mahdian, Sh. & Yousefi, A. (2015) The Economic and Social Necessity of Water Reuse in Iran. Tehran

University, Faculty of Engineering.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s