By Simona Sikimic
Friday, January 21, 2011

BEIRUT: Water scarcity in the region can be channeled for a common good and used to reduce, rather than ignite conflict, an environmental report released Thursday has claimed.

“The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water” launched at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, proposes radical cooperation between the six concerned states: Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, and envisages the neighbors setting up a mutual monitoring system to guarantee collaboration and more equal partitioning of resources.

“The social and economic development of nations depends on water availability in terms of quantity and quality,” said Fadi Comair, the president of Mediterranean Network of River Basin Organizations.

“It holds a major place on the diplomatic agenda of the [six] governments,” Comair said.

River flows in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have been depleted by 50 to 90 percent in the last 50 years alone, while the vital Jordan River, which acts as a water source for five of the concerned countries, has decreased its discharge by over 90 percent from 1960, the report said.

“This is a serious problem,” said Sundeep Waslekar, the president of the India-based think tank Strategic Foresight Group, which coordinated the report’s compilation.

“Especially as water demand is rising and consumption has gone up from [an estimated] 10-15 percent 50 years ago to 37 percent now.”

With consumer requirements predicted to increase to 50-60 percent over the next decade, further pressure will be put on ever-dwindling supplies, he said.

But “hydrodiplomacy” as outlined in the report has the potential to alleviate “conflicts on trans-boundary watercourse between riparian states [which] will intensify more and more, especially in the Middle East,” Comair added.

Some moves toward cooperation have already been made, especially between Syria and Lebanon, which have signed two important accords to partition resources from the Orontes and Nahr al-Kabir rivers.

However, the refusal of Israel and Turkey to sign up to a key U.N. Convention on the use of International Watercourse, which advocates water-sharing, is thought to have impeded progress. Actions taken by Israel, in particular, undermine the prospect of peace, audience members heard.

“In 2006 Israel bombed the dam on the Orontes River, some 300 kilometers from the border,” said Selim Catafago, the president of the Litani Water Authority. “This message, to my understanding, is to all Lebanese to cease construction on the Ibl al-Saqi dam.”

According to the report, the situation is the most alarming in Palestine, where renewable freshwater resources in the shared Mountain Aquifer have fallen by 7 percent since just 1993, while those in the Western Galilee Aquifer have decreased by 15-20 percent in a non-drought season.

“As a result, the calculations made at the time of Oslo Accords and hitherto used by most international organizations [as the base for the Israel-Palestinian peace process] need to be revised downward to provide a realistic formula for water-sharing between Israel and the future Palestinian state,” the report said.

Water appropriation has created a “high stress” situation where the average Palestinian is left living on less than 30 liters of fresh water a day, with the average Lebanese and Jordanian estimated to be surviving on around 60 liters, said Comair. This compares to 350 liter per person per day in Israel.

The report proposes installing a region-wide cap on daily consumption where all people would be allowed to consume no more than 200 liters.

“Who is against the equitable and reasonable use of water?” asked Comair. “We are all human beings, Christians, Muslims, Jews, whites, blacks.”

However, greater internal coordination is needed before larger steps can be taken. The internationally funded report will be launched at the Swiss Parliament next month, and will also be presented to the U.K. and EU Parliaments.