The protests in the Arab world have instigated a process of wide-ranging social and political change. But will these changes also impact water governance structures in the Arab region?

Writer: Odeh Al-Jayyousi

In the popular protests sweeping across the Arab region, citizens from Tunisia to Bahrain and from Syria to Yemen are demanding greater equity, accountability and transparency from their governments, engaging the whole region in a process of far-reaching and irreversible socio-political change. But will these changes also resonate in the domain of water and instigate the much-needed reform of water governance and water management practices? And are there parallels between the political and social stagnation in the Arab region and the core issues that constrain efficient water management in West Asia and North Africa (WANA)?

To explore these questions, it is important to define “good governance”. This is a term broadly used in corporate, international, national and local contexts, but that is not always clearly defined. The United Nations (UN) has identified eight characteristics of good governance, including that it is consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, equitable and follows the rule of law. These notions can also be applied to the domain of water and the development of good water governance. But does the Arab region have sound water governance structures? And can recent political changes brought on by popular uprisings help inform new water governance structures?

Ineffective reform

The Arab region witnessed the birth of early hydraulic civilizations and has a rich history of water legislation, from the Babylonian Hammurabi Code to Islamic water law. Currently, two distinct institutional water governance frameworks can be distinguished in the WANA region:

– centralized frameworks that manage water resources primarily at the national level through one or more ministries.
– decentralized frameworks that manage water at multiple levels.

While individual water governance models are influenced by a country’s history, governmental structure and local customs, most Arab countries have centralized national water management systems.

A number of countries such as Morocco and Yemen have implemented water sector reform since the early 1990s, creating new legal frameworks to decentralize water management. In these countries, the responsibility and authority for political and economic decision-making has been transferred from the national level to lower, more local tiers of government, including districts and municipalities, but also to the private sector, civil society organizations and even communities or users themselves.

Tunisia, Syria and Jordan have also initiated reform processes, providing legislation to delegate water management responsibilities to lower levels of government, such as local water management committees and water user associations.

Therefore, it seems that over the last 20 years water policies have been in line with good water governance. But while reform measures have been outlined in detail on paper, in practice the dominant autocratic political culture in most Arab countries has prevented the implementation of genuine water reforms and decentralization. As a result, there is little evidence of greater civil society involvement; more informed decision-making; or improved governmental responsiveness, particularly in the water services sector. In addition, little has been done to integrate local traditions, knowledge and practices in broader water management strategies. Water laws are only one aspect of the sectoral reform process. For reform to be effective there must also be an enabling political and economic environment so that laws can be enforced, and accountability and transparency can be guaranteed.

Food, water and energy security

Any reform of water management in the Arab region entails a review of agricultural policies and subsidies, and, more crucially, a significant shift in attitudes to address the closely interlinked issues of water, food and energy security. This is particularly important as the Arab region already imports 50 percent of its water in the form of food.

Countries in the Arab region must link research to development and encourage regional cooperation in order to advance technology and stimulate capacity-building.

The region’s water security is closely linked to its water-thirsty agricultural sector, which uses 83 percent of the water resources on average. However, despite this high water investment, most Arab countries have not achieved food self-sufficiency or even food security. The region as a whole imports 40-50 percent of its cereals and had a food imports bill of €21bn in 2006 according to the United Nations Development Programme. In order to address food insecurity, Arab countries have tried to boost domestic cereal production through agricultural subsidies, while promoting groundwater exploitation for irrigation. This has often resulted in the unsustainable use of non-renewable resources as in Libya, where the Great Man-Made River taps 6Mm3 of fossil water per day from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer in the Sahara Desert and transports it to coastal regions for agricultural, domestic and industrial use. Such a project is clearly the product of a political system in which scientific discourse has limited or no influence on policy-making. Moreover, such large-scale government-backed agricultural and irrigation schemes have proven insufficient to address food self-sufficiency, as in the case of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Data published by the International Fund for Agricultural Development show that in the Arab region, on average 37 percent – or 47.6 million people out of an economically active population of 126 million – were engaged in farming in 2006, down from 47.8 percent in the 1990s. Agriculture’s contribution to gross domestic product is quite low, ranging from 0.3 percent in Kuwait and Qatar to 34 percent in Sudan. The regional average was 12.5 percent in 2005.

This underscores the urgent need for wide-ranging reforms in the water and agricultural sectors to enhance productivity, create new jobs and stimulate research and development into new technologies. The introduction of drought- and salt-tolerant crops, early sowing, supplementary irrigation and new cropping patterns also needs to be considered. In all these areas, science and technology can provide innovative solutions, which allow for the production of “more with less”. Countries in the Arab region must link research to development and encourage regional cooperation in order to advance technology and stimulate capacity building.

The notion of regional water cooperation is particularly important as the Arab region receives 60 percent of its surface water from non-Arab states. This makes regional cooperation among Arab countries and their neighbors essential to achieving water, food and energy security. Countries that share water resources – both surface and groundwater – must also seek to cooperate and develop a new social contract, which engages civil society and promotes interdependencies and mutual gains.

Hydro-solidarity within river basins and regional integration in the domain of water, food and energy are key to addressing regional water challenges. Building interdependence through common projects, and investment in Information & Communications Technology (ICT) and hydro-informatics research is essential to build confidence. Digital tools, such as mobile phones and the internet, were instrumental to the Arab uprisings; ICT should improve the monitoring of water use efficiency and water quality.

For reform to be effective there must be an enabling political and economic environment so that laws can be enforced, and accountability and transparency can be guaranteed.

In this context, the idea of establishing a water, food and energy community in the WANA region – following the model of the European Coal and Steel Community established in 1951 between six European states – is worth pursuing at high policy level.

Reform of key regional institutions such as the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council is a prerequisite for ensuring an efficient coordination of both the human and natural capitals. The key lesson is that the interdependencies between natural resources development, science, technology and R&D need to provide new job opportunities and a positive outlook for the growing, young population. Investing in responsible water resources development for poverty alleviation is crucial for sustainable livelihood and economies.

Policy-makers play a vital role in successful water policy reform by building trust among water users and riparian states. Clear communication is necessary to develop mutual understanding with the introduction of a new water discourse that is true, transparent and comprehensible. Institutionalized public participation, in the form of river basin commissions and water parliaments for instance, is essential to building trust, transparency and consensus about the use and development of shared water resources.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail and Survive, U.S. scientist and author Jared Diamond argued that through history societies have collapsed when they failed to address problems such as those we face today: unsustainable water use, top-soil loss and climate change. In every case, societies contributed to their own downfall by overexploiting the natural resources around them for short-term gain, while ignoring the long-term consequences. The 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun argued in his theory on the cycle of civilizations that when societies lose their moral fiber and the elite exploit the masses, societies fall and civilizations die.

The Arab protests represent a chance for fundamental, far-reaching social and political change in the region. We must seize this opportunity to implement equally radical transformations in water governance structures to secure a safe water future for the region.

Odeh Al-Jayyousi is the vice-president for Science and Research at the Royal Scientific Society and a professor of Water Resources and Environment at Princess Sumaya University for Technology (PSUT), in Amman, Jordan. This article featured in the governance section of the special UfM/Revolve report Water Around the Mediterranean on pages 66-69.