by Charlotta Sparre | Mar 21, 2013

In Jordan, we experience on daily basis the realities of living in one of the world’s most water-poor countries. The challenges ahead are immense: increased population pressure, urbanisation, pollution, climate change.

Water resources are predicted to be even scarcer in the future. Access to safe water is increasingly becoming a bottleneck to development in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa region.

To add to the complexity, a large part of the water resources in the region are shared by two or more countries. Thus, many countries depend on water sources being shared with their neighbours.

The Arab Human Development Report 2009, “Challenges to Human Security in the Middle East”, identified water scarcity, water pollution and climate change as main threats to the human security in the region. In addition, water scarcity and pollution threaten agricultural and food production. The report underlined the negative effects of ongoing conflicts and the need for regional cooperation in order to meet the challenges of the region.

The situation has not become less challenging since the release of this report — on the contrary, the impact of climate change, drought and pollution is becoming more evident by the day.

As demonstrated throughout the Arab Spring countries, hiking food prices and lack of basic services could also trigger social unrest.

As weather-related risks, which typically involve the water sector, are becoming more frequent than before, people will have less time to recuperate and rebuild their incomes and lives between bad years. The ability of individuals, communities and countries to anticipate such risks, respond and cope will be increasingly important in the near future in order to recover and continue to develop.

Strategies for building such resilience must thus be a key priority and underlying root causes need to be addressed.

The question we must ask ourselves is, however, whether a water crisis is unavoidable, or whether there are steps that can be taken to mitigate or prevent the somewhat bleak scenario for the future.

In 2011 the Mumbai-based think tank “Strategic Foresight Group” published a report, “The Blue Peace”, funded by the Swedish and Swiss governments. The report examined long-term prospects for seven countries in the Middle East (Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Israel). It redefined water as an opportunity for social and economic development rather than a source of potential conflict in the Middle East. It introduced a new form of peace, based on mutual stakes in survival and prosperity among different peoples and also between people and nature.

The report argued that while often water scarcity is mentioned as a potential source of conflict, the interdependence can open up for win-win solutions, and suggested that there is much to be gained through increased cooperation and benefit sharing among countries.

This is why Sweden currently supports regional partners to implement some of the recommendations in “the Blue Peace” report.

Sweden is also supporting a number of other water projects in the MENA region, and Jordan is a key partner in this cooperation, which has a focus on trans-boundary water cooperation in the sub-regions of the Jordan River and the Euphrates-Tigris, as well as the catering for regional capacity building for integrated water resource management.

The Swedish regional cooperation includes support to the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Study Programme; cooperation with the Friends of the Earth Middle East through its “Good Water Neighbours” project; support to the development of a regional climate model, through the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (UNESCWA); and cooperation with “Arab Countries Water Utilities Association (ACWUA)” and its headquarters in Amman.

At global level, Sweden is also active, and for many years, the World Water Week is arranged yearly in Stockholm by SIWI (Stockholm International Water Institute).

Access to clean water plays a direct role in the quality of people’s life worldwide, and is a necessary ingredient in economic and social development.

While still being a precondition for development, as reflected in MDG7, access to water and sanitation services remains a challenge for people around the world.

The consensus within the UN that water and sanitation are human rights may help trigger development in this field.

For more than 20 years, the International World Water Day is marked annually on March 22, as a means of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.

This year is also declared by the UN as the International Year for Water Cooperation. Promoting water cooperation implies an interdisciplinary approach bringing in cultural, educational and scientific aspects, as well as religious, ethical, social, political, legal, institutional and economic dimensions. This cooperation is fundamental for both the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on water.

The water future is in our own hands and there is no better time to act than now. We all have a role to play, be it as politicians, decision makers, researchers, water suppliers, water users or international organisations. We cannot afford to turn away from the challenges ahead as our future and the well-being of coming generations are at stake. The question at hand still remains as valid as ever: How can we turn the water issue from a potential source of conflict into an opportunity for peace, cooperation and development?

The writer is the ambassador of Sweden to Jordan. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.