WANA, a North Africa and West Asia forum convened not long ago in Jordan to discuss the environment, a green economy, sustainable development and the revival of Hima, an Islamic environmental conservation practice. The West Asia – North Africa WANA Forum is a long-term initiative that brings together Middle East decision-makers to enact change, including environmental ones, in the Middle East region. Based in Jordan, the facilitator and guardian of the forum is Prince of Jordan El Hassan bin Talal.
At their latest gathering, Green Prophet’s friend the Strategic Foresight Group was there joining over 130 participants, representing over 50 nationalities. Strategic Foresight is focused on water. And it was thanks to their invitation, we were able to join a large delegation of water experts from the Middle East at the beginning of this year, in Switzerland.
Continuing its important mission to help alleviate Middle East conflict over water, the Strategic Foresight Group gives us its update on what it presented at the WANA forum, along with its vision for the future.
1. Green Prophet: Give us a brief overview on what Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) aimed to achieve at this meeting?
Ambika Vishwanath: SFG hosted its first meeting as part of the Water Security Initiative in the Middle East in Montreux, Switzerland in February 2010. Two workshops were held attracting the participation on 60 leading policymakers, Members of Parliament, former Cabinet Ministers and heads of leading institutions across the region.
The workshops discussed broad ideas of action to tackle the growing water crisis in the Middle East. The participants presented several innovative ideas for this end. Following this in May, in Amman at the WANA Forum, SFG aimed to move from general ideas for action to prioritising which ideas have implications for policy changes.
The overall purpose was to create a concrete feasible roadmap for policy initiatives.
2. What are any updates or considerations you can recommend since your last meeting in Switzerland?
Following the last meeting in Montreux, HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan has presented a new approach to break the political deadlock. He has proposed the creation of concentric circles of cooperation – where each circle consists of countries that are a part of the same political dynamic.
For this the first circle would revolve around Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan for sustainable management of water resources. The circle would be based on a shared conceptual premise where water would be treated as a cornerstone of cooperation similar to the manner in which coal and steel formed the basis of regional cooperation in Europe in the 1950s.
Water would be examined as an instrument of partnership, driven by need and sustainability of the entire population in the region. Experiences around the world show that good ideas need sound institutional mechanisms to transform into actions.
3. What are the broader ideas you discussed for action at Amman? Can you give us 3 examples?
One of the key ideas discussed was the creation of a regional entity that would – undertake an assessment of water resources in the first circle; create regional protocols; harmonize water laws for better joint management in the future; and enable projects of a regional nature such as a regional climate change model.
The regional entity would be the first of its kind, involving Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, and would essentially be a concept group of high level policy makers. It is important to mention here that this would be a political mechanism for regional cooperation and not a platform for studies and training, as is already being done by several other organizations in the region.
The participants also identified other areas for action in the area of sustainable water management. Some priority areas include – mitigating conveyance losses; partnership with the private sector to effectively use and gain from modern technology; creating a sphere of awareness and education on sound demand management practices.
Participants also advocated the development and use of small scale solar-powered waste water treatment and desalination plants at the household and community level, and similar solutions that do not require major policy changes and are easier to implement.
4. What nations/regions are the most water stressed right now, and what do you propose for change?
Several regions across the world are water stressed in different ways, from regions of Latin America, to Africa and the Middle East, and several countries in Asia. In parts of Asia, the manner of stress is different, where countries like Nepal face the problem of too much water but too little water, and China and India face a problem of extremely high population growth.
In the Middle East, Jordan and the Palestine Territories are some of the worst in this crisis due to drought and related problems, whereas in Iraq water problems arise of out war and poor distribution. Even Australia, a country that normally does not surface in the discussion on water stress, has faced severe water problems due to the Murray River running low. As is well known, cities and regions across the world are affected by high demand, over exploitation of resources and gross mismanagement.
Most water related problems are inter-linked, where rivers and underground resources follow no boundaries. The UN Convention of 1997 is weak and not mandatory, and hence has not been ratified by all members. In the absence of an international law, there is an urgent need for instruments of regional cooperation.
Concerned Countries sharing common resources have to develop these instruments voluntary, for them to work. There is a dire need for current scientific data and fluid exchange of collected data, as well as creation of mechanisms to obtain the required data.
For example, in the Himalayas there is a big debate on the melting of glaciers, where the projections made by the IPCC were highly criticised; but the main problem is that there aren’t simply any monitoring stations in central and eastern Himalayas where the glaciers are located. Therefore all discussion on the melting of glaciers is based on conjecture. The first requirement is to establish the monitoring stations so we can obtain relevant scientific data on the retreat of glaciers. To do this in transboundary areas, one needs cooperation between countries.
Secondly, China has separate agreements with India and Bangladesh for sharing flood control data, only twice a day for four months. If data can be exchanged separately it will make much more sense to develop an integrated system for frequent sharing not only in the flood months but also in the lean period. Thirdly, we need cooperation in the areas where people living in a basin can benefit from the flow of the river, irrespective of which ever riparian they belong to. This involves developments of hydro-electricity, water efficient agricultural practices, eco-tourism, preservation of wetlands, and disaster management. These activities can lead to optimum use of water resources.
5. What’s next for SFG and water?
For the Middle East, following the proposal of a regional entity as was discussed in the WANA Forum in Amman, SFG is holding consultations in the region to explore the feasibility and practicality of establishing such an entity.
SFG is also exploring other means of using water as a tool for regional cooperation. Specific to Israel and Palestine, SFG is facilitating informal dialogue between both parties and exploring ways to make a breakthrough on problems related to shared water resources.
As part of its Asian Water Security Initiative, SFG launched its first report “The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia” on June 28, 2010 at the Singapore International Water Week. The report is a result of in-house research and participatory dialogue with experts in workshops convened at Kathmandu in August 2009, and Dhaka in January 2010. The report examines water security of the Himalayan Rivers in China, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, for the next 20 years. It assesses implications of the likely decline of 275 BCM of renewable fresh water in the four countries by 2030 for food security, health, migration, bio-diversity, social stability and interstate relations in the region.
The SFG report on the Himalayan river basins provides projections for the next 40-50 years and recommends means of cooperation. The next step will be to calculate benefits of cooperation, including opportunity loss from non-cooperation.
Our experience from the Cost of Conflict series proves that if people are provided with hard facts they do get sensitised and begin to explore alternative strategies. It obviously takes sometime for the change of mindset to be reflected in the change of policy, but we have to begin somewhere.