Posted by: EcoPeace Middle East | October 8, 2020

Local Knowledge in Transboundary Water Discussions

by Kathleen Schwind

The Middle East and North Africa, referred to as the ‘MENA region’, has been cited as the most water scarce region in the world. Approximately 60 percent of the region’s population live in areas with high surface water stress (World Bank, 2017). Disputes over the limited freshwater has added to tension between countries and groups at the local and national level, and that tension is still present today. Interestingly, that same water has the potential to serve as a “greater pathway to peace than conflict” (Wolf, 2006). Cooperation over transboundary water resources can lead to both water security and a greater sense of trust between actors that lead to the creation and implementation of efficient, transparent, and fair water management structures.

In order for water negotiations and project implementation processes to be successful, however, a wide range of stakeholders must be involved. The failure to include a diverse group of stakeholders has plagued water negotiation in the MENA region in the past, when water discussions were reserved for high level meetings between ‘experts’. By reserving these conversations for the highest level of politics, the local reality is not taken into account, leading to ineffective and unsustainable solutions that hurt not only the residents, but a country’s agricultural and industrial ambitions overall. A diversity of stakeholders involved in effective water management and collaboration mechanisms is vital at all levels. Both top down and bottom up approaches are needed to keep future water crises at bay. These approaches need to be flexible and transparent, and include people who offer important perspectives, and have the ability and motivation to make change.

That positive change must be made soon. Water at the national level has become largely a political issue, and because water is partially tied to national security, it is difficult for leaders to compromise on topics like water allocation, management, and collaboration, across borders. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC) failed to meet for over half a decade due in part to the escalating political tension between the two sides. The failure of the JWC to convene left water proposals unapproved and water projects uncompleted, which impacted the livelihoods of Palestinians in the West Bank.

But despite the slow moving conversations at the national level, conversations at the local level are still happening and should be supported. Because of the necessity of water, individuals may be more likely to engage with individuals from other countries to discuss water management strategies that can better their own, and consequently their neighbors’, water situation. Water can serve as the catalyst for bringing Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian peoples together.

EcoPeace Middle East, a regional environmental organization, has created a setting where this is possible. They bring together Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians to discuss their shared environmental heritage and fuel cooperative efforts. All parties benefit from the discussions and projects undertaken, in part because the water challenges at the local level are humanized, rather than merely existing as abstract ideas or numbers without context. The dialogue EcoPeace started has bridged the gap between Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, setting the stage for larger peace and understanding. EcoPeace takes an advisory role and acts as a focal point in bringing together these diverse stakeholders. For example, EcoPeace’s “Good Water Neighbors” was founded on the idea that building trust enables joint solutions and problem solving in the water sector that can then lead to peace building, even in intense political climates. Their “Bottom Up” approach sets the stage for meaningful conversations that lead to “cross-border solutions to regional water issues” (EcoPeace). By empowering and educating local constituents to engage with and lead water initiatives, real and immediate change can be made even if the larger political situation remains unchanged.


In 2017 EcoPeace launched the Program on Water Security to create an international platform from which to share its 26 years of experience and successful environmental peacebuilding methodology on a global scale. The Program on Water Security (PWS) connects EcoPeace’s experience in the Middle East with the needs of civil society organizations around the globe. Complementing government-to-government water diplomacy efforts, PWS seeks to advance local environmental peacebuilding initiatives by helping civil society organizations located in water-insecure regions develop their organizational capacity and advance water security for their communities. PWS is building a global network that brings practitioners together to share and learn from one another, while developing collective capacity to build resilient communities in the face of conflict and climate insecurity.

Water challenges are dynamic and multidimensional, and can best be solved by a wide variety of stakeholders. Water discussions on the transnational level often exclude local stakeholders, thus failing to take into account valuable perspectives and “street science”, or the knowledge of what really happens on the ground. When residents have the opportunity to compare and share their knowledge with each other, they can create a compelling narrative told with a powerful voice that can impact water negotiations at the highest level. Local stakeholder groups should continue to share their unique perspectives, building on their vision towards using water as a stepping stone to peace. The grassroots efforts and conversations, fostered by organizations like EcoPeace, continue to demonstrate the power that water has to bring people from historically opposing sides together.


Kathleen Schwind holds postgraduate degrees in international relations and environmental policy/city planning from the University of Cambridge and MIT. Her research focuses on the role of water in peace building, with a focus on the role of water in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Sources

Wolf, Aaron et al. “Navigating Peace: Water can be a pathway to peace, not war.” Navigating Peace, No. 1, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, July 2006, p. 1.

World Bank. “Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa.” MENA Development Series, World Bank, 2017.


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