Peer post – A way forward for the Middle East

Last week Lord Alderdice and Dr Sundeep Waslekar, President of the Strategic Foresight Group based in Mumbai, organised an all-day round table at the House of Lords to explore the issue of cooperation in  the Middle East.  The event was addressed by Prince Hassan of Jordan and attended by parliamentarians and policy makers from the region. Here they explain how cooperation on water policy could show the way ahead for the region 

Lord Alderdice
Lord Alderdice

A combination of multiple deadlocks in traditional conflicts and disappointment about the course of the Arab Awakening, have brought despair across the Middle East. There does not seem to be a clear route out of the internal strife in Syria, there is growing hostility between Syria and Turkey and between Israel and Turkey, and the deep freeze in relations between Israel and Palestine seems ever more impervious.  Moreover, Iran’s shadow looms large in all these other conflicts.  Can it be that there is any hope beneath the surface?

As the European nations emerged from World War II a small group of people determined that instead of coal and steel being used to produce armaments for yet another disastrous conflict they would prioritize cooperation on coal and steel as a means to develop a joint stake in mutual survival and prosperity. Eventually the European Coal and Steel Community evolved into the European Union – not without its problems, but a long way from war.

The European project is not the only such example.  India and Pakistan fought wars in 1965, 1971 and 1999. However, during this period they honoured the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 and refrained from bombing watercourses and granaries.  Now they are moving to explore workable solutions to outstanding issues such as Jammu and Kashmir.   North America and East Asia provide other examples of how cooperation in spheres of mutual interest helped reduce political distrust and facilitate cooperation.  Africa, which has been plagued by myriad conflicts is also moving towards regional cooperation with the Southern African Development Community, the East African Community, the Senegal River Basin Organisation and the reinvigorated African Union.

It is no coincidence that the Middle East, which lacks any real institutions of regional cooperation and dialogue, continuously faces instability and violent conflict. In the long run, that region also needs an inclusive, semi-permanent conference similar to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), but in the immediate future, it can begin by establishing institutionalised mechanisms for cooperation in core areas of human development.  Water and water-courses naturally form and often cross borders.  In Ireland, for example, one of the few areas of North-South cooperation in the years between partition in 1922 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 was the Foyle Fisheries Commission and it became a model for the North-South Executive bodies that were such a key element of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought that conflict to a close.

Dr Sundeep Waslekar
Dr Sundeep Waslekar

After initial studies with the World Federation of Scientists indicated the potential significance of water in addressing problems in the Middle East, we have been part of The Blue Peace process, initiated under joint sponsorship of the governments of Switzerland and Sweden and steered by the Strategic Foresight Group.  There have been a series of conferences, a debate on the floor of the House of Lords last year, and other consultations which found substantial support for The Blue Peace report recommendations. They include the formation of a Cooperation Council for Water Resources for Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey and a high level confidence-building initiative on water between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

A mechanism for cooperation between Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey would make it possible for heads of government to find collaborative ways to rejuvenate the depleting water resources, reduce water use by promoting new crops and irrigation techniques, negotiate trade-offs between water and other needs, develop and disseminate modern technologies for containing evaporation and for turning waste water treatment into profit centres by extracting reusable resources, attract large investments and multilateral funds, and harmonise hydrometric standards. Only the heads of government and their trusted aides have the political authority to take such significant political decisions because they involve finance, investment, technology, security and foreign policy at a level beyond the scope of water ministers.  That is why it is essential to ensure that the trans-boundary water files do not languish in water ministries when they require prime ministerial decisions.

However The Blue Peace project is not just about collaboration on water for its own sake.  If senior political leaders meet regularly to discuss collaborative solutions to their water problems, they will also find opportunities for interaction on other disputes as well.  Water can be turned from being a potential cause of conflict into an instrument of cooperation and peace.

The Middle East has a recent example of how cooperation can transform a region quite quickly.  In June 2010, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey decided to create a free trade area and invited Iraq to join at a later date. Within six months they had liberalised the visa regime, harmonised banking standards, expanded the web of telecommunications and launched several industrial joint ventures. Unfortunately, this effort was treated as an ad hoc project without any institutional underpinning and it collapsed in 2011 with the Syrian crisis.

As Europe discovered, it is essential that any future effort emphasises sustainable institutions. We believe that Middle East cooperation would also be assisted by a clear initial focus on water, because it is the most critical trans-boundary resource.  But since water is so closely linked to agriculture, energy and livelihood, active cooperation to jointly harness the benefits of watercourses in the Middle East could have a multiplier impact in large parts of the economy. It could eventually lead to the establishment of peaceful ways of working together on other issues based on positive relationships between human societies, with interdependent economies and a shared environment.

For centuries, the countries in the Middle East have attempted to use land as the basis for determining relationships between their peoples and it has led to instability and conflict.   Perhaps if they began to focus on water instead they might find it was a basis for a new beginning.

Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.

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