A geography professor, Jon Martin Trondalen spent several years in the Middle East as a mediator in negotiations on water conflicts. Author of the book Water and Peace for the People, released by UNESCO Publishing, he explains that the countries in the region are condemned to get along in order to resolve water conflicts.
Since 1993, you have spent most of your time in the Middle East as a facilitator and mediator on water conflicts. What are the specific aspects of the water situation in the region?
What struck me most was seeing to what degree water was a crucial issue not only politically, economically and socially but also in people’s daily lives. For example, the man I met in Al Hilla (the ancient Babylon), a village located about 100 kilometres south of Baghdad (Iraq), close to the banks of the Euphrates: It was in 1997, the salinity of the Euphrates was such that salt infiltrations were in the process of destroying the field his family had been cultivating for generations. All he was asking for was a small pump to get rid of the drainage water, but UN sanctions on his country at the time made it difficult to obtain such equipment. I also remember the concern of an Israeli hydrology expert: if Lake Kinneret and the Mountain aquifer aren’t protected in the future, he insisted, his country is headed for disaster.
The other striking fact, of course, is how the scarcity of water in the region has caused conflicts since Old Testament times. Scientists predict the region will be the first in history to run out of water. And the situation has worsened considerably in recent years due to significant growth in population, economic development and pollution, and the increase in salinity in major watercourses such as the Euphrates. Water experts in the region are acutely aware of all these phenomena but they have difficulty making themselves heard by political leaders.
Why such deafness?
We can’t really talk about deafness, but it so happens that for the last several years, hope of progress or settlement of conflict-situations has unfortunately vanished in the region. Those in charge at present can find historical justification for being suspicious of their adversaries. It’s hard to get out of such a complex and intricate geopolitical situation. Until now it hasn’t been possible to implement concerted systems of management like the ones in Europe, in the Mekong Basin or in the Indus Basin. There isn’t a single recipe for arriving at these negotiated agreements; each situation is different. You can’t apply the same formula to dealing with the conflict between Israel and Syria over the Golan Basin, and settling the dispute between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over use of water of the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers.
Is there hope we can find solutions to water conflicts outside of a more global political settlement?
Water conflicts are so complex, deep and ancient that we cannot unlink them from their political context. But this doesn’t mean it’s necessary to wait for the signing of an overall peace accord in the region to tackle the problem of water. Nothing prevents us from working on solutions that can be put in place when conditions allow it. Water is such a vital resource it should allow us to rise above short-term political realities.
But this has not been the case until now. We know that even when a threat is clearly identified, as with climate change, policies don’t necessarily follow.
But in the case of climate change, it’s still at the level of scenarios. Water scarcity in the Middle East is already a tangible reality. In some parts of Iraq, the water situation is a real nightmare now. A report published in 2005 by the United Nations Development Programme indicated that 80% of Iraqi families living in rural areas drank unsafe water. Doing nothing means therefore shooting ourselves in the foot. The survival of future generations is at stake.
What is the purpose of writing such a book?
As a negotiator, I don’t usually take sides or express personal opinions. But the situation in the Middle East has become so mired it seemed necessary to point out there’s still room for hope. This book isn’t just one more book describing the water conflicts of the Middle East: Its aim is to find ways to overcome deadlock. It’s not a question of pointing the finger at one country or another, but to show solutions are possible. Of course it can seem easy to provide solutions when as an outside observer I don’t have to bear the consequences of decisions made.
I remember a long meeting with a minister from the region. With photos as evidence, he was accusing the neighbouring country of polluting the river. At one point, I asked him how he could be sure his country wasn’t the source of the pollution. He had no concrete data to back up his claim. To emerge from ideological taking of sides, we have to possess concrete data to evaluate and monitor the situation – and we actually put in a water monitoring station at that point. Yet today in these countries data related to water are classified. There’s no tradition of openness. That’s why it’s useful to call on neutral outside experts who can ensure objectivity in the data gathered.
Launch of the book "Water and peace for the people"