June 9, 2015 Society

Improving Regional Cooperation on Shared Waters

Jordan. Aqaba. Glass boats

Cooperation over shared waters in the Middle East and North Africa region is not well developed. The majority – well over 60% – of the available freshwater resources in the region is of transboundary nature and cooperation is called for on these water resources. Political conflict, lack of agreements, unfair distribution and allocation of water are some of the challenges in achieving an equitable and sustainable cooperation. The developments of the last few years has unfortunately not improved the situation for achieving cooperative outcomes on shared waters, be they surface in the form of rivers or groundwater in the form of aquifer systems.

Indeed the Syria crisis has made substantial progress on the Euphrates-Tigris system impossible (and we have even seen how ISIS has used water as a weapon in the conflict through taking over dams, flooding areas and so forth); the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations has led to a the continuation of depriving Palestine of their legitimate rights to water and the conflicts in North Africa is challenging the emergent cooperation on the North Western Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS). As if this was not enough, add climate change and the effects it has on water availability. Increased climate change (which is likely in the region) will lead to increased climatic variability – meaning larger fluctuations in rivers as well as groundwater systems.

This is likely to put an even greater pressure on already strained relations over transboundary rivers and groundwater systems. In the few cases in the region where agreements exist they are based on annual averages and not percentage forms which means they are not flexible enough to deal with fluctuations. The sustainability of the agreements is likely to be questioned increasingly. One key parameter to improve transboundary cooperation is to improve the underlying political and power analysis.

Power, politics and its effect on water cooperation

Much of the support for cooperation over transboundary water resources tends however to apply a largely “power blind” perspective, in the sense that questions such as if programmes contribute to equitable and just cooperation between states sharing the resources are the results. Oftentimes development partners are satisfied if cooperation is achieved while not necessarily evaluating the quality of the cooperation.

A closer analysis of the water relations between Israel and Palestine is illustrative when it comes to power perspectives as well as lack of equitable sharing of water. Israel and Palestine are still living with the Oslo Declaration of Principles from 1993 and the so called Oslo II from 1995. Both of these accords fall short of providing for the necessary joint management of the shared water resources and also fail to provide the Palestinian with their legitimate water rights. While cooperation is provided for through the so called Joint Water Committee (JWC) its functioning is flawed. It essentially provides Israel with a veto over Palestinian projects in the West Bank since decisions are to be taken by consensus. The situation has led to Palestinians not being able to develop a well-functioning water sector, something which was highlighted in a 2009 World Bank report which put a substantial responsibility on Israel and its occupation for this situation. As a result of the defunct setup the JWC is not meeting regularly today, which further complicates the efforts to provide the Palestinians with safe and affordable water.

The Swedish recognition of Palestine from 2014 has been motivated by the intention to put Palestine on a more equal footing with Israel. The Swedish Government has declared that it does not hold any illusions that the recognition of Palestine will rapidly change the current situation but it is the belief that it can strengthen Palestinian moderate forces and make them better able to negotiate on a somewhat more equal footing. Swedish support has aimed at promoting sustainable and equitable sharing of the transboundary water resources in the region. The support aims, among others, to build capacity of weaker parties to enable more equal dialogue and interaction on shared resources. The rivers’ importance to Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis leaves the respective governments with little choice but to act, even as the gravity of any action perceived as a political threat increases the danger of postponing any regionally cooperative efforts. Strengthening the weaker parties in any transboundary situation does provide a means for more balanced negotiations and ultimately more equitable and sustainable outcomes.


Anders Jägerskog is counsellor for regional water issues in the Middle East and North Africa for the Embassy of Sweden in Amman, Jordan. The views expressed by Jägerskog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency or the Swedish Government.