- Fletcher Security Review
Innovations in Technology for Conflict Risk Reduction
Solutions to Water Insecurity as a Driver of Conflict in the Middle East
March 12, 2018 | Marli Kasdan
From Syria to Yemen, water insecurity is a driving force behind conflict throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Competition over scarce water resources in poor, ethnically-divided, and politically-unstable nations often serves as a contributing factor to the outbreak of civil war. However, sustainable water management allows a state to deal with water insecurity and competition. Two countries leading the development of technology for water resource management are Israel, through the use of desalination technology, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), through the expansion of wastewater recycling plants. Technology sharing surrounding innovations for sustainable water management must be a top priority for the region as a conflict risk reduction tool.
As a region, MENA is the most water scarce in the world, containing only 1 percent of the world’s renewable water resources. Water insecurity in the region can be attributed to low rainfall combined with high levels of evaporation, arid conditions, the inefficient use and mismanagement of water resources, population growth pressures, and ineffective cooperation throughout the region when it comes to dealing with water management. Climate change is a significant force behind the region’s increasing water insecurity, with temperature rise contributing to more frequent and severe droughts, precipitating the need for scarce water resources to be diverted for irrigation in the absence of natural rainfall. In addition, droughts contribute to population displacement and political upheaval, as well as food insecurity due to crop failures. The cases of Syria and Yemen demonstrate how water insecurity is a deadly, destabilizing force; its role as a driver of conflict is currently playing out in the MENA region.
In 2006, the worst drought on record hit the Middle East, causing crop yields to fall by one-half to two-thirds in Syria. This caused 1 million Syrians to become food insecure and prompted a massive migration of 1.5 million people from rural areas to the cities in search of food, stability, and employment. Syria erupted into conflict in 2011 in the wake of the wider Arab Spring. Initial protests surrounded demands for democratic reform of the more than four decades old Assad family regime, but the extreme drought of 2006 to 2010 and water insecurity played a role in driving protestors to the streets as well. The drought’s population displacement exacerbated rising tensions over the brutal Assad regime and poor economic prospects in the cities.
A similar situation is playing out in Yemen. A regional drought in conjunction with a failed water management strategy created a situation of severe water insecurity in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. The drought led to water shortages for 16 million people, two-thirds of the Yemeni population. This occurred during a time of explosive population growth — a 25 percent increase from 2006 to 2014. While the conflict has its roots in the political transition that transpired when the longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, handed power over to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in November 2011 after months of demonstrations, the conflict officially began in January 2015 when Houthi rebels loyal to Mr. Saleh ousted Mr. Hadi from power. Water insecurity in Yemen has become so severe that traditional agricultural livelihoods and the survival of tribal groups are at stake, making the prospect of joining a rebel group an attractive proposition for unemployed young men. Rebel groups can provide both employment and resources, further driving the conflict.
In light of water insecurity as a source of conflict in Syria and Yemen, technology sharing that bolsters sustainable water management must be used as a tool for conflict risk reduction. For example, to combat severe water insecurity, Israel is developing large-scale desalination technology infrastructure that is projected to supply all of the nation’s domestic water needs by 2020. Israeli desalination plants use reverse osmosis technology to force salt-water against a polymer membrane that allows fresh water through while holding salt ions back. This turns seawater into drinkable freshwater for human consumption or for use in crop irrigation. Due to innovations in more efficient technology, the price of water desalination has dramatically declined since the 1970s, and Israel’s large-scale desalination plants are among the most energy efficient in the world. While there are potential negative environmental impacts to water desalination, these can be mitigated through the use of renewable energy resources to drive the desalination process, the sustainable construction of plants, and the proper disposal of residual salts and minerals. Israel has used new innovations in desalination technology, such as larger pressure tubes, high-energy efficiency pumps, and energy recovery devices, to cheaply and sustainably manage its water insecurity problem.
Another MENA country leading the way in sustainable water resource management is the UAE, through its use of wastewater recycling technology. Due to population growth, water insecurity is expected to continue increasing, especially in the emirate of Dubai. To solve this problem and mitigate the chance of conflict over scarce water resources, Dubai has invested in a system of wastewater recycling based on membrane bioreactor technology and reverse osmosis (MBR-RO). MBR-RO systems use a membrane made out of a special compound called polyvinylidene difluoride, which is capable of filtering human sewage containing pathogenic protozoas, E. coli bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microbes in order to turn wastewater into usable water. While this water is not used for human consumption, it is used as industrial water in cooling systems, as mixing water for concrete, and for other manufacturing purposes. In a rapidly growing city such as Dubai, water use for infrastructure construction places a huge strain on already scarce water resources. The recycling of wastewater through the MBR-RO technology creates a new source of water for construction, easing the burden on natural sources of water needed for human consumption.
While it is economically feasible for Israel and the UAE to implement their respective new technologies, desalination and wastewater treatment technologies can be shared with other nations in the region that may not have the capacity to develop these technologies on their own. Poorer countries are more vulnerable to shocks from climate change and more susceptible to outbreaks of conflict over scarce resources, as the situations in Syria and Yemen demonstrate. The implementation of new technologies for sustainable water resource management in poorer, conflict-prone states in the MENA region must be used as a conflict risk reduction tool in order to foster stability to prevent another Syria or Yemen. These technologies are transferable, and they must be shared across the region in the interest of future conflict prevention and regional stability. Water insecurity is driving conflict throughout the Middle East, and the developed countries with sustainable water management capabilities have the responsibility to share their technologies as a form of conflict risk reduction.
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