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Blue Peace in the Middle East: A 12-year Journey Towards Water Cooperation for Sustainable Development

Blue Peace in the Middle East: A 12-year Journey Towards Water Cooperation for Sustainable Development Mey Al Sayegh
28/02/2022

 

According to a Chinese proverb, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.This certainly holds true for the Blue Peace Middle East (BPME) initiative which was launched in 2010 with the aim of transforming water from a potential source of conflict into an instrument of cooperation and peace.

Twelve years after its establishment, members, and partners of the initiative from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey gathered for the Blue Peace Days at the Swiss Pavilion of Expo Dubai 2020, between 26-28 February, to discuss the next steps for the initiative.

In its first phase from 2010 to 2018, the BPME was led by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Mumbai-based think-tank Strategic Foresight Group. During that period, the BPME held conferences and workshops, issued reports on the benefits of trans-boundary water cooperation, and led field trips to trans-boundary river basins. These visits to the Rhine, Mekong, Senegal, and Nile basins allowed participants from the Middle East to draw inspiration from successful regional water cooperation experiences around the world.

In 2019, management of the BPME was handed over to the member countries, making it the first regionally owned water cooperation mechanism in the modern history of the Middle East. The initiative is currently managed by the collective leadership of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Over the past three years, the Turkish Water Institute (SUEN) has served as the initiative’s Coordination Office.

During this period, SUEN took the lead on the BPME project activity to improve water use efficiency in agriculture. This included the publication of a number of reports and a training manual, the organisation of trainings, workshops, and a study tour for irrigation experts from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.

Eng. Maysoon Al-Zoubi, a member of the BPME Managing Committee, said the initiative has “improved collaboration on trans-boundary water resources management through multilevel dialogue, for example in the Tigris Basin” (Blue Peace Iraq-Turkey track, joint monitoring and data sharing). She added that there are “promising signs that the initiative is gaining momentum, for example with Iraq sending a high-level delegation to the Dubai meeting.”

Eng. Jamal Mohsin Ali Araan Al-Ani, from the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, pointed to a number of positive steps towards closer regional cooperation over water. He mentioned the Turkish parliament’s ratification of a Turkish-Iraqi memorandum of understanding on water resource management and plans to establish an Iraqi-Turkish water research centre in Baghdad and Basra. At the same time, he said certain issues still needed to be addressed, notably Turkey’s development of the Cizre Dam and irrigation project on the Tigris River and the operational plan of the Ilisu Dam.

While Al-Ani was optimistic about the scope for progress with Turkey, he was more sombre about Iran, which has not expressed any interest in cooperating on shared water issues.

On the other hand, he said relations with Syria had improved since the Iraqi and Syrian ministers of water signed an agreement in July 2021, to cooperate over shared waters and activate the joint technical committees. Since then, three virtual meetings have been held to exchange information about the release of Euphrates waters on the Turkish-Syrian border, Al-Ani added.

Meanwhile, former Palestinian Minister of Water, Dr. Shaddad Attili, who also participated in the Blue Peace Days in Dubai, called on SDC to help Palestinians join the BPME initiative. He added that he hoped the Swiss government and the Water Diplomacy Center would support the Palestinian negotiations team through capacity building and trainings on hydro-diplomacy to mitigate tensions that are likely to arise due to the impacts of climate change in this water-scarce region.

The WDC was established in 2019 at the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST) with the support of SDC, and is likely to play a more prominent role in the BPME.

Amid that, what role can the Swiss diplomacy and SDC, the sponsor of this initiative, play to push this wheel of cooperation?

SDC director Ambassador Patricia Danzi said: “Switzerland has a long history of promoting trans-boundary water cooperation, and through the Blue Peace Initiative, Switzerland plays an active role as a mediator and offers countries its support to manage their shared water resources peacefully and sustainably”.

In turn, Dr. Andre Huber, Regional Head of SDC, reminded that Switzerland, which has a long-standing tradition of trying to talk to all sides to build trust, “is ready to utilise its good offices. However, he recommended not to surpass the managing committee of the Blue Peace who can facilitate dialogue between members of the initiative”. He added: “SDC is currently ready for financial support and at a later stage, if two countries requested our support, the Swiss government and SDC would gladly consider that”.

Next Steps

The BPME is preparing to enter a new phase in 2023. The current Coordination Office, SUEN, will hand over its mandate to the Inter-Islamic Network on Water Resources Development and Management (INWRDAM), a regional NGO based in Jordan. HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan will continue to chair BPME’s Policy Advisory Committee.

Under his guidance, the initiative also has ambitions to expand its network and increase its activities in different areas. Eng. Mufleh Alalaween, a regional water expert at SDC, said the BPME plans to focus on the linkages between climate change and the food-energy-water-ecosystems (WEFE) nexus in the new phase. Iraqi member of the BPME Managing Committee, Dr. Maha Alziydi, will lead a working group in the coming months to outline the range and scope of activities that the BPME plans to engage in.

In parallel, the WDC is to serve as the educational arm of the BPME, and aims to become a regional hub for research and training on trans-boundary water cooperation and diplomacy matters. The WDC is one of the outcomes of the Yarmouk Futures Programme that was implemented under the umbrella of the BPME between 2019 and 2021. The programme sought to establish more equitable and sustainable trans-boundary use of the Yarmouk tributary to the Jordan River.

One of its achievements is reflected in the Yarmouk hydro-political baseline study, led by Prof. Mark Zeitoun, the new director-general at Geneva Water Hub, and it states the conditions for more equitable and sustainable use of the Yarmouk trans-boundary river basin and shows how the agreement is badly developed and does not comply with the international trans-boundary agreement principals.

Prof. Chadi Abdallah, who shared the results of Yarmouk Futures Project at Expo 2020 said: “Under the water allocation regime, no sustainability can be achieved in near and far future with water shortage reaching 300 MCM by 2025”, adding that “Water management is an urgent necessity to reduce the gap between supply and demand, and climate change scenarios resulted in a huge decrease in surface water that may render many dams on the river basin useless”.

Role of Media

Several participants in the Blue Peace Days in Dubai emphasized the importance of greater media involvement in the BPME. Dr. Ghattas Khoury, Lebanon’s former Minister of Culture and a member of the BPME Policy Advisory Committee, said media played a crucial role in raising awareness and reflecting the gravity of the regional water crisis. By writing about the BPME initiative in their national media, he said, journalists could put pressure on decision makers to establish a road map to strengthen cooperation over water in the region.

This is where the Blue Peace Media Lab comes in. Established by the NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in 2019, the Media Lab has over the past three years organized a series of journalist trainings in Lebanon and Jordan with the aim of increasing constructive coverage of water issues in the Middle East. MiCT also participated in the Dubai Blue Peace Days, notably by hosting two workshops for senior water and environmental journalists from the region to identify the challenges they face in covering trans-boundary water issues and articulating new approaches to such coverage. MiCT Managing Director, Klaas Glenewinkel, commented: “Sustainable Development Goal 6 [pertaining to clean water and sanitation for all] is not on track. We need to act on that and tackle challenges such as lack of data and building trust. Media can play a big role in achieving that”.

It is clear that ‘Business as usual’ is no longer an option for the Middle East water sector, which faces an unprecedented combination of challenges from uncontrolled population growth, large-scale migration, rapid urbanization, climate change, inefficient use of water, mismanagement of resources and conflict.

In her keynote speech during the high-level panel at the Blue Peace Days, SDC director, Ambassador Patricia Danzi, said that growing water scarcity in the region is putting peace and stability in peril. “[This level of] urgency makes it inevitable for decision makers, academia, private sector, media, youth, and women to join forces to promote water as catalyst for sustainable development and peace,” she concluded.

Source :http://afedmag.com/english/ArticlesDetails.aspx?id=128

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