Middle East: Water — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 27th October 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat 5:03 pm, 27th October 2011

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan. He and I share many similar interests. He read international relations a few years before I did, but he put it to far better use through a long and distinguished career in academia, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United Nations and think tanks. Looking at his background, I was struck that our House, too, is becoming a refuge for that elite band of political fixers, the special advisers. The noble Lord was a special adviser to the late Robin Cook and to Jack Straw, Foreign Secretaries who in their time were certainly in the hot seat.

The noble Lord also brings a wealth of knowledge on the Middle East, as we just witnessed in his maiden speech. He will be pleased to know that a singular feature of this House is its expertise and strength in numbers of Peers who speak on foreign affairs. No matter how esoteric a subject, he will always find friends here to share his concerns and we look forward to his active participation in this House.

I turn now to the substantive debate, for which I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Alderdice for initiating. It is seldom that one sees an initiative on peace in the Middle East without the presence of my noble friend somewhere in the frame.

Water was always a source of conflict, but what has changed in recent years is that it is being seen much more clearly in that light. It is therefore appropriate that the Strategic Foresight Group has gone to the heart of the region which is most conflict prone-the Middle East-to look at this aspect of what constitutes an impediment to peace and prosperity.

Prosperity in the region, and the role of water in providing for this, is the key to future development for the millions who live there. The pressures of demography, the requirements of agriculture and food security, jobs and livelihoods, sanitation and health and the natural environment are all dependent on adequate supplies of usable water. The politics of water is therefore closely linked to the politics of sovereign statehood. It is seen as an essential element of territorial integrity, but one which is increasingly beyond the control of a single state, if it ever was.

One factor that is gaining recognition in the debates over water security is the advent of climate change. As is now widely recognised, continuing climate change will exacerbate the water crisis in arid regions of the Middle East. Given that average global temperatures are likely to rise by 2 degrees Celsius during the 21st century, Middle Eastern countries are inevitably faced with a worsening water crisis.

This report builds on a successful record of transboundary water co-operation, which can be drawn on as models to go forward. In 1963 the European countries along the Rhine river signed up to the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine against Pollution. This helped to institutionalise co-operation between Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands, and led to a dramatic decline in pollution. In 1972, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes agreement to protect the Great Lakes from pollution. This, too, significantly improved water quality in a heavily industrialised area.

The single distinguishing factor in those successful examples was that those countries already had good relations between each other. There was little fear of conflict and all had an economic interest in improving quality rather than disputing quantity. The main problem with water in the Middle East is scarcity. The competition for scarce water promotes a zero-sum mentality and can lead to greater tension.

Pollution issues, by contrast, are more amenable for resolution in a co-operative manner, as they can give rise to positive-sum co-operation. In the case of the Middle East, as we know, history has a long tail. The legacy of Ottoman rule still affects relations between Syria and Turkey. The more recent tensions in the Lebanese-Syrian relationship are being further aggravated by current events in Syria, and the Israel-Palestine dispute is one which has been already mentioned. The deteriorating relationship between Turkey and Israel also makes political co-operation in the region more challenging, as does Iraq's relationship with Turkey.

Let me turn to the most significant proposal in the report-that of taking a coalition of the willing, to establish mutually agreed circles of co-operation. A body comprising a political mechanism to define and take forward a common vision, to identify priorities, and to arrive at and implement decisions, would represent a major step forward. I like, too, the idea that the co-operation council would create protocols, devise guidelines and promote practical measures for joint projects. In reading the report I was struck by the singular lack of scientific consensus on how much water, and of what quality, was available as the sources flowed downstream. The lack of agreed data sets is bound to lead to conflicting versions of reality. This is further compounded by seasonal variations in rainfall and water surges across the region, which makes it impossible for one country to be able to realistically measure what has happened in another country without any co-operation on the ground.

It is also right that the envisaged activities of the council focus on issues that are less politicised and require relatively low levels of international co-operation. Developing common principles, promoting research, setting up early warning systems and developing methodologies for water management are all sensible steps and can be achieved below the level of high politics. Streamlining the legal architecture within countries is far more doable than trying to get countries to sign up to fresh treaties from the outset.

The proposals are ambitious-rightly so, in my view-in calling for engagement at the level of heads of government and/or high representatives. Unless the political will is there to support and deliver the objectives of the co-operation council, there will be little advance in policy co-ordination.

What was nevertheless confusing in the proposals was the rejection of the council as a negotiating platform. It seems to me that it is sort of self-contradictory to define a body as being run by Governments to reach political decisions yet to deny that negotiations between the parties will take place, particularly where concessions are sought in the face of a perceived national interest.

However, I also take encouragement from the examples of co-operation in the report, using water as an instrument for peace. The 1993 formation of the executive action committee including Israel, Palestine and Jordan, to share information and keep a dialogue open regarding their shared water resources, points the way. The setting up of joint measurement stations on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers also moves us forward. The initiatives between Syria and Turkey in 2009 and 2010 also show promise by focusing on areas where agreement is within reach, rather than being bound down by the evident disagreement that already exists. However, with the political situation in Syria, as with all other politics I suspect that there is now little progress in building on those measures.

Turning to that other long-term conflict-that between Israel and Palestine-I welcome the proposals for confidence-building measures between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. What is urgently needed, however, are moves towards reconciliation between the Authority and Hamas to allow for the Palestinian people to be represented by a single Government. I was in Gaza in July and saw for myself the effects of water scarcity there which are so graphically described in this report. In fact, at the main water management station which we visited, the maps defining usable aquifers painted an even starker picture than that presented in the report.

Overall, the report gave us a wealth of ideas for managing the problem of water. Seeing how pressing the problems are, I was disappointed in its lack of development on the theme of demand management. We know that poor infrastructure, inadequate use of waste water, leaking pipes, agricultural misuse and household demand are all significant contributors to water waste. Lebanon, which is described as being in the middle of the spectrum of water scarcity, loses over 40 percent of its available water to leakage and poor transportation networks. We have the example of Jordan, which loses 35 per cent of its water to bad systems and old pipes, while in some parts Syria loses 60 per cent.

Many of the solutions to managing water can be found in domestic politics and can thus be adopted without waiting for international solutions. Developing a comprehensive water law, investing in drought and flood management and improving water use efficiency by households and businesses are all measures that can be undertaken here and now. I note that the report details Israeli expertise in this area and points to successful pilots in reusing waste water in the West Bank territories. I also know that the UK has expertise in all these areas. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us today whether the Department for International Development has resources that can provide assistance in this regard?

To conclude, the work of the Strategic Foresight Group has provided an excellent platform for anticipating a potential problem, looking at it comprehensively and arriving at pragmatic solutions which can be implemented in the short, medium and long terms. All that remains is to find the political will to implement it. The changes in the Arab world in the past year have provided both opportunities and threats. It is for the countries involved to see that doing nothing is no longer an option. If they are to safeguard the interests of all the people who live in the region, The Blue Peace's idea is one to build upon.