Two nations along the Nile’s waters, Egypt and Ethiopia, are preparing their militaries for what could be history’s first outright war over water. Tensions between the two are at their highest this week after Ethiopia began the second stage of filling its Grand Renaissance Dam, raising the risk of a water shortage for downstream Egyptians. The prospect of war even led to an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.
The United Nations was able to accomplish little. But a spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said, “Solutions to this need to be guided by example ... by solutions that have been found for others who share waterways, who share rivers, and that is based on the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization and the obligation not to cause significant harm.”
One good example showed up this week. On July 8, Israel sealed a deal with Jordan to sell it 50 million cubic meters of water, the largest such sale of water since the two neighbors signed a peace treaty in 1994. The agreement was finalized days after a secret meeting in Amman between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett. Jordan is one of the world’s most water-deficient countries with most of its aquifers declining fast. Israel is perhaps the world’s most water-efficient nation and a leader in desalinization technology.
The pact signals more than better ties between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. It reflects other moves in the Middle East and North Africa where climate variability and access to water supplies are increasingly seen as central to security concerns. The region is home to 6% of the world’s population, yet less than 2% of its renewable water. It is also home to 12 of the world’s most water-scarce countries.
Frequent droughts, along with population growth, have made the region much more open to collaboration than to conflict. Last year’s peace accord between Israel and a few Gulf States, for example, has led to cooperation on building desalinization plants. Some experts say a severe drought in Iran could be making it more amenable to settling disputes over its nuclear program and ending the war in Yemen.
Water diplomacy has become a necessity in the Middle East. Like water itself, it can extinguish the flames of conflict between nations – like those possibly between Ethiopia and Egypt. All that is needed are better examples of finding mutual interest in sharing a natural resource.