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Tapping into climate change: A way to build trust in the Middle East?

Water is a naturally scarce resource in the Middle East, and this scarcity could worsen under the latest climate change projections. Rainfall levels in spring could decrease substantially across many parts of the region, including Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, with negative consequences to rain-fed agriculture. At the same time, extreme events of precipitation, which are expected to intensify, could challenge the region’s existing infrastructure.

These impacts are not homogenous throughout the region. While Israel’s water supply is relatively climate-resilient, owing to its extensive system of desalination and wastewater recycling, water infrastructure in the West Bank is limited due to damages caused by social unrests and restrictions imposed by Israel. Meanwhile Jordan, already considered as one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, is pumping out far more groundwater than is being replenished, amid a growing population and rising water demands.

Regardless of the differential impacts at the national level, climate change – and its implications towards security – transcends political and sectoral borders. The responses and solutions, therefore, require a collaborative effort. Experts argue that tackling water quality issues unilaterally in Israel and Palestine is insufficient, if water continues to be polluted on the other side of the border. Jordan, on the other hand, could alleviate its water-related issues through another resource, namely solar – observers have pointed out that Jordan could offer this energy source to its neighbours Israel and Palestine, in return for their water supply.

Indeed, water has been an integral part of the region’s past peace processes. The Oslo Agreements of the 1990s sought to negotiate water-related issues as part of the peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. Between Israel and Jordan, water has also played a crucial role in bringing the two sides together to agree on water sharing and water quality management issues.

At the civil society level, water is also playing a central role in fostering regional peace and cooperation. One notable example is EcoPeace Middle East, a regional organisation that places water front and centre in its environmental peacebuilding work. Just last year, EcoPeace launched a new report “A Green Blue Deal for the Middle East” that emphasises water as a practical, feasible, and effective policy approach towards addressing conflict and advancing cooperation in the region.

But these efforts need to dive deeper into the political and diplomatic spheres. This is where the international community can wade in. The United States has been a key figure in the negotiations towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it could leverage its position to instil climate adaptation, mitigation, and water cooperation into ongoing peace processes. This might not be such a far-fetched idea, given the current Biden administration’s efforts in placing climate change at the centre of its foreign policy and national security agenda.

How does climate affect security in the region?

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The rest of the international community can also do its part. The United Nations, the European Union, and much of the Arab world, for example, all have very high stakes in the region’s stability and relations. As we enter what many have described as the year and decade for climate action, these international players could embed climate change and water considerations deeper within their diplomatic approaches in the Middle East.

Although water-related issues did not directly lead to the recent events between Israel and Palestine, it could – and has in the past – set the stage for tensions and instability. As such, it could serve as an entry point to build cooperation and trust towards a more climate-resilient and peaceful future across the region. This could be a way forward for those calling the shots.