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Environmental (In)Security in the Middle East

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This is an excerpt from Regional Security in the Middle East: Sectors, Variables and Issues. Get your free copy here.

Studying the environment in the Middle East is a cultural and linguistic provocation and an opportunity to reflect on the region’s capacity to maintain economic growth and meet the security expectations of 500 million people. The Middle East deserves attention because of existential threats to water, land, food, and population. It has been argued that the environment is an object to be secured and a source of security risk informed by who and what (Barnet 2013, 191). Security is about access to resources and energy, relationships, and cooperation. As this chapter demonstrates, the availability of resources matters as much as the quality of relationships within a region to protect or degrade the environment. The purpose of the chapter is to provide an overview of the major environmental problems in the Middle East illustrating the role regional governments play in both causing and trying to solve environmental problems. The first section of the chapter focuses on water scarcity as a security issue and a potential field for innovation, research, and technology. The next section is a discussion of water distribution as an inter-state/conflict problem, and the last section discusses land degradation, pollution, and food security as threats to health.

Water Scarcity – A Security Issue

Water is a trans-boundary security problem influenced by availability, use, and conservation. Israel, a semi-arid country, has viewed water scarcity as a security risk since 1948. Scarcity associated with water, land, and natural resources are linked to regional climate and human-made activities including lack of innovation, loss of traditional knowledge, poor understanding of the environment and its destruction. In the Middle East, water scarcity is a problem for all states, a problem of context, culture, and sustainability. While Israel securitises water in the military and economic sectors pressing the population to value water via price increases and education, Iran subsidises water and appeases social conflict in the societal sector. Israel ‘should have been a water basket case’ because of dryland and population increase (Schuster 2017). Yet, Israel’s preemptive action on social responsibility, and water management approaches proved successful. ‘Complete separation of water consumption from Mother Nature’, prevented water consumption on false appearances. Through a holistic water management approach securitised on state’s survival, Israel taught society the importance of water conservation through state led projects and TV commercials i.e. ‘not to be a pig in the shower’, reused treated sewage for farming, finding and fixing leaks, engineering crops, discouraging gardening, making efficient toilets mandatory, and pricing water high to discourage waste (Schuster 2017). Some argue that Israel could afford to invest in water management because of wealth and power. Smith (2009) argues that, ‘in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Palestinians drill at 70 meters deep while Israeli at 300 to 400 meters, and while Israel claims this as a sustainability measure, Palestinians view it as resource capture’ (Smith 2009, 1).

The realisation that water was a natural and human-made crisis helped Israel formulate a water saving plan, develop technology and organisational change to increase sustainability. By revisiting the traditional watering method, Israel reclaimed control over water. Investments in public and private research and technology perfected water desalinisation from the Mediterranean Sea and enhanced water and food security (Cohen 2017). Netafirm, responsible for irrigation technology claims that micro-irrigation saves water because the focus is on the plant not the soil (Schuster 2017). Technology is an opportunity for countries to use and manage water, reduce food prices, and use less fertiliser and pesticides. Israel leads in water management technology and food security and is willing to share knowledge and technology in water management. Israel has an economy that is less water dependent. Some suggest that the model cannot be replicated in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan because of their farming populations (Smith 2009, 1).

Iran has a reactionary approach to water security, risking the survival of the nation and the state. Iran subsidises water, masking a history of missed opportunities to diversify the agricultural sector, allowing pistachio farmers to exploit ground water with no environmental considerations. Experts note that, ‘within the past 50 years, Iran has been using 70% of its ground water supply to support agriculture’ (Darabi 2016). Geographical and climatic conditions pressured Iran to use ‘more than 90% of its water in the agricultural sector’; however, a more proactive approach involving the population would have prevented Iran from ‘water bankruptcy’. having lost water completely in Lake Urmia and the Zayandeh River (Madani 2016). Lake Urmia however, left behind a ‘tsunami of salt’ ready to spread across borders by wind and damage as Darabi (2016) suggests, not only the agriculture of the neighbouring countries, but also the health of the population. The salt issue illustrates an interlinked crisis demanding immediate collective actions based on common shared interests from all power actors. Drought from water scarcity in Iran causes social tensions between farmers, who believe political officials are corrupted by bribes to divert water elsewhere, and other segments of the population who feel they must spend more money on water because of farmers (Dehghanpisheh 2018).

Pistachio farmers, the most impacted and displaced population, requires training and re-integration in the economic and social sectors. Iranian cities are expected to receive more of the displaced people and to deliver water, food and other goods and services to millions of new inhabitants. Technology plays a critical role in reaching and teaching about water scarcity, as half of the population is under 35 and technologically connected, which makes it easier for the government and NGOs to reach and teach. Hashtaging images of great social impact brings water scarcity awareness to the younger generation and strengthens social cohesion. However, despite technology, the population seems at the beginning of the learning curve, not reaching yet the ‘conservation mindset’, because of a decline in government legitimacy. Young Iranians continue to learn about water management through image association and group visits at places once iconic, vibrant, and full of water. The disappearance of the recreational sites at the lake or the river brings people into a state of nostalgia-indication that environmental destruction has an emotional impact.

How did Iran reach this stage? Public officials suggest that, ‘these are the effects of international sanctions policies and their great pressure on the economy and the food security’ (Darabi 2016). Pressure on rivers, lakes, and ground water left Iran in water and food ruin. The government is partnering with the UNDP in sustainability projects to retrain farmers and reinvent agriculture with new water conserving farming techniques, including rotation of cultures and transportation of water with better equipment that prevents water leakage. The strategies extend time to aquifers to replenish water naturally and prevent the formation of sink holes. Prioritising and subsidising the sprinkle irrigation system against the flooding technique helps farmers increase agricultural production, reduce water consumption, and costs for pesticides and fertilisers. ‘Iranian leaders blame the water management policies of neighbouring countries, the presence of US forces in the region, climate change, and overlooking corruption, mismanagement and wrong government policies’ (Majidyar 2018). Iran shares water with 12 neighbouring countries and despite ‘diplomacy and soft power’ the potential for regional conflict is high (Majidyar 2018). Regional powers can guide Iran productively toward preserving the environment by pursuing regional cooperation versus confrontation. According to Iranians, ‘political sympathy from Europe with Iran’s nuclear deal is “not enough”; concrete economic steps should be considered’ (China Daily 2018).

The latest developments indicate that oil prices are falling fast because of Saudi Arabia’s intentions to meet the global oil demand (Petroff 2018). Conflict between Iran and its neighbours will begin from water scarcity and the decline in oil prices. The nuclear deal also has spillover effects on the environment, water and food security. Power hierarchies and the global power dynamic can influence regional tensions between friends and friends and between friends and foes. Within the current environment, new alliances are expected. Rouhani knows that dealing with the environment is no longer a problem of Iran, and the fact that Turkey is working on 22 dam projects could have destructive implications on the Euphrates and Tiger Rivers. Turkey and Afghanistan claim that consultation over projects is not a matter of regional cooperation. Afghanistan accused Iran of being rogue and supporting insurgent groups versus participating in helping Afghanistan thrive environmentally, socially, and economically. Iran however, ponders over how building 22 dams and 19 power plants will not threaten water in Iran. ‘Turkey is building dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, curtailing the flow of water and taking a high toll on Iran’s environment’ (Financial Tribune 2017).

Water Distribution and Potential for Interstate Conflict

Forecasts indicate that ‘water will be the source of next wars’ and Israel will win the fight against Palestinians over common water sources in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (Asser 2010). The relationship between Israel and Jordan will be affected by the appropriation of water from the Jordan River and the frictions from the Red-Dead project. Environmental threats emerge from geographical and climate conditions, as well as ignorance of know-how economic development, population size, industrial pollution, and habitat loss. Water shortage is a regional problem and conflict over water may arise from interdependency, overexploitation, pollution, gap between supply and demand, expanding populations, water management, conservation and recycling, as well as lack of trust and misunderstanding among parties.

Israel’s water and power hegemony in the region cannot be denied; however, evidence shows Israel approaching water security with research, water management, and desalinisation technologies. In contrast, Jordan approached scarcity through rationing and criminalisation of water use for anything other than drinking, personal and domestic use (Namrouqa 2017). Jordan opened its first desalinisation plant in 2017 and hopes to meet........

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