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Conflicts and cooperation over scarce water

31 May 2011

Water - courtesy of Matteo Quaglia Morgue

Alongside the lack of democracy, the lack of water is one of the largest problems in the Middle East. How should scarce water resources be shared between neighbours, who in some cases are in conflict with one another? Anna Sundell has studied the use of the River Jordan, which provides the Palestinian territories, Israel and Jordan with water.

Few places on earth have such a severe shortage of water as the countries in the Middle East. For almost fifty years, the scarce water resources have been overexploited, and today the River Jordan is drying up. Anna Sundell studies how people negotiate and argue at local, national and international level when plans are made for future water supplies.

"Despite the severe lack of water throughout the region, there are very few cooperation agreements", she says.

The absence of agreements, coupled with corruption, often leads to water being wasted. In Israel, high water-consuming crops such as cut flowers are grown. In Saudi Arabia, water is taken from fossil groundwater, a non-renewable source, to grow wheat in the desert. Jordanians use the same source to provide drinking water to its cities.

"Sometimes, I am surprised at the short-sightedness of the planning", says Anna Sundell, explaining that a huge water park is planned in the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba. In order not to scare off foreign investors, the lack of water is swept under the carpet. Anna Sundell will soon travel to Jordan to hear what the fading Jordanian environmental movement makes of the plans.

However, the situation is not entirely bleak. There are also ambitious projects which, if they can be achieved, will be a major help in tackling the lack of water. A huge project began a few years ago to lead water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The advantage of this is that it would save the Dead Sea, which is drying up, while energy could be produced, as there is a large drop between the two seas. The energy would be used for desalination of seawater, which requires a lot of energy.

Anna Sundell is involved in a project entitled Cooperation and conflict over the Jordan River, which is part of the strategic investment in Middle East research at Lund University. As well as Ms Sundell and her supervisor Karin Aggestam, researchers from Water Resources Engineering at LTH are also involved.

"It is so palpable in this region that engineering skill is not enough to solve the problems. It is also necessary to understand the political game and have cultural awareness", says Anna Sundell.