The issue of water resources has become absolutely crucial for countries in the Middle East and their security. Photo: VicunaR / Flickr.


Water scarcity can cause conflicts in the Middle East

Crises and conflicts in the Middle East seem to have an almost permanent place in Swedish as well as international media reporting. What is rarely mentioned is the effect that water scarcity exacerbated by climate change has and will continue to have on the region's countries and any conflicts that may erupt as a result of the water issue in the future.

The risk of armed conflict is 20 percent higher for every half degree temperature increase, it shows a report by the independent organization International Crisis Group. The summer of 2021 has excelled in reports of extreme heat, and the Middle East has not been an exception, where temperatures have in some places reached up to 50 degrees.

Such a study neither can nor intends to act as an explanation for the civil war in Syria, sectarian violence in Iraq or the long-running Kurdish-Turkish conflict. What we do know, however, is that the aforementioned countries are only three of all the countries in the Middle East that today suffer from water shortages in relation to the amount needed for sufficient food production. The region's overuse of its water resources is six times higher than the global average according to Johan Schaar, member of the expert group for Development Aid Analysis. 60 percent of these water resources consist of cross-border rivers divided between countries with a long history of everything from political tensions to armed conflicts.

Climate change is having devastating consequences for farmers in the Middle East

The issue of water resources has become absolutely crucial for the countries' socio-economic and security future. Climate change is not the only maintainer of insufficient water resources. Population growth, inefficient management of the straining water resources and a growing middle class are all pulling their weight to maintain the water shortage.

In 2014, the World Bank released its report "Turn down the heat" to highlight the devastating consequences of climate change, and especially elevated temperatures, for the Middle East, among others. According to the report, a third of the population in the Middle East and North Africa works in the agricultural sector, which means that farmers in rural areas are at risk of falling into poverty.

National and bilateral conflict risks

The connection between conflict and climate change can be perceived as diffuse, but on closer inspection it is logical. Controlling resources, especially those for which there is a lack of access, is a power game that has caused conflicts since time immemorial. The item is added vital resource to be shared between countries with unstable national political climate and infected relations, conflict risks are constantly imminent. With that in mind, it may seem strange that issues concerning conflict risk end up on the periphery of the climate agenda. On the other hand, the same can be said about the obvious lack of counteracting climate change as a form of conflict prevention in peace and conflict research.

Lack of adequate domestic food production due to drought and lack of irrigation opportunities results in a vulnerability to price changes in the international market, especially in the event of a conflict. VIn the regional conflict, it means a concern about not being able to meet the food needs of its population.

In 2011, when international food prices soared, food prices showed up, among other things constitute a national and later regional security risk. In the same year, the protests during the Arab Spring showed the destabilization regimes may face if they fail to meet the basic needs of the population. Regimes are still afraid of similar scenarios with regard to the impact of dwindling water resources on domestic food production, in an already unstable political climate due to the link between food shortages, poverty and political instability. When national unrest breaks out, there is a concern among other countries that conflicts with neighboring countries generates migration flows to one's own country. This further overloads these countries' own food and water resources, which has created friction between neighboring countries in the region.

Need for regional cooperation

To reduce conflict risks linked to lack of water resources in the region is required binding agreement on access to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Starting in Turkey, the rivers continue through Iraq and Syria, and the rivers make up 60 percent of the region's water supply. Domestic and regional political instability has affected the ability to design joint institutions to deal with interdependence. Instead, today there are most short-term agreements between individual countries without a joint effort to cooperate on water resources. This is worrying for most reasons, partly because the lack of an agreement does not regulate sustainable water use and therefore entails a risk of depletion of the resource.

There are also no regional institutions that can prevent the possibility of using water resources as weapons in conflict - which is called vapenize water resources and is far from unusual. On a larger scale, this could mean flooding or restricting an area's water supply as punishment for political opponents.

"Climate is politics in the Middle East as wellWrote Johan Schaar in the magazine Human Security - and that seems undeniably true. How the water shortage and increased climate impact will affect the region's political climate remains to be proven.


Is there something in the text that is not correct? Contact us at

Share this: