Water shortages in the Middle East could lead to social unrest unless urgent action is taken to transform a potential crisis into an opportunity for a "new form of peace", according to a new report presented in Geneva.
"You are looking at a huge social and political crisis," said Sundeep Waslekar, president of the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group, which drew up the report, 'The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water'.
He said the crisis would result from a decline in the availability of water in the region, which would have repercussions on food crop production, and might in turn lead in turn to migrations from water deficit areas.
The report notes that the flow of the Jordan River at the Dead Sea has declined from 1300 million cubic metres in the 1960s to between 100 and 200 million cubic metres in a wet year and much less in dry years.
The water level in the Dead Sea dropped from 390 metres below sea level in the 1960s down to 420 metres below sea level at present and will be 450 metres below sea level by 2040, if the trend continues, the report states.
"The Dead Sea will become a lake, no longer a sea," said Waslekar, presenting the report at a recent media conference in Geneva. "The Jordan River will disappear for seven or eight months of the year."
The report was drawn up after consultations with almost 100 leaders and experts from Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestine Territories, Syria and Turkey.
It outlines ten recommendations to harness water to satisfy people's social and economic needs, and to enable water to become an instrument of peace and cooperation - something that the report calls a "blue peace".
"While peace is needed in cooperation in water, a collaborative and sustainable approach to water management can build peace," states the report.
The report was drawn up with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
"Water, today a source of division and tension should become an instrument of peace and cooperation," Micheline Calmy-Rey, the president of the Swiss Confederation, told journalists at the report's presentation.
On relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the report describes a "breakdown of trust" between water managers on the two sides, leading to conflicting claims on water issues by Palestinian and Israeli experts.
Waslekar said the report is calling for a "confidence-building initiative" between the heads of the water authorities of Israel and the Palestinian Authority - with international observers - to assess the "real situation" of freshwater resources in the aquifers, the underground layers of permeable rock or soil that yield water.
The report describes the renewable freshwater resources in the Mountain Aquifer, shared by Israel and the Palestinian Territories, as being reduced by 7 per cent since Oslo Accords in 1993.
Among its other recommendations, the report proposes a Cooperation Council for Water Resources for Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to establish common standards for measuring water flow and quality, set goals for sustainable water resource management, and promote regional strategies to combat climate change and drought.
"Together with climate change, water is becoming the most pressing social and environmental challenge of the 21st century," said Martin Dahinden, director-general of the Swiss development and cooperation agency.
At the same time, he noted, "Water is becoming more and more a new common challenge which is bringing peoples and governments together to find innovative solutions."
(c) Stephen Brown is a Geneva-based writer and journalist.He is reporting for Ekklesia from the World Council of Churches' central committee, and on related issues.
The full report (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat file): www.deza.admin.ch/ressources/resource_en_198458.pdf
The Ecumenical Water Network is an alliance of churches and Christian organisations promoting people's access to water around the world - http://www.oikoumene.org/en/activities/ewn-home/about-ewn.html