May 7, 2021

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Why a parched Iran may seek peace

Iran and the United States resumed talks in Vienna on Thursday, and from news reports, one might think the Middle East’s future rests on a result that restrains Iran’s aggression and nuclear ambitions. Yet other negotiations are afoot that may have far more impact on the region. They are not over weapons but over water.

In March, Bahrain signed a $3 million deal with the Israeli state water company Mekorot to tap its knowledge on water desalination. That follows a similar deal in which Israeli startup Watergen will provide Al Dahra Agricultural Co. of the United Arab Emirates with technology to produce drinking water from humidity in the air. Both deals come after Bahrain and the UAE normalized relations with Israel last year.

In fact, it may be that the two Arab states decided to recognize Israel in part to get help in coping with the effects of climate change on water supplies. The Middle East is heating up faster than any other region. Forecasts indicate parts like Bahrain and the UAE may not be livable in 30 years. The World Bank predicts the Middle East and North Africa will see the highest economic losses from climate-related water scarcity.

That makes collaboration over water issues far more appealing than conflict over religion, Israel, or other traditional issues. “Climate change is a faceless enemy that knows no borders and building fences will not be enough. We need regional cooperation,” Michael Herzog, a former Israeli general and fellow at the Washington Institute, told The Times of Israel.

In particular, Iran has struggled with acute droughts, resulting in regular protests by farmers over water supplies. About 85% of the country is arid or semiarid, and now higher temperatures have forced the regime to improve water management. Iran’s Department of Environment estimates about 70% of the population will be forced to leave the country by 2050. Such a possibility could push Iranian leaders to seek cooperation from their Arab neighbors – the very neighbors now cooperating with Israel on water solutions.

Environmental cooperation already exists between Iran and the Gulf states. Since 1978, they have worked together on protecting their shared marine areas from pollution. Expanding that collaboration to water resources could result in a potential for “environmental peacemaking.”

They have models to follow. For nearly three decades, Israel and Jordan have cooperated on water supplies with the help of the nonprofit group EcoPeace. Another example is the Indus Waters Treaty, brokered by the World Bank in 1960, which brought archrivals Pakistan and India together to cooperate on the Indus water basin.

History has many examples of nations deciding to cooperate rather than compete over natural resources, leading to periods of peace. Faced with a common foe like climate change, the Middle East might be next. Weapons have helped divide the region. A shared thirst in a parched land might bring it together.

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