Picture: 123RF/NITSUKI
Picture: 123RF/NITSUKI

Iran and the US resumed talks in Vienna last week, 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 $3m deal with Israeli state water company Mekorot to tap its knowledge on water desalination. That follows a similar deal in which Israeli start-up Watergen will provide Al Dahra Agricultural of the UAE with technology to produce drinking water from humidity in the air. Both deals come after Bahrain and the UAE normalised relations with Israel last year.

In fact, it may be that the two Arab states decided to recognise 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 such as Bahrain and the UAE may not be liveable in 30 years. The World Bank predicts the Middle East and North Africa will experience 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.

Iran in particular 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 environment department estimates about 70% of the population may be forced to leave the countryside by 2050. Such a possibility could push Iranian leaders to seek co-operation from their Arab neighbours — the very neighbours now co-operating with Israel on water solutions.

There are models to follow. For nearly three decades Israel and Jordan have co-operated 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 arch-rivals Pakistan and India together to co-operate on the Indus water basin.

History has many examples of nations deciding to co-operate rather than compete over natural resources, leading to periods of peace. Faced with a common foe such as climate change, the Middle East might be next. /Boston, April 15

Christian Science Monitor

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