ECC Platform Library


Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia

25 September, 2013
Eileen Hofstetter, Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation (Interview)

The Environment, Conflict and Cooperation team talked to Eileen Hofstetter from the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation. She is co-author of the 'Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia’ released at this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm. The Inventory was prepared by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR).

ECC: Please tell us a bit about the approach and the main purpose of this Inventory.

Hofstetter: The initial idea to compile the Inventory came from watching numerous discussions on transboundary water resources in the Middle East in which people debated about conflict and cooperation without being able to specify shared water resources in the region. While there is extensive literature on a few surface water basins like the Jordan River Basin, very little has been written on shared water resources in Western Asia as a whole. And, although a wealth of literature exists on these disputed surface water basins, it does not necessarily cover all relevant aspects. For example, the literature on the Jordan River Basin and, to a lesser extent, on the Euphrates and Tigris River Basins, is dominated by a focus on political relations, occupation and power asymmetry. The underlying scientific base is often limited and data is not publicly available, resulting in the republication of outdated maps, incomplete hydrological records and unreliable water use estimates. At the same time, the focus on disputed rivers has diverted attention from smaller shared rivers and tributaries that often play an important role at local level and that may already have been affected by upstream water development projects.

Even less is known about groundwater resources hidden deep underground. Governments, scholars and international organisations have generally focused much less on shared groundwater resources in the region, and literature on the topic is limited and rarely publicly available. The overwhelming majority of groundwater studies is undertaken by or on behalf of national governments, and rarely transcends political borders. Most groundwater maps delineate aquifers only up to the national borders and disregard the transboundary extent of the resource.

Having said this, the main purpose of the Inventory is to provide a sound scientific basis to inform discussions and foster dialogue on these precious resources that have become increasingly important to sustain development in an era of growing demand and dwindling supply. To do so, the Inventory identifies all shared water resource systems within the region and provides a comprehensive, descriptive analysis of each basin. The aim was to present the resource in all its aspects: hydrology, hydrogeology, water resources development and use, international water agreements and transboundary water management efforts in a descriptive and impartial way.

The Inventory started as a desk study based on available reports and publications on shared water resources in the region, and then followed an integrated and iterative process of development, review, consolidation and consultation with regional and international experts and most importantly country representatives. This process enhanced the study updating it with recent, previously unpublished data.

ECC: In a nutshell, what are the main findings of the report?

Hofstetter: We came up with several interesting findings about shared water resources in the Middle East but before I list them, I would like to highlight that the Inventory is actually the first systematic effort to catalogue and characterise transboundary surface and groundwater resources across the Middle East. As such it provides detailed information on 7 shared river basins including numerous shared tributaries and it identifies 22 shared aquifer systems in the region. That means that for every single one of these shared resources, we do not only have a detailed description on the features I mentioned above, but also new maps providing information on dams, irrigated areas, hydrological stations etc. The main finding of this work is the identification of all major shared surface water basins and aquifer systems in Western Asia.

inventory4Now, there are about ten main findings that synthesise and consolidate some of the main issues regarding the identification, state, use and management of shared water resources. It is difficult to pick some findings over others, because they are all important and give an outlook on shared water management in the region. For instance, one finding states that there are more shared water resources in Western Asia than is generally assumed. More than 70% of the study area is part of a shared surface or groundwater basin. A quick look at a map of the region shows that most surface water is shared and originates from outside the region. Another finding points out that water quality is deteriorating across the region, an issue, which is widely eclipsed by concerns over quantity. However, increasing levels of pollution and salinity of both surface and groundwater resources are increasingly affecting the ability to use the scarce water resources available in the region, and are heightening tensions between riparian countries.

Our last finding draws on the fact that it is already too late to save some shared water. This sounds hard but is sadly true. Man-made diversions of upstream surface waters, the over-exploitation of some groundwater resources and intensive irrigated agriculture have already led to the disappearance of intermittent streams, the drying up of wadis, and have rendered some groundwater resources too polluted or saline to use. This has fuelled tensions along international borders, affected health and livelihoods in rural communities, and increased costs to industry. Therefore, more cooperative action and constructive dialogue is needed to sustain the shared water resources that remain.

ECC: What recommendations do you derive for future water cooperation, also with a view to further research?

Hofstetter: There are two important discoveries about water cooperation. First, there is not a single agreement on shared groundwater resources in the region. Cooperation over shared groundwater is rare because resources are often not clearly delineated and may therefore not be recognised as shared by riparian countries. Thus, and in terms of further research, additional conceptual work is needed in dealing with shared aquifer systems. Particularly in dealing with large regional aquifer systems, closer cooperation over these resources will require the delineation of more manageable units where cross-border impacts can occur. Another angle could be the joint exercise of riparian countries to complete, validate and update the baseline information. The Inventory has set the stage for an informed exchange on shared groundwater resources in the region and shows how much work is still ahead of us. It is now to carry on momentum within and beyond the Working Group.

The second discovery the Inventory makes is about water cooperation over shared surface water. Interestingly, water cooperation exists in many cases. It takes place through technical committees and local projects.

However, it is never basin-wide due to long-standing political instability. Existing bilateral agreements tend to be narrow as they centre on water allocation, with an emphasis on infrastructure development and use. Water quality issues are not addressed in these agreements. The problem is that the riparian countries are more intent on dividing the region’s water resources than on sharing them. Both on the level of discourse and agreements, the focus lies on the quantity of available water rather than on the potential benefits derived from its shared use.

This is where we need a shift and further research can help to carve out the potential benefits for cooperation and show ways to move beyond water allocation.


Outcomes of the Stockholm World Water Week 2013: This year, the Stockholm World Water Week took place from 1-6 September 2013. There is extensive event coverage available. The Stockholm Statement makes a case for water as a cross-cutting challenge (not a limited sector) that has to be comprehensively considered on the post-2015 agenda and worked upon using cooperative approaches. Increasing water productivity, guaranteeing access to safe drinking water and sanitation as well as decreasing vulnerability, including water-related disasters, are pressing issues brought forward by the event participants.

Capacity Building

Middle East & North Africa


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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

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Civil Society

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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Land & Food

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Minerals & Mining

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Private Sector

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Sustainable Transformation

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Technology & Innovation

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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