Transboundary Water Cooperation deliberated during MENA Regional Workshop in Beirut (3-4 March 2020)

How can transboundary water cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa be strengthened and consequently support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Goal 6 in particular, in the region?

This was the focus of the two-day workshop Enhancing transboundary water cooperation in the MENA region: progress, challenges and opportunities that took place in Beirut, Lebanon, on 3-4 March 2020 and brought together 35 targeted participants from 10 MENA countries, representing Ministries of Water, Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Parliaments together with international development partners, regional organisations and civil society.

Through an interplay of presentations, panel exchanges, plenary debates and interactive group work, the workshop offered the opportunity to discuss the current status of water cooperation in the MENA region, review the progress made, identify the persisting challenges and explore ways to overcome them.

Lively discussions were held on good/bad practices and lessons learnt from cooperation over transboundary surface and groundwater; the examples of the Orontes and Nile River Basins and the Al Disi Aquifer System were highlighted with emphasis on the benefits of cooperation and the enabling conditions for making it happen.

The need to strategically develop approaches for the exchange of data and information was stressed through methodological frameworks and case studies, while interactive group work highlighted the significant data and information gaps at both national and transboundary levels. At the same time, participants emphasised that GIS and reports do not always reflect the dynamics of cooperation and that often enough there is cooperation that is not indicated in reports. Nonetheless, it was well acknowledged that reporting can be a solid means for attracting more funding and as such form a valuable tool.

Furthermore, the workshop shed light on the linkages between transboundary water cooperation and climate change adaptation. Reminded about the alarming regional projections on how climate change affects transboundary water resources offered through the RICCAR Initiative, and drawing upon the practices and lessons learnt from the Medjerda River and the North Western Sahara Aquifer, participants were alerted about background resources and tools that are available under the Water Convention as well as the regional climate financing initiative led by the Union for the Mediterranean and aiming to capacitate and assist countries accessing such types of financing also through national and regional projects.

A large part of the Workshop’s second day was dedicated to the role of international water law in supporting transboundary water cooperation. Special emphasis was placed on the opportunities for MENA countries joining the Water Convention, in terms of the available legal and institutional frameworks, the platform for exchange of experiences and the possible support through concrete projects. Representatives from Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia shared updates from progress of their respective national processes for accession to the Water Convention, while a panel discussion with high-level experts stressed the challenge of ensuring respect for existing agreements, the need for more dialogue including with members of parliament and media, and the value of negotiation as a tool to maintaining peace.

Finally, a set of tools and approaches for improving transboundary water cooperation in the MENA region were shared, including good practices for water allocation and the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem Nexus framework. The latter offers multiple benefits through the inter-sectoral approach it adopts but needs stronger supporting evidence through case studies. Participants stressed the cross-linkages when planning nexus interventions, for example in the use of renewable energy for water abstraction from wells, so that it doesn’t turn counter-productive in terms of water use, or through employment opportunities for local populations through the preservation of water resources and land so that migration can be discouraged.

The Workshop concluded with a tour du table collecting participants’ reflections. There was agreement that the water crisis is splitting the MENA region, complexities persist and transboundary issues – though critical for most countries- remain unresolved. The availability of initiatives at different levels was well acknowledged; however, the need for a mapping exercise for them, along with more dialogue processes and capacity building efforts were also accentuated. The participants requested in particular, trainings and study visits conducted at basin level and emphasis on more case studies showcasing the benefits of transboundary water cooperation, including the nexus application in transboundary regions.

Overall, the participants considered the Workshop a success, having provided a comprehensive overview of transboundary water cooperation in the MENA region and showcasing the benefits, including attracting opportunities for funding. The mixed representation from Ministries of Water and Ministries of Foreign Affairs was particularly appraised and the importance of discussing and hearing from one another in order to understand national interests was well stressed. Finally, the participants acknowledged behavioural change and a paradigm shift -though time-demanding and strenuous- as fundamental for progressing with cooperation over transboundary water resources. 

The regional workshop was jointly organised by the Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia) and in the framework of the project “Making water cooperation happen in the Mediterranean” with financial support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and in the framework of the European Union-funded project to promote and support accession to the Water Convention at global level.

Related information is available also at https://www.unece.org/index.php?id=53364

A back-to-back workshop Supporting the monitoring and implementation of the SDGs - Transboundary water cooperation SDG 6 indicator 6.5.2 for the Arab region was held on 5 March 2020.