In the wake of the Arab Spring, how can NATO best support the world's newest
burgeoning democracies? There are many paths to security, but one large one has been ignored: water.
For peaceful democracies to be developed and maintained across northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, water has to flow when citizens turn on the tap. But, without intervention, those taps may run dry. Currently, most Arab countries depend upon fossil water, underground water deposits that filtered through the earth over thousands of years, for agricultural, industrial and residential use. But those aquifers are being drawn upon faster than they can be naturally replenished. As the world speeds toward reaching peak water, our planet's capacity for fresh-water usage, water may become more precious than oil. And the countries of the Arab Spring will be among the most severely affected.
Libya, for example, which consists almost entirely of desert, is one of the driest countries on the planet. Fresh water is pumped from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, the largest aquifer in the world, in the country's south, under the Sahara Desert, through Muammar Gaddafi's Great Man-Made River project. At current rates of usage, the water may only last another 100 years. However, if the new government embarks on large-scale agricultural projects, or if Libyan citizens become wealthier and begin consuming water at Western levels, then the water supply will disappear much faster, likely leading to thirsty citizens, dead crops, famine and political instability.
The threats from water scarcity are even greater in countries such as Syria, where fresh-water aquifers are close to being completely depleted, and where most of the rivers are shared with neighboring countries. In Syria, already in political turmoil, the threat of water supplies not keeping up with demand will hinder the ability of any future leaders to govern.
NATO, however, is in a position to help the Mediterranean countries avoid water- induced crises. For example, NATO could help countries of the Arab Spring develop and deploy wastewater-reuse technologies. While Israel reuses more than 70 percent of its wastewater, not a single other Mediterranean country reuses more than 15 percent of its wastewater. There is no way that countries like Libya and Syria will be able to sate their citizens' thirst in the future if they do not start developing wastewater-reuse facilities.
Additionally, while many NATO countries are poised to benefit from northern Africa's abundant sunshine through the development of large solar-energy fields in the Sahara, the same countries have the opportunity to give back to their southern neighbors by helping them construct desalination plants. Indeed, a portion of the solar energy destined for Europe could be used locally to power desalination plants, with construction paid for by NATO.
Indeed, a smart water plan is needed for the entire Mediterranean basin. Water innovations developed by NATO for northern Africa also would benefit NATO members that experience water shortages, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Lastly, it is wise to remember that developing new sources of water is not the only approach to ensuring an adequate supply of water: Smart water-conservation programs would help ensure that less water is used for the same outcome. NATO could help by supporting educational programs on water conservation. Additionally, NATO could work with countries' agricultural ministries in developing plans for incentivizing farmers to plant water-efficient crops and discouraging the planting of water-thirsty crops. Egyptian cotton may be considered of high quality, but continued widespread cultivation of the water-intensive crop may jeopardize the ability of Egypt to quench the thirst of its citizens.
It has long been said that the next world war will be fought over water. But it does not need to be. War may be averted and countless lives will be saved if NATO and its constituent nations lead the way in developing smart international water policy.
David Krantz studies nonprofit management and public policy analysis at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where he is active in the Wagner Climate Coalition and Wagner Environmental Policy & Action.