Just as water can contribute to conflict, it can also be a source of reconciliation

Article, 09.09.2014

The water crisis and its consequences on access to drinking water, food security and the rural economy are one of the causes of the Syrian conflict. But shared and efficient management of water resources could be a factor for reconciliation. With this in mind, the SDC in partnership with the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies has prepared a report on the water situation as well as that of displaced people in the strategic region of the Orontes River basin.

Orontes River near the border between Syria and Lebanon.

The Orontes River basin which crosses West Syria from south to north is one of the regions most affected by the conflict that has gripped the country since 2011. Public water infrastructure and networks are key elements for territorial control. The strategic nature of the basin has led to large-scale destruction and displacement of the population. Two thirds of this region's four million inhabitants have been forced to flee over the past three years. Beyond responding to the population's emergency situation, rehabilitating infrastructure and managing water resources will be key elements for a future reconciliation process. Indeed, only working infrastructure will enable displaced people to return.

The report: "Syria: The impact of the conflict on population displacement, water and agriculture in the Orontes River basin", written by Syrian experts on-site and coordinated by the SDC and the Graduate Institute of Geneva provides a detailed overview of population displacements, the drinking water supply situation as well as the state of domestic and agricultural water infrastructure in the region. This report is being produced as part of the Blue Peace project. Co-initiated by Switzerland, the project is based on the idea that nations opting for concerted water management live in peace.

Interview with Christophe Bösch, programme officer in the SDC's Global Programme Water Initiatives

A dried-up canal, resulting from the destruction of water infrastructures located upstream © SDC

The report mandated by the SDC contains numerous maps and information describing access to drinking water, irrigation canals and population displacement in the Orontes River basin region. How are they useful?
Thanks to these tools, post-conflict management will be more effective. In a post-conflit situation it may happen that needs must be assessed and an action plan finalized in just two weeks. This is very difficult if the data are missing or are inadequate, and so it is essential to collect and preserve this information.

Who is this report aimed at?
It is mainly aimed at Syrians – whether representatives of civil society and the local authorities, technicians or engineers – who want to restore stability in their country and find solutions. These people have a major role to play and they are strongly motivated, which is why we have every interest in supporting them. Next, the maps and information are also important for the international community active in Syria on the humanitarian front, who will then be able to plan more sustainable actions in regions which have become calmer again. Finally, the data contained in the report are also proving useful to the Swiss government in its efforts to understand the sometimes conflicting aspect of water management.

Do you consider this project to be future-oriented?
Yes, because there are men and women working behind the maps and information being updated. The objective of the report is to give these people the resources they need to work. With this type of support, Switzerland is showing its solidarity with those who wish to remain in the country despite the critical situation.

When was the data collection project launched?
The project was conceived before the hostilities started in 2011. It was aiming at consolidating and updating the knowledge base for the Blue Peace programme. Some basins such as that of the Jordan River have been extensively analysed while others have hardly been examined at all, such as the Orontes River basin. Though the project started in the field in early 2012 after the conflict broke out, we decided to continue collecting data in the Syrian part of the river basin with the support of an informal network of water experts.

To what extent could good water management be an essential part in the reconciliation process in the Orontes River basin?
First of all, we need to take a look at our starting point. Poor water management in the Orontes River basin was one of the factors that triggered the crisis resulting in the conflict. In the past two decades, the agricultural system has gradually collapsed, contributing to a steady erosion of the rural basis of the regime.

Moreover, the agricultural sector that is highly dependent on irrigation has faced several years of drought from the mid-2000s onwards. Thousands of farmers were deeply affected, causing social instability. That said, just as water can contribute to conflict, it can also be a source of reconciliation. Particularly in a society which fundamentally depends on agriculture and an industry that is in turn reliant on water. Good resource management is extremely beneficial to economic growth. On the other hand, managing to guarantee everyone fair access to water is a phenomenal pledge of stability for a country. Populations which may have been marginalised suddenly feel integrated and supported by the authorities. It is often from this moment onwards that they develop a real sense of citizenship. And being a citizen means supporting the stability of the country.

Has the drafting of the report supported by the SDC already fostered interactions between different communities?
It is interesting that people can continue to talk to one another through the Blue Peace project, at least on a technical level. Furthermore, the preparatory work for the report has made it possible to put the Syrian civil society's network of organisations in touch with international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank. This is all the more important as in Syria this civil society network deals with a number of water-related issues, and that Syrian civil society will have to play an important role in the post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation process.