IPI Salzburg Forum: Beyond Oil & Water


A new geopolitics of energy is transforming the Middle East and North Africa. Energy importing countries are turning into exporters, and exporter countries are relying more on energy-related imports. Liquefied natural gas has changed the nature of the game, and investment in renewable energy is at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, the flipside of energy abundance is water scarcity. No region in the world suffers from a greater dearth of water than the Middle East and North Africa.

Energy and water are essential to the functioning of modern societies. Competition for energy resources, the politicization of energy delivery, and threats to energy infrastructure can create international tensions and lead to instability. In times of conflict, scarce water resources and fragile water infrastructure can become weapons of war and targets of attack. On the other hand, water diplomacy and energy cooperation can lead to greater economic integration, sustainable development, and long-term peace and stability.

The challenges for the region are all well known. What is less known is what comes next. How can the region find a new mix of cooperation?

This was the main question addressed at the fifth annual IPI Salzburg Forum: “Beyond Oil and Water: A New Mix of Cooperation in the Middle East,” held from September 2-4, 2018 at the Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria.

Improved regional cooperation will be essential to the development of any concrete response to the transnational problems affecting the Middle East and North Africa. The key will be to build upon what works. Can cooperation over water help to point the way forward? Could the changing context of energy security lead to opportunities for improved regional cooperation? Or will geopolitical divisions continue to limit the region’s ability to fulfill its natural comparative advantages?  

The two-day gathering, conducted under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution, brought together former prime ministers and foreign ministers, diplomats, journalists, academics, experts on the Middle East and Europe, and representatives of civil society. The meeting included an introductory working dinner, which featured a keynote address by Danilo Turk, former president of Slovenia. Participants also observed one minute of silence for the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a close colleague of many in attendance, who passed away on August 18th.

The following day included three discussion sessions and an interactive visual presentation.

The first session, titled “The New Geopolitics of Energy and Water,” painted the big picture of geopolitics related to energy and water today. Alternative energy and new modes of extraction; liquified natural gas; desalination; and access to energy supplies were all discussed.

Session two, “Energy and Security: Cooperation or Conflict?”, addressed whether competition for resources will continue to threaten global political stability, or if the global transition to a new energy economy could provide the basis for new forms of cooperation, especially in the MENA region. Energy demand is growing, as is the means of production. Renewable energy is the fastest growing source, but still relatively small. Demand for oil and other liquid fuels is expected to continue expanding, driven by population growth and increased wealth in Asia and Africa. Competition is fierce as countries seek to access natural resources and tap new markets, in part to power expanding electrical grids.

In the third session, “Water Politics and the Pathways to Peace,” participants discussed the potential role of water in preventing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Recently, rapid population growth, increased rural-to-urban migration, and the physical effects of climate change have further exacerbated the region’s historic water scarcity. A large portion of the region‘s water resources are shared by more than one country through transboundary aquifers or surface water. Water, therefore, plays a critical role in relations between and within states in the region.

Access to water requires cooperation. Yet, across all sessions, many speakers expressed concern in the lagging interest in multilateralism, as countries prefer to go it alone or work bilaterally.

Europe’s cooperation on the Rhine river was offered as an example to demonstrate the importance of multilateral institutions for water. Participants cited the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine, Europe’s oldest international organization, which emerged from common values and has regulated navigation, fisheries, pollution, and construction on the river since the late 1800s. All of these factors presented the potential for conflict, but diplomacy, a sound legal basis, monitoring & assessment, and public participation overcame it. The positive example of the Senegal River basin was also discussed.

While the conference title embraced both oil and water, it was water which dominated the discussions, perhaps because, as one speaker said, there is “already an emerging system of cooperation” on gas and oil. No war regarding water has resulted in a situation that is better,” one speaker stressed. “It furthers problems for all concerned.”

Several speakers noted that investment in water is not high enough up in the list of national priorities. “Infrastructure, energy, and education are all invested in before water,” one speaker said. This is especially problematic given water issues cut across all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). None of the education or development SDGs will be met by 2030 without water, several participants stressed. “We speak often about alternatives to energy,” one speaker said, “but there is no alternative to water.”

Trying to pinpoint what has made this issue so difficult to address, one speaker explained, “Water takes political will.” One reason it is essential to start this conversation now is because scarcity is being exacerbated by climate change, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Illustratively, the Jordan River basin provided the Dead Sea more than 1 trillion cubic liters of water in the 1960s. Today the amount is less than 10% of that. There is a “dire need for improvement,” one speaker said, noting many environmental consequences.

To that end, there are some really impressive scientific and technological advances being made. Participants discussed Singapore’s recycled sewage water, which was supported by a campaign for public acceptance that even saw its Prime Minister drink from a water bottle of purified urine to end the societal stigma. Saudi Arabia, the largest desalinator of water in the world, meets its populations’ water needs with cutting edge technology. This is essential given the lack of rivers and minimal rainfall on the Arabian Peninsula. Even more high tech proposals, such as tapping air to produce H2O, are in their infancy stages.

But sometimes, a more low-tech solution is just as functional. For years, Guatemalans and other Latin Americans have harvested fog for water using relatively simple mesh structures. Zarith Pineda, an Architectural and Urban Designer based at Columbia University, shared her interactive presentation, “No Man’s Land: A Water Commons.” She proposed the use of such fog-harvesting structures to meet the daily water needs of refugees in the northeastern border zone between the Syrian and Jordanian berms. She estimated that just a $110,000 investment could build what is needed to provide water to the area’s refugee population of 77,000.

As for oil, the shale revolution boosted US natural gas production from 1% to 50%. What then, are the geopolitical consequences of the US as a major producer of oil and “new energy superpower?” It certainly has implications for Russia, now facing competition for the European market. It was also noted that Iran is a “wildcard” in the natural gas market, as it has the potential to be a major exporter of oil, though it is currently limited by sanctions.

Another speaker urged participants to develop contingency plans for “what if” scenarios related to the resources discussed, including how terrorist groups could target oil fields or poison water resources.

The discussion broadly centered on solutions for the MENA region, as it was the focus of the conference. But as one speaker remarked, participants should remember that the “water crisis is a humanity crisis, and it could happen anywhere.”

Among the speakers and panelists were Danilo Türk, former President of Slovenia; Mahmoud Gebril, Former Prime Minister of Libya; Fuad Siniora Former Prime Minister of Lebanon; Amre Moussa, Former Secretary-General of the Arab League; Abdelelah AlKhatib, Former Foreign Minister of Jordan; Mustafa Ismail Elamin, Former Foreign Minister of Sudan; Prince Turki Al Faisal, Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies; Snežana Samardžić-Marković, Director-General for Democracy, The Council of Europe; Vuk Žugić, Co-ordinator for Economic and Environmental Affairs, OSCE; Agnia Grigas, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; Christian Strohal, Special Ambassador, Permanent Mission of Austria to the OSCE; Léna Salamé, Trustee, Water Witness International & Geneva Water Hub; Bai-Mass Taal, Former Chair, African Ministers’ Council on Water.

Speaking for IPI were its President, Terje Rød–Larsen; Vice President, Adam Lupel; Director of the IPI MENA Office, Nejib Friji; and Senior Adviser, Nasra Hassan.