The Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation in the Water Sector: Assessment of Progress and Emerging Perspectives

Eugenia Ferragina

Senior Researcher,
Institute of Studies on Mediterranean Societies, National Research Council of Italy


The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), launched in July 2008, was conceived as an initiative to reinforce the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership with the aim of addressing the common challenges facing the region. The idea was to make the integration between the two shores of the Mediterranean more visible to civil society through the implementation of regional and subregional projects. The environment has been at the core of the UfM process, which has stressed the consequences of climatic change on global food security, the need to introduce a common strategy for water sector management and the de-pollution of the Mediterranean Sea.

Priorities of Water Cooperation within the Framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP)/Union for the Mediterranean (UfM)

As the Survey reveals, the assessment of the priority level of water cooperation within the framework of the EM P/UfM initiative shows a high concentration of responses (58%) on the positive side of the spectrum (7 to 10 on a scale of 0-10), 27% of total responses with median values (4 to 6), and only 14% with low values (0 to 3). The responses received reflect a different perception of the level of priority of water cooperation between the EU-27 and the MPCs, with the EU-27 above the Survey mean, while the MPCs are below the mean. Moreover, the answers to the open question D3 express a degree of disappointment of the MPCs regarding the level of priority of water cooperation in the framework of the EM P/UfM. In particular, it is evident that the Mashreq countries consider water not only a matter of survival but also a source of political instability and they expect a major involvement of the EU-27 in the political aspects of water cooperation. Conversely, the EU-27 assigns a high level of priority to cooperation in the environmental sector and to measures aiming to promote economic efficiency in the management of water resources. The academic respondents as well as the women respondents seem more concerned about the impact of climatic change on the world water supply, while the NGO respondents emphasise more the water-related political and social issues.

Graph 1: Assessment of the level of priority of water cooperation in the framework of the EMP/UfM (average on a scale of 0-10, where 0 stands for very low, and 10 for very high)

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the 2nd Euromed Survey

Graph 2: Assessment of the level of priority of water cooperation in the framework of the EMP/UfM (%)

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the 2nd Euromed Survey

Disaggregating the data among the MPCs, a greater acknowledgement emerges of the priority of water cooperation within the framework of the EM P/UfM initiative in Mashreq than in Maghreb countries. These differing assessments could be attributed to the higher expectation of Middle Eastern countries regarding the UfM process and the particular relevance of water issues in this sub-region. In the Middle East, we find the lowest index of per-capita water availability (Israel, Jordan, and the Occupied Palestinian Territory) along with the concentration of three international river basins (the Jordan, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Nile) which represent a source of conflict between the riparian states (Ferragina, E., 2008). Such differing levels of perception among the MPCs are not evident among the Mediterranean and non- Mediterranean countries of the EU-27: the priority of water cooperation within the EM P/UfM framework is evaluated in almost the same way among the members of both groups (6.9 for the Mediterranean EU-27 countries versus 7.17 for the rest of the EU). It is interesting to note that the non-EU European countries show a perception of the importance of water cooperation in UfM policy which is higher than the Survey mean and also slightly superior to that of the EU-27 (7.30 against 6.70 and 7.20).

Assessment on Priorities for Water Projects as Identified in the 3rd Ministerial Conference on Water

The 3rd Conference on Water held in Jordan in 2008 to define the long-term Strategy for Water in the Mediterranean (SWM) was focused on: adaptation to climatic change, balance between water supply and demand, conservation and rehabilitation of natural environments, de-pollution of the Mediterranean, as well as technologies and efficient use of water. Regarding priorities for water projects identified during the Conference, Technologies and efficient use of water is considered the first priority at 7.90 on a scale from 0 to 10 since 48% of the respondents rated this very high (9-10), 32% high (7-8), 13% median (4-6), 4% low (2-3), and only 2% very low (0.10). The second mentioned amongst the five top priorities is Conservation and rehabilitation of natural environments (7.47), which shows 37% of respondents rating this very high, 33% high, 25% median, 5% low, and 1% very low priority. Third in importance is the De-pollution of the Mediterranean (7.45), which 38% of the respondents consider a very high priority, 32% high, 24% median, 4% low and 2% very low. Balance between supply and demand is the fourth priority (7.31), identified as a very high priority by 33% of the respondents, high by 38%, median by 24%, low by 4% and very low by 1%. In last place is Adaptation to climatic change (7.00), which was considered by 33% of the respondents a high priority, and by 29% very high.

Graph 3: Assessment of the level of importance for each of the priorities for water projects identified in the 3rd Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on Water (Jordan, December 2008) (average on a scale of 0-10, where 0 stands for very low, and 10 for very high)

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the 2nd Euromed Survey

Considering the importance attributed to the different themes, it is worth noting that the technological aspects range first in the list of priorities for water projects identified in the 3rd Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on Water. Adaptation to climatic change is the last one, although this question must be considered the most important emergency in the Mediterranean for its strong effects on all the other priorities in the water sector. These results express a tendency – which is common to all the environmental issues – to give more importance to proactive rather than preventive actions in order to face water challenges in the Mediterranean. The open question D4 confirms these results and gives additional details about the level of importance for each of the priorities of the MPCs. The acquisition of skills and the implementation of policies are considered very important in order to improve access to water resources in a context of growing population and climatic change. Special attention is given by academic respondents to the research programme and measures to contrast climatic change, while the women seem more worried about the future impact of global problems such as pollution, population growth and climatic change.

The Strategy for Water in the Mediterranean: Prospects for Progress over the Short Term

The 3rd Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on Water, held in Amman in 2008 within the framework of the UfM, defined the priorities of the Strategy for Water in the Mediterranean (SWM) that should have been approved in 2010. The 4th Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on Water held in Barcelona on 13th April 2010 was supposed to launch a comprehensive water strategy providing lines of actions agreed by all countries in the UfM, with the approval and participation of civil society and different stakeholders. The main thematic fields envisaged were: governance in the water sector, water demand management, adaptation to climatic change, improvement of water efficiency and increase in the use of nonconventional resources. The guidelines mainly referred to the technical aspects of this strategy, but no reference was made to the conflictive role of water in the Mediterranean. This strategic aspect emerged during the 4th Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on Water held in Barcelona on 13th April 2010, influencing the outcome of the conference. The introductory document included a declaration regarding the contribution of the SWM to eradicating the root causes of difficulties, including the problems in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and this statement provoked a formal protest by Israel. Another source of disagreement emerged in the recommendations for action included in the SWM, when the need was highlighted to promote tangible actions to improve cooperation in the trans-boundary basins using the instruments for conflict prevention of international law, such as the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This reference provoked the opposition of Turkey, which requested that the reference to the UN Convention of 1997 be replaced by the term “agreed principles”. In conclusion, the SWM was not approved by the 43 member states mainly due to political reasons and this result made evident the need to launch a confidence-building process among the participants.

The political problems that obstruct the launching of the SWM also emerged in the answers of the respondents concerning cooperation in this field. The level of knowledge and perception regarding Euro-Mediterranean water cooperation is not positive for the majority of the respondents (63.4%), with essentially the same value for both the EU-27 (30.4%) and the MPCs (30.6%). Some differences emerge between the different sub-areas, with a stronger knowledge among the Mediterranean EU countries in comparison with the rest of the EU, and a better perception on the part of the Maghreb countries – which are more involved and have a better knowledge of the EM P – than the Mashreq countries.

Among the eight cross-cutting objectives mentioned in the draft declaration of the April 2010 Conference held in Barcelona that produced the SWM, the best prospects for progress in the short term are envisaged for Supporting research in all water aspects such as desertification and climatic change, for which 55% expressed very positive or positive views, and Increasing citizens’ awareness of the value of water and its culture, with 52% of responses. The same prospects on progress are attributed to Ensuring the capacity-building of water management and environmental protection (52%). The worst prospects according to the respondents are in the field of Ensuring the integration of policies, with positive or very positive views representing only 25% of the total. The assessment of the UfM project Sustainable Water Management and De-pollution of the Mediterranean shows a high concentration of responses (58%) with median values (4 to 6 on a 0-10 scale), and a relatively similar distribution of the remaining answers on both sides of the spectrum (18% disappointed and very disappointed, and 23% positive or very positive). A more favourable assessment emerges of the regional programme MEDA WATER – Resource management, which aims to reinforce cooperation: 41% of the experts and actors who answered the Survey expressed positive or very positive opinions, 53% of responses indicated median values, and 7% negative or very negative views (7%).

Graph 4: Assessment of the prospects for progress over the short term of the objectives of the Strategy for Water in the Mediterranean (average on a scale of 0-10, where 0 stands for very negative, and 10 for very positive)

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the 2nd Euromed Survey

The assessment of the progress of the different objectives of the SWM shows a more optimistic view concerning the scientific, technical and cultural aspects of cooperation in the water sector and a less optimistic view regarding the integration of policies, the participation of stakeholders and the introduction of fair and socially sensitive measures of cost recovery. Comparing the assessment of the UfM project to de-pollute the Mediterranean with the MEDA Water Programme, the concentration of answers with median values for the UfM project appears related to the difficulty of giving a clear opinion about a new project. Conversely, it is easier to express a view about a project that has already produced some results.

Water and Security in the Mediterranean

The failure of the approval of the SWM during the Barcelona Conference confirms that today the great global challenges, such as environmental change or the depletion of natural resources, are turning into strategic issues and influencing international peace and security (Buzan, B., 1998). The connection between security and the environment comes to the fore wherever a struggle for the control of natural resources aggravates conflict situations or, conversely, whenever a conflict causes the destruction of natural resources – or when the increasing frequency of extreme climatic events determines migrations of so-called “environmental refugees”, and leads communities to compete for the two fundamental resources for survival: land and water. In 1993, Myers indicated environmental degradation as a potential risk for international peace and security, although he did not regard it as the exclusive cause of political instability (Myers, N., 1996).

In the context of political uprising in the MPCs, the environmental challenges and in particular water availability will condition the forthcoming events and the economic and political equilibrium in the region. This is the case of competition between Jordan and Saudi Arabia for the exploitation of the Disi Aquifer, a non-renewable (fossil) aquifer (Ferragina, E. and Greco, F., 2008). The two countries do not exchange information or cooperate in the management of this shared resource, resulting in a “tragedy of the commons” – that is, a situation where attempts to maximise the satisfaction of individual needs leads to the depletion of scarce natural resources. In a country such as Jordan, affected by a strong agro-alimentary deficit, the increase of prices in the staple food market in a context of increasing water stress is likely to influence the political stability of the Kingdom.

Another emblematic case of the connection between security and environment in the Mediterranean is the Arab-Israeli conflict (Ferragina, E., 2008). Here we find competition for both land and water – the one inseparable from the other – and the devastating effects of the war on the environment and natural resources. A reconstruction of the hydropolitics (Ohlsson, L., 1995) in the area shows the priority by Israel to control the main surface and underground water resources of the Jordan basin to guarantee the country’s hydraulic security in a hostile regional environment. The lack of cooperation in the water sector has legitimised a race for the exploitation between the co-riparian countries with strong environmental effects. The Tigris- Euphrates Basin is another area where water and security are closely linked. Turkey’s Gap project in the South-East of Anatolia is conditioning the water availability of the two downstream riparian states: Syria and Iraq; it is also influencing the political situation in the Kurdish area. As mentioned before, conflicts cause the destruction of natural resources. Libya, currently under NATO -led attack, is concerned about possible serious damage to the Great Man-Made River Project (GMMR ), a 33-billion-dollar project aiming to exploit the underground fossil Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System to supply water to the populous coastal areas. According to official Libyan sources, damage to the pipeline could leave 4.5 million inhabitants without drinking water (Brown, L., 2011).

All these examples confirm the very sensitive role of water in the area. At the regional level, transboundary water resources have created a climate of hostility between the co-riparian countries, preventing strong cooperation in the water sector and holding back the implementation of cooperation projects in the water sector, such as the Red-Dead Canal or the rehabilitation of the lower Jordan River. The only solution to this deteriorating situation is to make water a tool for cooperation and an opportunity for strengthening Euro-Mediterranean integration as was envisaged in the SWM of the UfM.


Water is a strategic resource affecting the living conditions and political stability in the Mediterranean. In the MPCs, 180 million inhabitants do not receive the minimum water requirement of 1,700 cubic metres per capita per year – and 80 million experience a situation of serious shortage, with less than 500 cubic metres. Water is also important in terms of food security because most MPCs suffer from a strong agro-alimentary deficit. (Ferragina, E. and Quagliarotti, D., 2010). The 2008 Paris Summit that launched the UfM initiative was held during an important food crisis that in turn influenced political turmoil in the following years (Ferragina, E. and Quagliarotti, D., 2009). Furthermore, the existence in the area of many international river basins and of common underground basins where different countries compete in a zero-sum game, elevates the concrete risk of water conflicts aggravated by climatic change (Ferragina, E. and Quagliarotti, D., 2008).

All these aspects have contributed to making cooperation in the water sector one of the most important priorities within the framework of the UfM initiative. The responses of participants to the forthcoming Euromed Survey show the different positions among the MPCs and the EU-27 concerning this matter. In terms of the level of priority for water cooperation within the framework of the EM P/UfM, the MPCs demonstrate a less optimistic assessment of the importance attributed to water issues inside the UfM in comparison with the EU-27. Moreover, regarding the water projects identified during the 3rd Ministerial Conference on Water held in Jordan in December 2008, the MPC respondents express a lower degree of acknowledgement of identified priorities in comparison with EU countries. Conversely, concerning the prospects for progress of the SWM, the MPCs have a less optimistic view compared to the EU-27 countries only in the field of the integration of policies, but express more positive values than the EU-27 in all the other cross-cutting objectives.

Summing up, we can see a less optimistic view of the MPCs concerning the assessment of the level of priority of water cooperation within the framework of the UfM, and a lower acceptation of the priorities identified, but an overall optimistic view regarding the prospect for progress in the various fields. These results can be interpreted as showing a certain disappointment regarding the relevance of water cooperation within the framework of the UfM, as well as less involvement of the MPCs in the determination of priorities for water projects – which is emblematic of the lack of co-ownership of the MPCs. On the whole, however, expectations for the process are positive. This means that it is now time to realise the potential of this new phase of the EMP – in accordance with shared principles of the SWM – and respond to the expectations of the MPCs in a sector that is strategic for their development.


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