High-level session opens three-day event
The “Water, Growth and Stability: Transboundary Water Cooperation for Sustainable Growth and Stability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)" conference kicked off this morning.
The conference, organised by the REC in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary and with the support of the Government of Sweden, brings together stakeholders from the MENA region and other countries to discuss water management and security at national and local level and to bolster regional cooperation and engagement for attaining a more sustainable use of water resources.
“I hope what we do here can bring us together. We are grateful to the Hungarian and Swedish Governments for their generous support,” said H.E. Jari Vilen, EU Ambassador to the Council of Europe and Chair of the REC's Board of Directors, who opened and facilitated the high-level session.
“Water carries the collective memory of humanity,” said the next speaker, Istvan Joo, Ministerial Commissioner, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary and a member of the REC's Board of Directors. “Water, growth and stability are three crucial considerations that are interconnected.” Highlighting the forthcoming 2016 Budapest Water Summit (November 28-30), Joo added that international cooperation is an absolute must for Hungary, including transborder cooperation.
Peter Kovacs, Head of the River Basin Management and Water Protection Department at the Ministry of Interior, Hungary, and Chair of the UNECE Water Convention noted next that “water reserves are the common heritage of the nation”, but also that, in an ideal world, “all resources should be shared with neighbouring countries. Any UN country can accede to the Water Convention, and this can be a good basis for cooperation.”
Representing the country that is providing support both for the conference and the WATER SUM project, Sweden’s Ambassador to Hungary, Niclas Trouve, addressed the importance of water in egalitarian terms. “Water is a question of equality: equality between nations, equality between rich and poor; equality between urban and rural populations, and equality between men and women.” The ambassador stated that women and children spend 125 million hours each day carrying water to their households, and that male-dominated decision-making processes too often leave out critical input from women.
Representing the country holding the current EU Presidency was H.E. Gajus Scheltema, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Hungary. The ambassador emphasised his government’s commitment to the MENA region, to the EU framework, and to bilateral relations with Hungary on water management. He also said that the Netherlands’ EU Presidency remains committed in its final months to “a very ambitious agenda indeed” before handing over the reins to Slovakia.
Next came brief statements from seven countries: Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. Most of the speakers highlighted similar regional challenges in facing water-related crises: urbanisation, decreasing precipitation, declining water levels and climate change. Also noted with regularity were the pressures that refugee populations from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are placing on already stressed national water systems.
Noting that Yemen is one of the region’s poorest countries in terms of water resources, H.E. Ezzi Hebat Allah Ali, Ministry of Water and Environment, Yemen, added that armed conflict, mismanagement of water resources and population growth are exacerbating this problem. “We need open channels of cooperation with countries that are willing to work with us together in areas of mutual concern.”
Fadi Comair, Vice-Minister, Director General of Hydraulic and Electric Resources, Ministry of Energy and Water, Lebanon (representing H.E. Minister Arthur Nazarian), highlighted the fact that Lebanon is currently hosting more than 2 million refugees from Syria, and expressed hope that they will be able to return to conditions in which they can rebuild their home country. “And we need a process of dialogue that can enhance the peace process”, he said, adding that “we also need to answer the question of how to limit impacts from climate change.”
“There is no life without water”, Algerian Ambassador to Hungary H.E. Abdelkader Dehendi quoted from the Quran. “And to resolve water problems we need stability.” Dehendi then listed several of Algeria’s accomplishments in addressing water-related issues under the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999 following prolonged periods of drought in the 1990s. “In 2015, Algeria moved up to date with all of its sustainable development goals”, the ambassador noted.
Mamdouh A. Antar, Head of the Central Administration for Regional Cooperation, Nile River Sector, Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, Egypt, spoke next, claiming that “Egypt’s involvement in integrated water resources strategy (IWRS) discussions offers high added value.” Noting several of his country’s uniquely difficult water-related challenges, Antar argued that waters of transboundary basins and aquifers should support all sharing populations, and that such considerations provide good opportunities for cooperation in developing legal and institutional frameworks. “What we really need is to avoid taking unilateral actions that can harm countries”, Antar continued. “I look forward to new avenues of cooperation.”
Delivering a specially recorded audio message, Ali Subah, Secretary General, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan, stated: “Water is an integral part of my country’s security approaches.” Another country dealing with an enormous refugee burden, Jordan has taken in roughly 1.4 million refugees in just the past four years, and normal water usage is now exceeding available supply. “The spill-over effects of water crises are violence and unrest”, Subah said. “We need efficient and cost-effective solutions. The challenges are many, but regional cooperation will be instrumental and play an integral part of each country’s development agenda.”
“Morocco has exerted major efforts to address its water situation, but the results remain unsatisfactory”, Narjiss Lamarti Sefian, Head of Division of the Hydraulic Basin Agency of Loukkos, Ministry Delegate in Charge of Water, Morocco, said in her address. She explained that are problems with flooding, urbanisation, wastewater pollution, population growth, mismanagement and a lack of networks. On the positive side, however, “Morocco is trying to keep abreast of all changes worldwide, and is adopting new legislation and new projects to provide potable water and alternatives to irrigation resources. We would like to have support from friends and neighbouring countries in addressing problems”, Lamarti Sefian concluded.
Abderrazak Souissi, General Director of the Office of Planning and Equilibrium Hydraulics in the Cabinet of the Minister, Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries, Tunisia, pointed to the need to involve local actors, both in the public and private sectors. “We are happy to work together with the REC team on the WATER SUM project. And we hope to concretise actions already taken.”
The next invited speaker of the high-level session was Fadi Shraideh, Regional Director, IUCN, Regional Office for West Asia. Shraideh claimed that the complexity of water-related issues is intertwined with climate change impacts, and for these very reasons “the importance of this conference cannot be overrated.”
The session ended with the contribution of Marta Szigeti Bonifert, Executive Director of the REC, emphasising the importance the transfer of lessons learned across borders and continents.
Mr. Zsolt Bauer
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