Region can plan now to avoid resources wars

In dealing with urgent humanitarian problems like Syria and Iraq, it is vital the region does not neglect long-term issues of water and poverty

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Iraqis and Syrians escaping political strife and repression can be forgiven for assuming that their plight will never improve. As The National reported yesterday, Iraqi refugees in Jordan have found themselves vying for limited food aid and cash handouts with more than 100,000 Syrians who have escaped Bashar Al Assad's forces.

The Iraqis have great empathy with their fellow refugees, but they are also concerned with self-preservation. "Just like we hurt, the Syrians are hurting too," said Jalal Aziz, a 48-year-old father of three. "But we fear that because we are Iraqi we are not the priority any more."

Such existential concerns are multiplying in the region. Many parts of the Middle East have suffered humanitarian crises for years. But regional political unrest, coupled with natural and economic disasters, now conspire to batter the region for years to come. Droughts, wars and geopolitics will all play a part.

Conditions in Gaza, for example, are well-documented if not always in the limelight. Shortages of electricity, water, food and medical supplies have become commonplace in Gaza since Israel's siege of the strip began in 2007. Elsewhere in the region, other kinds of catastrophes loom as possible results of poor economic policies, barely functioning civil institutions and climate change. The time to prepare for these crises is now.

Water shortages in the region - in Yemen, Jordan and the Palestinian territories especially - are projected to worsen in coming decades, presenting the region's already challenged humanitarian landscape with another, potentially more pressing issue. Cooperation on water rights, modern land-use strategies and sustainable growth will be critical to avoid conflicts. Similar partnerships will be needed in Egypt, the Horn of Africa, and other places where food and water shortages are growing more common.

With many governments focused on power struggles and political upheaval, humanitarian challenges risk going unheeded. The new realities of the region mean that these challenges will only be magnified.

Aid for refugees from today's politically motivated conflicts in Syria and South Sudan is crucial. But critical work must also be done to find lasting solutions to the looming basic problems, like water and food security, that many regional analysts predict.

Long after the political unrest subsides, these concerns threaten to be the drivers of regional unrest for years to come.