Published on Arab Voices

Four facets of water in MENA’s conflict and forced displacement crisis

Water splashing hands. (Photo: Shutterstock) Water splashing hands. (Photo: Shutterstock)

When he first arrived in Jordan, Abd was shocked by the lack of water. He fled Syria in 2013 after the destruction of his house and out of fear for his children’s lives. But since arriving in Jordan, he has grown accustomed to conserving water and using less of it. “Water shortages are a constant risk,” he said, “and with the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had to buy additional water from tankers at great cost for my family.”

What role does water play in Abd’s life and the lives of millions across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) who are forcibly displaced or facing protracted armed conflicts? Is water just a driver of conflict and forced displacement as we often hear? Or are there other faces of the relationship between water, conflict, and forced displacement? The new World Bank report Ebb and Flow. Volume 2. Water in the Shadow of Conflict addresses some of these questions, and presents four key takeaways:

First, water is more often a victim and casualty of conflict – rather than a primary source of conflict – in the MENA region.  Using data from Duke University’s Targeting of Infrastructure in the Middle East (TIME) database, our report finds that, since 2011, there have been at least 180 instances in which water infrastructure was targeted in conflicts in Gaza, Yemen, Syria, and Libya, leaving hundreds of thousands without access to water.  As more battles are fought in densely populated urban areas with highly explosive weaponry and remotely piloted aircrafts, there is an urgent need to protect civilian water infrastructure from targeting.

Second, water can be a lever for cooperation between countries and within countries in the region.  Historically, and perhaps counter-intuitively, water has more often led to cooperation than conflict in MENA.  According to the data from two well-known event databases (Water-Related Intrastate Conflict and Cooperation data set and Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database of Oregon State University), our report finds that when countries or communities interact over water, they end-up cooperating rather than getting into disputes or conflicts. While clearly this does not exclude the possibility of water-related disputes in the future, it does suggest that research and policy should focus more on the potential role of water for building cooperation.

Third, water is a daily struggle for millions of forcibly displaced people and their host communities  . Abd buys low quality water from tankers, and with COVID-19 his family’s expenses on water doubled because of the increased need for water for handwashing and hygiene. Marginalized groups within forcibly displaced communities face additional challenges in accessing water services. In camps and host communities, measures to meet the needs of people with disabilities are often lacking. Furthermore, in situations of forced displacement, women and girls are most exposed to adversity, and many of the water risks they face are heightened.

Finally, water is key for post-conflict reconstruction and recovery . Policies to empower and build the skills of those responsible for water resource management and supplies within forcibly displaced and host communities can help. In Lebanon, for example, the World Bank’s Lebanon Municipal Services Emergency Project targeted both the host community and Syrian refugees. The project used a decentralized and consultative approach to promote women’s inclusion and ensure that women’s voices were heard when decisions were made about the selection of water infrastructure alternatives for the community. Furthermore, to help post-conflict reconstruction, policymakers have to ensure that water policy remains an integral part of the broader humanitarian-development policy discussions. This will help identify opportunities for collaboration and also avoid that short-term responses to meet immediate humanitarian needs, such as water trucking, undermine the long-term measures needed to address structural water issues.

To conclude, an integrated approach is needed for development actors to promote water security for the forcibly displaced and their host communities. Interventions should be integrated across spatial scales, focusing initially on area-based investments, and then on national-level and even regional interventions. To avoid locking-in countries in unsustainable water management models, policymakers need to manage trade-offs between short-term, uncoordinated measures to respond to immediate water needs and long-term measures needed to address structural water sector issues.


  • Download the full water report here.
  • This work was made possible by the financial contribution of the Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership of the Water Global Practice, World Bank Group. For more information, go to


Edoardo Borgomeo

Water Resources Management Specialist, World Bank

Anders Jagerskog

CIWA Program Manager and Transboundary Waters Focal Point at the World Bank

Carmen Nonay

Director of IEG's Finance, Private Sector, Infrastructure, and Sustainable Development Department, World Bank Group

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