Nexus and Peace // "Rivers, climate change, desertification and water tables don't respect political boundaries"
Interview with Ciarán Ó Cuinn, director of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), an international organisation working on solutions to fresh water scarcity in the Middle East.
"As the nexus approach makes clear, to deal with these issues we need policy coherence and dialogue at many levels, both internally within states, and also across borders," says Ã“ Cuinn. "That sort of interaction is often just not possible in the context of unresolved peace processes or ongoing disagreement."
Could you briefly explain to our readers the background and main objectives of the MEDRC and its activities until date?
MEDRC is an international organisation that works on solutions to fresh water scarcity. It was established out of the multilateral track of the Middle East Peace Process in the 1990's with a mandate to assist the development of the Peace Process, and to find solutions to the lack of fresh water across the Middle East.
Uniquely, the organisation includes the Core Parties of the Peace Process and many other supporting States. We run significant water research, professional training and capacity building programmes across the region. We have a strong focus on supporting the water needs of our Palestinian colleagues. We also lead various track II initiatives and support dialogue between the Core Parties in the area of water and desalination.
What attracted me to MEDRC is that complex mission — an organisation designed to sit at the interface of the two of the two most challenging global and regional grand challenges: water and peace.
The original vision for the organisation, born in the context of the multilateral drive for peace, pre-dates the language of the nexus, but I think it's clear that the central concept is there. Your business is the interplay between water, energy and food security. Ours is the interplay between water, energy and food security often in the context of historic enmity.
What are the challenges to a Nexus approach in such a context, and can they be overcome?
The challenges are significant but yes, they can be overcome. They simply have to be.
Trans-boundary problems demand trans-boundary responses. Rivers, climate change, desertification and water tables don't respect political boundaries. So, as the nexus approach also makes clear, to deal with these issues we need policy coherence and dialogue at many levels, both internally within states, and also across borders. That sort of interaction is often just not possible in the context of unresolved peace processes or ongoing disagreement.
The role of an organisation like MEDRC then, is to support the process and engage in dialogue and development assistance with, and between, the various parties. We help develop the internal capacity of the parties to deal with some of the problems individually. But we also support and promote collective trans-boundary dialogue and response.
Collectively, that means, bringing various parties together to develop common solutions to some of these nexus issues, particularly in the water sector. With individual parties it means, for example, working with water authorities and universities to help address their strategic skills gaps, not just now but into the future. That's why, to give one example, we run a large MSc and PhD support programme to develop both shorter-term expertise and longer-term strategic research capacity.
You worked on the Peace Process in Ireland. Are these sort of nexus approaches transferable from one peace process to another?
Peace processes are never directly transferable. Every process is a unique interplay of countless historic, cultural, economic and social forces. Also, often the formal peace process we see on TV will lag many years behind the will of the people on both sides to reconcile. Simplistic interventions transplanted from one process directly to another can do a lot of damage. But, of course, lessons can be learned, particularly behavioral lessons and lessons about the non-diplomatic track.
To give one small example, in Ireland when the formal peace process had effectively stalled in the early 2000's, the process of developing an all-island energy market brought all sides together in a really significant manner. The project was completely outside of the political process. It was in the selfish and strategic interests of both sides and brought a myriad of agencies, academics, enterprises and regulators together in a common project that benefitted the public on both sides of the divide. Finding and developing these sort of projects is really important in any peace process. More than that though, the outcomes of these projects increase the quality of life for the population at large. They also create networks of expertise within and between the parties to help deal with nexus issues.
Leading on from that, how transferable is the MEDRC model? Is that something you are focused on?
In delivering its mission, one of my goals is to ensure that MEDRC can become a viable and transferable model for governments seeking a mechanism to address significant regional or trans-boundary environmental challenges. Practically, that means creating a sustainable model that the parties to other peace process, for example, might seek to use in their own particular context.
We already have very high-level multilateral mechanisms to focus on nexus issues both globally and regionally. The MEDRC model though sits below that, as an effort to deal with Nexus issues regionally, in the context of a peace process.
This sort of model or approach is, of course, necessary elsewhere. For us the challenge is peace and water. For others the challenge will be peace and perhaps desertification, or environmental degradation, disease or any of the complex interplay of trans-boundary issues demanding a solution.
I know you have a significant focus on more energy efficient and renewable approaches to desalination. However, desalination remains an incredibly energy intensive process. Is it compatible with a green economy?
We are supporting research to make it more compatible. The cost and energy requirement of desalination has declined massively in recent decades. We're very determined to see that decline continue. That means greater use of renewable energy. It means more energy efficient use of existing desalination plants and a greater focus on non-revenue water, water reuse and conservation. In fairness I think that's happening. MEDRC is about making it happen faster. So, in addition to research into areas such as solar desalination and reduced energy desalination, we conduct large regional training programmes in areas like solar desalination and increasing energy efficiency. We also have very significant expertise in Non-Revenue Water, systems and practices that minimise leaks and unnecessary losses in water systems. We can also conduct energy audits of plants to reduce their energy footprint.
In the Gulf in particular, environmental sustainability has come from the fringes into the centre of research and the policy debate in an extraordinary way. The research that the Qatar Foundation, Masdar and others are supporting is really extraordinary. The Research Council in Oman also is supporting significant water research, reflecting a profound culture of respect for water in Oman that is evident in its, over a thousand year old, Falaj water systems. Not least, because of the work of the Nexus Resource Platform, this research is not happening in silos but is consciously part of the wider policy and scientific context of the nexus.
Is there a greater need for discussion and focus on the Nexus approach in the context of peace processes?
There is of course. The trans-boundary element and the peace element of the nexus have received insufficient focus. That's understandable. They are the most complex and most difficult part of the equation. The interplay between government, the academy and enterprise, that is so central in addressing the nexus, is difficult across boundaries. It is extremely difficult across contentious boundaries. It is almost impossible in a conflict. That' s why mechanisms such as MEDRC and others are important outside of their immediate region.
Ciará¡n Ó Cuinn is Center Director of MEDRC, an international organisation working on solutions to fresh water scarcity in the Middle East. He has more than fifteen years experience in public policy, international relations and conflict resolution. He was Special Adviser at Ireland's Foreign Ministry, Energy and Natural Resources Ministry and Justice Ministry He worked also as an Executive Director at Dublin City University where he led the strategic planning and international relations functions of the institution.
More about the Middle East Desalination Research Center MEDRC at www.medrc.org
The interview was conducted by Michael Stoyke, editorial team of the Nexus Resource Platform.