Event Summary: Ripple Effect: Exploring the Intersection of Water Insecurity and Displacement in the Middle East

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program held a virtual discussion on the Water and the Future of the Middle East initiative on June 26, 2023. Panelists explored the connections between water insecurity and displacement, particularly in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Gaza, with experts Giorgi Gigauri, Niku Jafarnia, and Michael Talhami. Natasha Hall, senior fellow, moderated the discussion.

Water Management Trends

The Middle East is the most water-scarce region in the world. Decades of mismanagement of water and climate change have sharpened water insecurity. These existential challenges, layered with protracted crises and conflicts, are forcing many to leave their homes. The influx of internally displaced persons then further strains resources and escalates tensions in host communities.

As protracted conflicts become the norm, ensuring water security in these politically challenging environments will become more essential. As diplomats fail to resolve these conflicts, humanitarian actors are increasingly stepping in to implement more durable and scalable responses. While states have the primary responsibility to assist and protect the affected population, they often lack the capacity, resources, or willingness to respond adequately. Panelists described how these dynamics are playing out in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Gaza and how the international community, donors, and nongovernmental organizations can and should respond.

Case Studies


Gigauri explained how the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has found that an increasing number of Iraqis are moving due to climate change-related issues and environmental degradation. Since 2018, IOM surveys revealed that 83,000 individuals left their homes due to environmental issues in central and southern Iraq—around 13 percent of the population in some areas.

To address these issues, IOM implements community-based approaches to mediate conflict, provide income-generating activities, and develop disaster risk reduction plans. These activities, in addition to small-scale infrastructure investments in water and sanitation, have seen success in the short term, but it is unclear if they are sustainable. Gigauri acknowledged the importance of private-public partnerships but noted that their success depends on market incentives and the extent of company penetration in Iraq. He noted that some progress has been made in engaging companies like Coca-Cola, but the governments must take concerted action to improve the investment climate.  


Jafarnia emphasized that Yemen is running out of water. Yemen is pumping water at twice the rate of recharge. Over half of Yemen’s population lacks clean drinking water and proper sanitation services. And some areas have already run out of water and rely on water trucking. In Sanaa, Yemenis must often drill up to 1,000 meters before tapping water. She underlined that water security would be essential to avoiding conflict in Yemen in the future.

Though conflicts between farmers and community members over water are part of Yemen’s history, Jafarnia’s interviews confirmed that conflict over water has increased in recent years. Warring actors weaponized water and targeted water infrastructure. These dynamics displaced local populations leading to further stress on water and wastewater management in host communities. For example, Taiz governorate’s water basins are on the frontline of the war, rendering them inaccessible to the local population. Though the majority of the population of Taiz lives in government-held territory, the majority of alternative water sources are in Houthi-controlled territories, effectively cutting the population off from water. Maarib, Yemen, further demonstrates how conflict, displacement, and water insecurity intersect. Formerly an area hosting 200,000 people, Maarib is now home to 2.5 million internally displaced persons. Whereas the community formerly used simple cesspits to deal with sewage and wastewater, the same infrastructure for nearly three million people is unsustainable. At the same time, residents and IDPs are haphazardly drilling wells and pumping groundwater. The depletion of groundwater and proximity to rising levels of wastewater and sewage contaminates supplies for both host communities and the displaced. The increasing frequency and severity of floods are another compounding factor for displacement. Floods unearth and wash landmines into peoples’ homes and fields, displacing more communities and negatively affecting food security.

In Yemen, donors are hesitant to invest in major infrastructure rehabilitation due to the ongoing conflict, but Jafarnia noted the importance of shifting toward long-term development solutions to address the water crisis effectively. She also emphasized that Saudi Arabia, as a warring party, should compensate Yemen for infrastructure damaged during the Saudi military intervention, according to international law.


Talhami focused on the need to prevent major infrastructure collapse and prolonged disruptions in conflict-affected countries. Supporting three interconnected lifeline services—water, electricity, and sanitation—is vital for preventing a public health emergency. Talhami noted that a structured and long-term approach showed benefits in Aleppo, where humanitarian actors aimed to strengthen the resilience of the Al Hafsa water supply system that provides water to over three million people.

Talhami emphasized that unstable water sanitation services and electricity are a ticking time bomb in Syria. Major wastewater treatment facilities in Aleppo and Damascus have been out of service for years. There is a danger of raw sewage flowing to low-lying areas and then infiltrating groundwater—potentially contaminating drinking and irrigation water. Talhami emphasized the need for a concerted effort to control wastewater, monitor groundwater, and maintain infrastructure to mitigate the risk of future cholera outbreaks and other waterborne diseases. At the very least, humanitarian actors and local stakeholders should strive for the World Health Organization’s minimum water standard for preventing health-related, which is around 50 liters per capita per day.


Talhami noted that Gaza’s population, particularly the displaced, struggle with water scarcity and high costs for water services. The primary water source for Gaza is a heavily exploited and polluted coastal aquifer, which is in imminent danger of collapse. Raw sewage seepage into the groundwater, saline intrusion from the coast, and agricultural runoff threaten the aquifer. Only 5 to 10 percent of the available water from the coastal aquifer currently meets the accepted World Health Organization’s water quality standards for potable water.

Ongoing conflict further complicates matters. For example, Talhami discussed the need to diversify water sources through, for example, desalination. However, there are challenges to building desalination plants, such as high costs, the need for constant energy supply, technical expertise, environmental concerns, and vulnerability during hostilities.


Each panelist provided recommendations for moving forward. Talhami noted that humanitarian organizations should develop comprehensive approaches to addressing water, wastewater, and electricity issues in protracted and urbanized contexts. Gigauri emphasized the need for greater innovation and public-private partnerships to meet the growing need with dwindling funding. Jafarnia urged warring parties to provide reparations to rebuild and rehabilitate infrastructure destroyed during the war.

Panelists agreed that donors, humanitarian and development practitioners, and local authorities should prioritize water security even in conflict-affected areas due to the dire level of water stress in the region and the protracted nature of crises. To illustrate this point, Talhami noted that the average time the International Committee of the Red Cross has been present in its top 10 largest operations is 40 years. Achieving water security is difficult for any state or community, let alone states and communities grappling with protracted conflict. However, failing to provide inclusive access to water and sanitation services will have severe consequences for public health and mass displacement

Giorgi Gigauri Headshot

Giorgi Gigauri

Chief of Mission, The International Organization for Migration in Iraq
Michael Talhami Headshot

Michael Talhami

Senior Program Manager, The International Committee of the Red Cross
Niku Jafarnia Headshot

Niku Jafarnia

Yemen and Bahrain Researcher, Human Rights Watch