By Dr. John Wilson, Director of the Office of Technical Services for USAID’s Middle East and Asia Bureaus

Imagine a water- and food-secure Middle East and North Africa.  A region with a reliable supply of water, where no child dies of a water-borne illness, where the hungry are fed, and where no wars are fought over water.

(Left to right) Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani, Vice Chairman, QNFSP; Fahad Al-Attiyah, Chairman, QNFSP; HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan; and John Wilson, USAID

(Left to right) Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani, Vice Chairman, QNFSP; Fahad Al-Attiyah, Chairman, QNFSP; HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan; and John Wilson, USAID Photo: USAID

A group of over 60 scientists, policy makers, and administrators did just that from February 28 to March 2 in Doha, Qatar.  Seventeen water centers of excellence from 10 countries across the Middle East and North Africa came together to create the Middle East and North Africa Network of Water Centers of Excellence (MENA NWC).  The meeting, co-sponsored by USAID and the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP), builds upon a year of intense regional consultation.   The network aims to link technical institutions across the Middle East and North Africa with each other, with counterpart institutions in the United States and elsewhere, with governments, and with the private sector to solve the critical water problems confronting the region.

USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Hady Amr welcomed the group at the opening dinner and introduced a series of inspiring speakers.  U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Joseph LeBaron highlighted the words of Secretary Clinton:  “The water that we use today has been circulating through the earth since time began.  It must sustain humanity for as long as we live on this earth.  We didn’t just inherit this resource from our parents; we are truly borrowing it from our children.”

The MENA region has the knowledge and the expertise, but no country can tackle its complex water challenges alone.  HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan put it best, making an intriguing analogy:  “Here I would like to remind you all of a fragmented Europe post World War II, where no one could have imagined Germany and France talking to one another; yet it was the elements of coal and steel that brought a turbulent Europe together, heading it into its second Industrial Revolution and its second Enlightenment.  Why can’t we through the MENA NWC use the elements of water, agriculture, and energy to bring a fragmented MENA region together, where we can start to talk about water and energy for a better human environment?  There is no better time than now.”

The time is indeed now.  Time is running out.  Water is already a scarce resource in the region, yet the population keeps growing, the climate is changing, and existing water supplies continue to be mismanaged.

Inspired by our opening night speakers, we began a joint effort over the next two days to develop the vision, mission, and charter for the network.  The region’s top water professionals had the opportunity to discuss, with one another and with U.S. counterparts, a more collaborative paradigm to solving the region’s water issues.  In fact, we had a session where small groups discussed topics of shared interest and generated ideas for potential collaborations.

Participants appeared to emerge with a strong commitment to cooperation and a sense of excitement as they look forward to participating in technical partnerships to build and exchange regional science and technology capacity to improve water management, influence policy, expand water supply, and dramatically increase its efficient and productive use.

HRH Princess Sumaya couldn’t have said it better:  “Let science serve the people, and let water be an element of unity.”

As we observed in Doha, water indeed brings people together.  I am excited about the road ahead of us—one that I hope will result in game-changing solutions to the critical water challenges in the Middle East and North Africa.