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Cornell Hosts Conference on Middle East Water Scarcity

Scholars from Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Spain, and Tunisia gathered at the Law School for a conference on Water Scarcity and Policy in the Middle East and Mediterranean. The conference, held on November 4, 5, and 6, addressed the legal, technical, political, and cultural problems of the region, focusing on potential solutions in water rights, land use, resource management, and water sharing.

"Our objective was to bring together scholars from different disciplines to discuss the implications of water law and policy in one of the driest regions of the world," said professor Chantal Thomas, who directs the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, which co-sponsored the event. "This conference reinforced how directly connected scarcity issues are to the central political conflicts of the region, which both affect and are affected by disputes over access to water."

In a pre-conference panel, Natasha Bhushan, J.D. candidate '12, provided the international legal context for water management in the Mediterranean; Diana Biller, J.D. candidate '13, lectured on "Localizing Water: The Benefits and Drawbacks of Community-Based Water Schemes"; Tamaron Greene, J.D. candidate '12, presented an example of using the democratic process in North African groundwater resource management; and Matt Danforth, J.D./LL.M. candidate '12, talked about "Equity in Water Privatization: Balancing Governance and Financial Incentives for Private Participation."

The conference formally opened with a welcome by Baylie Damtie, president of Bahir Dar University, who discussed his university’s role in Ethiopia’s five-year program to improve the lives of its poorest citizens through water conservation, hydroelectric power, and renegotiated treaties within the region. "Ethiopia's plan to combat the poverty in our country depends on water," he said. "We have a huge amount of water resource, but the part we have used up to this point is next to none."

Panel presentations continued on Saturday, with speakers focusing on groundwater law in the Nile Basin, post-revolution resource management in Tunisia, land acquisition in Ethiopia, and the amount of water necessary to sustain a viable Palestinian state. In Saturday's keynote address, Stephen McCaffrey, professor at McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, asked and answered the question, "Is There International Water Law in the 21st Century?"

"Yes, I think there is," argued McCaffrey, whose work formed the basis of the 1997 United Nations convention on non-navigational uses of international watercourses, which remains ten nations short of becoming fully ratified. "The codification of treaty, even one that is not in force, makes a difference as a practical matter, and the evidence is observable both in state practice and judicial decisions… Neither party in a dispute may have ratified the treaty, and indeed, the treaty itself may not be in force, yet the principles it expresses may be binding."

For Thomas, who moderated Saturday's panel on water rights, the conference was a significant step forward, with a wide range of speakers who addressed both working solutions and the underlying questions of governance and justice. "Cornell Law is a leader in its commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, and hosting this conference was an expression of that commitment," she said. "Ideally, a collaboration in the relatively technical domain of water management can establish a platform for building trust and cooperation in other areas of policy, which will constitute a key component of any sustainable solution to the problems of the region."