Could water be a source of conflict in the Middle East?

2013-07-29 01:18

Fresh water is a fundamental resource, integral to all ecological and societal activities, including food and energy production, transportation, waste disposal, industrial development and human health. But even so, it is still evident that water as a precious resource, is unevenly and irregularly distributed, some regions of the world are water short. The Middle East is no different.

For the purpose of this piece, “Middle East”, is understood to include Northern African states, the Levant (Turkey and the Palestinian entity) and the Persian Gulf. There is a growing discussion over the geopolitical consequences of protracted water scarcity- Water shortages in the Middle East can be seen from Turkey, the Southern basin of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), down to Oman, looking out over the Indian Ocean, the countries of the Middle East are worrying today about how they will satisfy the needs of their burgeoning industries, or find drinking water for the extra million each year, not to mention agriculture. Furthermore, it is believed that the scarcity of water in the Middle East, has been, and will continue to be, a source of conflict in the region.

I wish to analyze and discuss the growing debate over water scarcity being a source of conflict within the region. One school of thought argues that resource scarcity triggers technological and diplomatic innovation, not wars. Another school of thought argues that the scarcity of critical resource such as water or oil would have a drag on the economy, and if the scarcity persists for any length of time in resource-dependent countries, social disruption and war are likely. .

 A focus on water resources will show that the problem that faces the Middle East in regards to this issue is not just about the usage and necessity of water for human survival- Water is a symbol of power, superiority and prosperity in the Middle East, and the intense desire for these three attributes are major factors in what prevents peaceful societies from being obtained in the Middle East. The temptation to use water for political or military purposes has often proved overpowering. In essence, one needs to understand that, the role of water stress in violent confrontations between states manifests itself frequently into belligerency or official “state of war” between countries such as Israel and Syria during the 1990’s. However, most security threats that emerged in shadowed the less provocative- but no less the 1990’s are intrastate threats (e.g. civil war, major- premise that water is more likely to lead to genocide, political instability- in the case of Yemen, for example, it can also be seen in Algeria, severe water shortages in 2002 caused riots in several towns that destroyed government buildings and vehicles). Therefore, due to the above mentioned it can be concluded that indeed water is a vital resource, and due to the exploitative systems that are in place in the Middle East makes it a scare resource that needs to be well kept.

But what are the contributing factors to water being a scarce resource specifically in the Middle East. Firstly, the “green revolution” that swept the Middle East in the 1980’ and 1990’s made it possible for countries to sustain agriculture and feed growing populations, and high levels of agriculture investment continue today, in essence, countries have focused more on ensuring water supply and not enough on tamping demand.  In conjunction to this statement, prices of agricultural goods often do not reflect the amount of water required to grow them, where it has created a situation in which agriculture now accounts for between 65 and 90 percent of national water thus as a result, many countries- agriculture makes a minor contribution to national wealth- hence leading to water scarcity.

Another contributing factor to water scarcity in the region is the issue of water patronage. With the term water patronage I mean, governments in the Middle East count water provision among strategies for building political stability and bolstering legitimacy, from Iraq to Egypt, from Saudi Arabia to Algeria, among the poor countries and rich, governments in the region provide cheap goods and services in exchange for political support. For the reason that, the government manages its elites or to win support of important groups or individuals- for them to remain in power, this has lead to water scarcity and causing instability within the region. Thus proving the scarcity of water and it might be evident sooner than anticipated.

There is a long history of water-related disputes, from conflicts over access to adequate water supplies to intentional attacks on water systems during wars. Water and water-supply systems have been the roots and instruments of war. Access to shared water supplies has been cut off for political and military reasons. In essence, because of scarcity of water within the region this led to irredentist claims over rivers, examples of Israel irredentist claim to the Golan Height (Syria).

With water billed at merely 1 percent of the cost of production, it is no surprise that the demand is sky-rocketing along with the cost of continuing subsidies. With the above statement certain concerns are surfacing, the issue of water scarcity still contributes to growing tensions in the region. From Turkey, southern NATO, down to Oman and countries in the Middle East are depended in three great rivers- the Jordan, Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates or vast underground aquifers, some of which are of “fossil water” that cannot be renewed. Furthermore, another contributing factor to possible “water wars” is the growing issue of demographic change and relentless urbanization. Population growth has increased and has forced people to migrate to urban regions in search of jobs.

The conflicting water-diversion projects by Israel and Syria were a significant contributor to the 1967 Six Day War. However, strategic water resources were by no means the only source of tension between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the dispute between the two countries could have been solved if water rights were the sole reason for conflict. For instance, Israel and Jordan settled their water disputes in the 1994 peace agreement. This led to Israel agreeing to transfer additional water supplies to Jordan. By sharp contrast, water remains an important source of tension between Israel and Syria and, by default, between Israel and Lebanon. Here the problem is not only the strategic importance of water but also the fact that this resource forms part of a more extensive range of problems.

 Even though the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict have been able to effectively manage their water disputes since the 1960s, there are no guarantees that this will always be the case. Climate change in the region is likely to increase the frequency of extreme weather conditions throughout the Middle East, potentially leading to decreased rainfall, droughts and water shortages. As a result, water scarcity across the region would further increase, with the consequences for water and food security likely to be dramatic. But water may be just one significant factor in a much larger whole, whereby this resource is linked to disputes over security, territory and economy.

It should be evident that despite the extensive “water wars” literature that blossomed in the late 1980s and 1990s,and a water scarcity report issued recently as a collaboration of several U.S. intelligence agencies predicts that the likelihood of conflict over water will increase in the coming decades. But, fact remains that few states in the Middle East have fought each other over water- states tend to be more corporative. Therefore, the scarcity of water does not pose any severe threat in the region.

 Twitter: @BonoloMogotsi

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