Have the Middle East Water Wars Already Begun?

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Oil has always been thought of as the traditional cause of conflict in the Middle East past and present. Since the first Gulf oil well gushed in Bahrain in 1932, countries have squabbled over borders in the hope that ownership of a patch of desert or a sand bank might give them access to new riches. No longer. Now, most borders have been set, oil fields mapped and reserves accurately estimated – unlike the water resources, which are still often unknown. WATER is taking over from oil as the likeliest cause of conflict in the Middle East. – Lecture by Adel Darwish, 1994.

Back in the 1990′s I remember reading many dire warnings about a future in which competition over increasingly stretched natural resources would see countries around the world going to war over water scarce water supplies. With populations around the world growing, and climate change increasing temperatures and reducing rainfall in already arid regions, local and regional tensions over water supplies would increase in both number and urgency, eventually leading to outright ‘water wars’.

The conventional wisdom suggests that, despite increasing tensions and a number of diplomatic spats, these ‘water wars’ have not materialized, and do not look likely to any time soon.

But look beneath the surface and a different picture begins to emerge. Although there are, as yet, no examples in which two countries have gone to war specifically over water, the issue of drought and water supply can be seen as a significant and growing causal factor behind many armed conflicts – especially in the Middle East.

Over the coming years and decades this looks set to increase. The Middle East water wars may have already begun, but the conflicts of recent years may pale in comparison to the conflicts of the future.

Why Did The Arab Spring Happen When It Did?

There are many reasons why the ‘Arab Spring’ happened. Popular frustration and anger directed at oppressive dictatorships, and a longing for greater democracy and freedom is, of course, the main reason – and the reason generally given by the people who rose up against their governments themselves. But such concerns are not new – these countries have been dictatorships for decades at least, and some have always been so. So whilst the desire for freedom and greater representation can explain why people wanted the Arab Spring to happen, it cannot explain why the Arab Spring actually happened when it did.

One of the most persuasive explanations for the spark which ignited the tinderbox of Middle East unrest, kicking off the Arab Spring, was presented in a February 2013 report by the Center for American Progress entitled The Arab Spring and Climate Change.

This report describes the effects of climate change as “stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying cause that erupt into revolution.”

Troy Sternberg, a geographer at Oxford University, argues that a once in a century drought in China which sent wheat prices skyrocketing across the Middle East played a major role in igniting the Arab Spring. In many of the countries involved in this mass uprising wheat, which is used to make bread, makes up a large part of people’s diet.

For example, “Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 per cent of income is spent on food,”says Sternberg. Global food prices reached their peak in March 2011 – just after Mubarak was toppled from power in Egypt.

Sternberg notes that the world’s top nine wheat importers are all located in the Middle East, and that out of this nine “seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011.”

The effects of drought are still playing out in the Middle East today. The bloodiest conflict in the Middle East right now is taking place in Syria, where rebels are fighting to overthrow the government of President Assad in what has now become a sectarian civil war. According to the Center for Climate and Security, from 2006 to 2011 as much as 60% of land in Syria was hit by the country’s worst drought on record. Widespread crop failures and the death of livestock hit the country hard, and over 800,000 Syrians lost their livelihood as a result of the drought. The connection between this drought and the uprising which followed immediately afterwards is clear.

The examples above show that while competing claims over specific water resources have not led to conflicts between nations, a general shortage of water has caused massive social unrest which, in already tense countries, has tipped over into outright revolution and civil war.

The Future Impact of Climate Change in the Middle East

Whether you believe that climate change is caused by human industry or by natural cycles, one thing is certain – the climate is changing and the ‘Arab World’, encompassing North Africa and the Middle East, will be amongst the regions of the world which will be hardest hit. Rainfall is decreasing across the Middle East, and water reserves are already beginning to fall to dangerously low levels in many countries.

Relative change of mean annual precipitation 1980/1999 to 2080/2099. (Scenario A1b, average of 21 global circulation models compiled by GIS Unit ICARDA)

Relative change of mean annual precipitation 1980/1999 to 2080/2099. (Scenario A1b, average of 21 global circulation models compiled by GIS Unit ICARDA)

A recent study which used data from NASA satellites found that large regions of the Middle East saw rapid depletion of freshwater reserves over the past decade.

A group of scientists from the University of California, NASA’s Goddard Center, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that from 2003-2010 parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 144 cubic kilometres of stored freshwater. Around 60% of this loss is estimated to be from the pumping of water from underground reservoirs

“Groundwater is like your savings account,” says Rodell, one of the scientists involved in the study. “It’s okay to draw it down when you need it, but if it’s not replenished, eventually it will be gone.”

Effectively this means that much of the Middle East is already living beyond its means in terms of water resources, drawing on reserves which will eventually run dry. As climate change continues to reduce rainfall across the region, this situation will only get worse.

Future Water Wars in the Middle East and Beyond

The world’s supply of fresh water is running out. Already one person in five has no access to safe drinking water – BBC

waterscarity2025The Middle East’s next ‘water war’ could well take place in Iran, where tensions over limited water supplies is already fuelling social unrest, inter-regional tensions, and clashes between protesters and security forces.
In our recent article, In Burning Rage for Water, Iranian Farmers Take On Security Forces, we looked at how Iranian farmers angry at water being diverted from a local river to another region had attacked a pumping station and clashed with security forces. These farmers destroyed a pump sending water from Isfahan to the city of Yazd. Since then they have remain in place, guarding the broken pump to prevent authorities from fixing it. The city of Yazd is suffering from a severe water shortage, and the rationing of water has now been introduced. The residents of Yazd are angry at both authorities and the farmers of Isfahan, raising both regional tensions and fears of social unrest.
The former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards recently warned that the farmers’ protests could trigger a massive social uprising which could threaten the stability of the government. The issue of water shortages is also causing deep rifts within the government itself.

Iran is not the only country at risk of descending into war over scarce water supplies. Water is a major issue across much of the Middle East, which is home to 5% of the world’s population but just 1% of the world’s freshwater. There is also a significant risk that the interstate conflicts – wars between national governments – which we were warned about in the 1990′s could be just over the horizon.

According to UNESCO there are currently (non-military) interstate conflicts over water resources across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Palestine.

Israel and Palestine, with their perennial conflict over land, is certainly amongst the most dangerous flashpoints.

Meir Ben Meir, Israel’s recently retired Water Commissioner, recently said:

“At the moment, I project the scarcity of water within 5 years. I can promise that if there is not sufficient water in our region, if there is scarcity of water, if people remain thirsty for water, then we shall doubtless face war.”

Tensions over water are already feeding into the Israel / Palestine conflict, with a large majority of the region’s water supplies going to Israeli farmers, leaving little for Palestinian farmers who struggle to irrigate their land.

In North Africa projects diverting water from the Nile river have already caused significant tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The United Nations has predicted that access to water may be the single biggest cause of conflict in Africa within the next 25 years.

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About the Author

- Dean Walsh is the owner and editor of World News Curator. He also owns and runs Ourly News and a range of other online publications.

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