Water shortages and violence in the Middle East

March 27, 2015

The Middle East is already ‘dry tinder’, lit with sectarian and terrorist wildfires.


It is also rapidly reaching the point where water depletion and drought will make existing rivalries far more intense, and peaceable solutions to existing problems far harder to arrive at.


Political instability, global warming and sectarian violence may appear to be separate issues, but when two complex problems usually understood in different disciplines overlap, they are also liable to interact. Because we tend to wear disciplinary blinders, they can easily blindside us.


We shouldn’t be surprised.


In 1995, World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin declared: ‘The wars of the next century will be over water.’


We are now well into that next century. Joyce Shira Starr published her book Covenant over Middle Eastern Waters: Key to World Survival that same year. And the late King Hussein of Jordan once said that the only issue that could trigger war between Israel and Jordan was water.


Because of the Islamic State in particular, there is growing global awareness of the menace posed by ‘end times’ Islamist beliefs, while elsewhere the evidence of climate change is widely acknowledged. The two collide over water shortages in the Middle East, where rapid depletion of water supplies will hugely impact the national security of those very states involved in the battle with IS and other terrorists.


Already it begins


Both The Independent and the New York Times have highlighted the importance of climate change to the conflict in Syria.


Last year, Foreign Policy published a piece titled ‘Water Wars in the Land of Two Rivers’, noting that terrorism may make water problems worse, just as water shortages may encourage the spread of violence.


Eilon Adar, in ‘Transboundary aquifers -- source of conflict or peace?’ (WaterWorld, vol 18, issue 2) notes: ‘Nowhere is the impact of water scarcity felt more than in the Middle East where millions of people continuously vie for a share in ever-diminishing supplies. Annual renewable water resources amount to about 1,400 m3 per person per year - less than 20% of the global average. Throughout the Middle East, the demand and the actual consumption of water are far beyond the annual rate of replenishment, exceeding the safe yield of the regional water resources.’


Adar also points out that the geography involved is complex - with all major groundwater sources in the Middle East crossing international boundaries - even more so once you factor in geopolitics.


An ancient tale


The story of Middle Eastern water is an ancient one.


The preciousness of water is known to holy writings the world over. In Psalms 46:4 we read: ‘There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God.’ Jesus speaks of his own teachings in John 4:14 as ‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life’, while God declares in the Quran 21:30, ‘We made from water every living thing.’ As the Tao Te Chingnotes: ‘In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water, yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.’


We tend to think of water first and foremost in terms of quenching thirst and of washing. But while these may appear to the secular mind as two purely material activities, both also hold sacred meanings, deeply significant to the desert-dwelling, poetry loving cultures of the Levant.


For example, in the film Lawrence of Arabia, a scene depicting Lawrence’s Arab companion being shot because he drank from another tribe’s well. Sherif Ali comments, ‘He was nothing. The well is everything’. Water is Life.


Similarly, new Christians are received into the church in baptism, while Muslims make ablutions before prayer. Water not only physically cleans the body, it also spiritually purifies the soul.


It is not too surprising, then, that as humans, we feel an instinctual connection with water. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard explored the depth of that connection in Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, as does Ivan Illich in H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness.


Dr Aaron Wolf in Conflict and cooperation along international waterways suggests this special relationship with water may help offset the perils of drought fanning the flames of war: ‘The actual history of armed water conflict is somewhat less dramatic than the ‘water wars’ literature would lead one to believe: a total of seven incidents, in three of which no shots were fired.  As near as we can find, there has never been a single war fought over water.’


This is not quite true. The earliest domestic interstate conflict known is a dispute between the Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma over the right to exploit boundary channels along the Tigris in 2,500 BCE.  In other words, the last and only ‘water war’ was 4,500 years ago.’


Why does all this matter?


The collision between the scientific threat of droughts, depleted aquifers and desertification, and the threats arising from deeply held religious convictions is liable to catch us unawares. It may well be that the poetry and spirituality of water – not matters to which engineers and strategists commonly pay attention -- will have an important role to play in healing the tensions and working towards peace.


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