Fueling tensions with water

World Reports

It may or may not be true that the ongoing war in Iraq is about oil; the jury, it seems, is still out. But oil certainly played some role in the conflict, if only as a voice in President Bush’s darkest subconscious, reminding him of the grease upon which his economic machine depends. America needs the black gold if it is to survive.

Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say that behind all the political hyperbole, and the heart-tugging speeches in which America and Britain claimed the moral high ground in the “war on terrorism,” the simpler explanation is that decayed plant life, vast subterranean pools of it, has become the principal commodity of our time. It shouldn’t surprise us. Control of natural resources has long played a key role in war. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991 in order to gain control of its oil reserves. Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor in an attempt to gain control over critical oil supplies in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya.

Of all the resources we need as a species, water is the most important - it is, quite simply, the foundation of all life. While oil is essential for combustion engines and electricity generations, there are alternatives, albeit more expensive ones. For water, on the other hand, there are no alternatives. We cannot drink or irrigate our crops with anything else. And because many of the world’s rivers and underground aquifers cross political boundaries, water is also one of the most likely causes of conflict.

During a recent visit to Lebanon, it was suggested to me that the war in the Middle East is, among other things, a war for water. For most people, the Middle East is divided primarily along religious and ethnic lines. But if we look beneath the surface, a number of other issues play a strong part, not the least of which is the control of vital water sources in a region totally dependent on agriculture. The occupied territories are mainly valuable for the water they contain.“If you stand on the southern border of Lebanon,” says Caroll, an ecotour guide working out of Beirut, “you’ll be struck by the fact that our side is dry and arid, while the Israeli side is green, lush, and well-irrigated. There are orchards, lawns, even swimming pools. And yet you are talking about a matter of a few feet in distance between our countries.”

Clean water should be a basic human right. Yet by 2025, the UN predicts that nearly half the world’s population will experience critical water shortages. And the Middle East, an already volatile region, has the lowest per capita water supply in the world. North Africa and the Middle East account for 6.3 percent of the world’s population, but have just 1.4 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water. This year, Professor Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations, reiterated the concern he first voiced in 1985: “The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.”

Last year, tensions flared when Lebanon announced its intention to install a pump at the Wazzani Springs. The Springs run into the Hasbani River, which flows through Israel on its way to the Sea of Galilee; en route it feeds the fish farms of four kibbutzes. The sudden extra demand for water by the Lebanese in this area is not just because there has been less rainfall in the last few years. Since the Israeli retreat from the area in 2000, the Lebanese have been rebuilding villages that existed there before the conflict. People are returning home.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wasted no time in threatening swift military action if the pumping did not cease, accusing the Lebanese of “stealing” Israeli water supplies. The facts of the matter, however, are not so clear. The springs are fed by the Jordan River system, which is an international watershed. The Johnston Agreement of 1955 was drawn up for the specific purpose of allocating water rights to all four countries that feed off the Jordan system - Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Israel was granted the largest portion of the water. The Lebanese were granted 35 million cubic meters (mcm) per year. Due to the hostilities of the last few decades, they have taken barely more than 7 mcm per year. The new pump would have brought the total to 10-15 mcm.

The dispute took place during the buildup to war in Iraq, and George W. Bush was anxious to retain what little Arab support he had. American peacekeepers hurried to the scene where they cautioned both the Lebanese and the Israelis to use “restraint.” But for the Lebanese, that restraint meant not supplying running water to a region desperately in need. Many villages are supplied with drinking and irrigation water by a single weekly truck.

The Israelis ask why the Lebanese don’t pump from the Litani, a much larger river, whose waters flow into the Mediterranean north of the frontier. But the Litani’s water is heavily polluted and unfit for drinking. Building a water treatment plant would be a costly, time-consuming procedure. Why should they, say the Lebanese, when they have a right to use the Wazzani?

So the construction continued, with each side making bolder and more belligerent threats. Israel began a nightly regimen of amplified wolf cries across the wire in order to upset pipeline workers. Apache gunships hovered just across the border.

On November 3, 2002, shortly after the pumping station started operation, Israeli jets made menacing passes overhead. The Shiite militant group Hezbollah sent armed men to protect pumping station workers. Asked by the Jerusalem Post whether the project would be considered a provocation for war by Israel, Prime Minister Sharon responded: “Israel will not allow the Hasbani to be diverted. I want to be very clear on this. And we are ready to deal with this issue.”

Hezbollah responded to Sharon’s threats with some of their own. Executive Committee member Hashem Safiedin said: “If they even think about using force to stop the Lebanese exploiting the waters of the Wazzani, we will cut their hands off.”

The Lebanese are still pumping, though they have agreed to limit their take to drinking water, and not use the larger amounts required for badly needed irrigation.

The latest development - spurred, no doubt, by the Bush administration’s keenness to prevent any additional conflicts in the Middle East while it grapples with the situation in Iraq - is that the US has offered $500 million in aid to Lebanon, which would be used to build a water distribution facility in the South. The only catch is that Lebanon must first disarm the Hezbollah. Clearly, that is unlikely to happen.

Whatever happens in this difficult situation, it is unlikely to be resolved in the near future and without sizeable concessions by both sides. Of paramount importance, though, is that the world’s leaders heed these events as signifying a global problem. The World Water Development Report published this year suggests that our global water supply will drop by an average of a third per person over the next 20 years. Their optimum estimate for the situation in 2025 is that two billion people, throughout 48 countries, will face major water scarcity. It could, however, be as many as seven billion if major change is not implemented immediately.

“Water consumption has almost doubled in the last 50 years,” says the report. “A child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times the water resources of one in the developing world. Meanwhile water quality continues to worsen… Every day, 6,000 people, mostly children under the age of five, die from diarrhoeal diseases.” The future, for many parts of the world, looks bleak.

Freelance writer Piers Moore Ede is a frequent contributor to Earth Island Journal. He lives in London.

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