World at war over water

The most bitter conflicts of the next 50 years won’t be over oil. The prize commodity of the future

When you stare down into the clear blue of a swimming pool in Cyprus, threats of water shortages seem distant. Cyprus was once the prized possession of empires, but today the effort needed to water the island poses problems soon to be faced by other European countries.

Rainfall in Cyprus has declined by 15 per cent since the 1970s. A land once marked with rivers and lakes now has only artificial reservoirs, and many of these are half full. The European Commission looks on the arid land and abandoned farms as a sign of what may happen to Italy, Greece and Spain. Most climate models agree that precipitation is likely to diminish a further 20 per cent by 2050. To ensure that its resorts and cities have running water, Cyprus must now rely on desalination plants. These can fill swimming pools, but can never replace the water lost to the environment. As a result, the holiday destinations of Paphos and Ayia Napa may soon be concrete oases in a desert landscape.

In a cruel twist, Cyprus also faces the risk of flash floods. Projections show that a warmer planet will increase the chances of sudden and large rainstorms. Concrete urban landscapes and hard soil stop water from sinking away as nature intended, forcing it to collect in currents as it urgently seeks a way to the sea.

Cyprus has reached peak water. This is what geographers call the point at which the demand for water meets, and then outstrips, supply. It occurs because modern living is thirsty. Before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, water use per capita barely changed for millennia. But urban living, factories and intensive farming require lots of water. This is fine in wet England, but spells disaster in arid areas such as Cyprus, western parts of the United States, India and Southern Africa.

To meet the demand in dry countries, people pump up groundwater. However, there is a limit to the amount that an aquifer can hold. Cyprus's groundwater is so depleted that seawater is seeping into the empty caverns, ruining what is left of nature's reservoir.

Green goddess

Rivers and lakes are what experts call "blue water", but most at issue is "green water" - the stuff that sits in the soil. Modern farming's withdrawal of green water is like an open-ended blood donation - the planet's surface, in developed areas, is becoming cadaverous as its life drains away. This threatens the modern agricultural revolution in which crop yields in some countries quadrupled since the 1960s and fed the huge population boom.
These facts make people think of "water wars". American journalists use the term to cover the multitude of disputes between states over diminishing supplies, but for most of us it conjures up ideas of conflict. One example is the dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbours. There are familiar reasons why Tel Aviv took the Golan Heights in 1967 and occupied Gaza and the West Bank, but the water factor is often overlooked. The promise of citrus groves and running water in Tel Aviv taps was explicit from the beginning of the Zionist state.

To provide enough water so that Israelis could enjoy a comfortable modern lifestyle was beyond the capacity of the aquifers and rainfall within its original borders. The underground aquifer in the West Bank and the headwaters of the River Jordan in the Golan ensured that life in Jerusalem could be sufficiently resourced. Now, the Israeli leadership can never give up this access to, and control of, water - which means it will never give up the land.

The promise of supplying and controlling water has been central to the idea of civilisation since its beginnings in southern Iraq in the 4th millennium BC - irrigation transformed farming into a less risky, more productive pursuit, which in turn fed a population boom and the growth of cities. The very first legal codes, including those of the early Hindu tradition, were based on the assumption that a king would protect water supplies, and in return the people would obey him. This promise is also set out in Roman law. From the pharaohs and the Nile to Joseph Stalin and the Aral Sea, nations and their leaders have been entranced by the notion that water could deliver some kind of paradise.

Historically, it is only when the wet north gets its hands on power that the link between man and water is broken. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and France had only one water problem - they had too much of it. The early stages of their industrial and agricultural development were often focused on improving rivers and draining the land. They built economies that took water for granted.

Water has pervaded our culture, as well as our history. When the Grand Coulee Dam in north-west America was completed in 1942, Woody Guthrie sang about how the new mastery of water would deliver a socialist heaven for the US worker. People can project any dream they have in tamed currents.

We know a left-wing paradise didn't flow from the Grand Coulee, but that is not to say that water doesn't deliver a very fundamental form of justice. To have enough clean water to live on is to be liberated. Only places with a surplus of water can indulge thoughts about future planning and improvement. Water shortages - or dirty water - undermine assumptions of freedom and can be politically destabilising.

Yemen and Pakistan, countries that the west thinks of as centres of fundamentalist terrorism, both have critically unstable economies in large part because of water shortage. The UN thinks that Yemen will become the first nation to run out of water, possibly as soon as 2015. Pakistan, meanwhile, had huge wealth and population booms after Partition in August 1947, thanks to the irrigation schemes of the
Indus. These allowed an increase in the cotton yield and rice crop. But those schemes are now salting up, and the Indus is reduced to a pathetic trickle as it reaches the sea.

In Yemen and Pakistan, there is rural unemployment, slum growth and discontent. International conferences are held to address the crises facing both countries (and others similar to them), when it is obvious what we should be doing. For a fraction of what we invest in the so-called war on terror, we could fix their water distribution, educate their citizens and manage their waste and irrigation more effectively.

This is the tragedy of the world's water problem: whether in Cyprus, Palestine or Pakistan, there are solutions, but immense resistance to adopting them. No country should run out of water - but providing water will have to become a more careful process.

Tony Allan, finance professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and the grandfather of water studies, estimates that there are 17 million people living in the Jordan Basin - but sustainable water supplies for just one million. Puzzling over why the region hadn't long ago collapsed into anarchy, he noted that it imported huge amounts of water embedded in foodstuffs and products: "virtual water".

Virtual reality

Water goes into the growth and manufacture of almost everything. It takes over 300 litres to make a hamburger; a computer needs thousands. Farmers in the south-western United States grow citrus fruits, grapes and wheat and also rear cattle; the region is a net exporter of food. The states of California, New Mexico and Texas should be conserving their dwindling reserves, not selling their water on the open market. However, with federal irrigation schemes supplying subsidised water to a protected farming sector, nature will be wrung dry before any change happens.

The race is now on to find a way of valuing virtual water, so that, like oil, its price can begin to influence how it is used. There is resistance among food producers and free traders, however. Yet if nothing is done, food production in large parts of the world will fail within decades, driving up prices and forcing people off the land and into slums. The kind of social instability found in Yemen could occur in, say, Texas.

The age of easy water is over. For Cyprus, this will entail spending much more on desalination and ending the trade in citrus fruits. For the US, it entails rethinking the economic viability of swaths of its territory. For global peace, it entails resolving the great injustice by which some people are denied security by virtue of having no access to a reliable source of water. There is also the pervasive threat of flooding. Monsoon-like downpours of rain on Madeira or Gloucester will require a complete rethink of drainage and sewerage systems, and housing on floodplains will have to be abandoned.

Soon there will be floods of people, too. Should we fail to resolve our water problems, people will begin moving in great waves from country to country, searching for the one commodity that is vital for life.

Alexander Bell is the author of "Peak Water", published by Luath Press (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State