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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times