Water and War in the Middle East

Canal by Evgeni Dinev courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Canal by Evgeni Dinev courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Kim Brown and I have started to work on a second edition of our Introduction to International and Global Studies textbook, which will be published in 2015. We are trying to not only make conceptual changes to the work, but also to reflect the many global events that have taken place since the first edition: in North America, fracking has changed the energy picture, in Europe, the financial crisis is changing perceptions of economic and political globalization, and around the world people are struck by the fact that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has passed 400 parts per million. Although there is a great deal of material to address in the next edition, one key issue has to be water, as drought is leading to crises and conflict in many regions, but particularly in the Middle East.

In June 2013 Joshua Hammer had a well-written and convincing article in the Smithsonian, which suggested that part of the reason why Syria had entered into a civil war was a terrible drought that began in 2006. As people in rural areas saw their livelihoods blow away with the dust, they moved to the cities, where large numbers of young men were either unemployed or underemployed. In this environment there was a large pool of manpower readily mobilized when the Arab Spring began. Thomas Friedman has made the same point, although he also emphasizes the diversity of factors that have fed this fierce conflict. Now Joby Warrick has an article in the Washington Post that describes how the influx of 500,000 Syrian refugees into Jordan (roughly 10% of Jordan’s population) is putting extreme strains on that nation’s water supply, as the aquifers of northern Jordan are rapidly falling. In this way, the war in Syria is having a spillover effect on water resources elsewhere in the Levant.

Another location where water disputes may lead to conflict is Egypt, where leaders worry about Ethiopia’s plans to build a $4.2 billion dam on the headwaters of the Nile River. Egyptian leaders have been making increasingly threatening statements about what they will do if the dam project moves forward, while Ethiopia has said that no threats will keep the nation from completing this project, which it views as a question of national sovereignty.

It’s a cliche but true that water is like oxygen: you don’t notice it until it’s gone. I remember my grandfather telling me stories about life in Hanley, Saskatchewan during the Dustbowl in the 1930s. Every year his family would say that they just had to hold out until the next year. One day in early summer he said that he walked to a funeral. When he left in the morning the fields were green. By the time he returned in the late afternoon he could see the crop wilting. He knew then that this year would no different than the previous ones. When World War Two began he and his brothers left to fight in Europe. While they believed that this war had to be fought, I also think that in some respects the war may have also been a means of escape. Of course, my grandfather’s story was the same as those of people on the Great Plains throughout the U.S. during the 1930s. Water wars also marked the history of the American West and California from the beginning, and water remains a major challenge in the American South West. The future looks challenging for Los Angeles and some Texan cities also.

One can see significant challenges from desertification or low rainfall even in some parts of Europe as well. Portugal is currently worried about desertification as a result of climate change, particularly in the south and interior. There are some innovative ideas about how to address the impact. In Europe there is no likelihood of war over water, and even in the midst of a financial crisis, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Portugal should have the funds to mitigate some of these problems in the long term.

Although we aren’t immune to climate change in the West, the maps for rainfall change projected from global warming are particularly terrifying for the Middle East. In her study of climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert told the story of an ancient Middle Eastern society that collapsed in Syria due to a drought. With climate change, it will take careful planning and management if the nations of the Middle East are to avoid open water wars.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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