Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It’s the Water, Stupid! (Plus Gas and Oil and the Usual Suspects)

Over the past week, Allied warplanes and drones have rained munitions down on Islamic State (IS) command and control facilities, logistics and transportation, and oil refineries in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of civilians continue to flee the devastation (two million Syrians have fled the country since 2012, mostly in response to Syria's civil war).  

In the U.S. media bubble, meanwhile, debates rage over the drivers of the most recent spate of violence, from the political right (Obama's weakness and underestimating the threat of Islamic radicalism) to the left (Bush's Iraq war, which gave rise to such insurgencies in the first place).

In all of these discussions, relatively short shrift is given to more structural drivers of the conflict.  Without question the jihadist threat is multi-causal, but take away causes that are more proximate (regime change in Iraq and civil war in Iraq and Syria ) or epiphenomenal (mass radicalization due to widespread economic dislocation and the legacy of war), and we are left with the long-standing stakes of the conflict itself--control over the region's resources (water, gas and oil).

It is widely known that oil has played a role in the escalation of internal and cross-border violence in the most recent Middle East conflict--ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) insurgents captured oil fields in the functionally autonomous Kurdish region in the north, and now control as much as 60 percent of Syria's oil wealth.  Recently, Coalition forces have attacked the ISIS-controlled oil refineries in eastern Syria, while Kurdish peshmerga have recaptured oil-rich areas in northern Iraq with the help of U.S. air strikes.

Less well-known is the fact that ISIS insurgents have also targeted key dams, canals, and waterways around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as desalination plants.  

Why is this important?

According to an article in the Guardian, ISIS forces have gained control of the “key upper reaches” of the Tigris and Euphrates—the two major rivers that flow from Turkey to the Gulf in the south, and which provided for all the food, water and industrial needs of Syria and Iraq.


Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute think tank in Qatar, explains:

"Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It's life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict."

Water has long been a source of conflict in the Middle East. It is well-known that the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict--as well as disputes between Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have been fuelled, at least in part, by contested access to the Jordan River Basin water resources. 

Israel gained control of the West Bank’s mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors, securing the bulk of its water needs.  Although Palestinians depend on these same resources, Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank consume 80 percent of the aquifer’s flow, allotting the remainder to the Palestinians.   Israeli settlers on the West Bank receive between 3 and 5 times what the Palestinians receive. 

The ongoing war in Syria, too, was driven in part by a drought that began in 2006, forcing farmers to abandon their fields and migrate to the urban centers.  Burgeoning masses of frustrated, unemployed men in the cities eventually helped instigate civil unrest.

In the 1970s, Syria and Turkey opened dams that significantly reduced the water flow from the Euphrates River to Iraq, almost leading to war between Syria and Iraq.  Although an inter-state agreement resolved the water crisis at that time, new water disputes nearly led to renewed hostilities in 1998 and threaten to reignite inter-state tensions today.

In fact, a majority of the "water-poor" countries in the world are in the Middle East and North Africa, with Egypt especially vulnerable, having doubled its population in the last half century with no commensurate increase in water supply.

What's worse, water conflicts are only likely to intensify in the future.  A recent analysis concluded that "the Tigris-Euphrates Basin--comprising Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Iran--is losing water faster than any other place in the world except northern India. During those six years, 117 million acre-feet of stored freshwater vanished from the region as a result of dwindling rainfall and poor water management policies."


Access to water lies at the heart of conflicts outside the Middle East as well.  Although merely suggestive, the two maps below serve to illustrate the point that water-stressed areas (first map) are also areas of significant sectarian violence (second map).



















Climate change is set to exacerbate these problems, and not only in the MENA region--a conclusion that finds support in the academic literature (see here and here, although see also here).  With global overpopulation placing unprecedented stresses on the world’s water systems, climate change threatens civil unrest in nations and regions that are particularly vulnerable to famine under drought conditions.  In fact, the Arab Spring conflicts of 2010-11 were in no small measure driven by the 2010 drought in the wheat-producing region of Eastern China and a subsequent spike in global wheat prices. 

The recent conflict in Sudan was also driven by a dispute over scarce water supplies between black African farmers and Arab herders, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.   Other food-related rioting occurred in Haiti and Cameroon in 2008 in addition to the Arab Spring conflicts of 2010-11.

Hardly a hotbed of environmentalism, the U.S. Department of Defense commissioned a study on the subject of climate change and security all the way back in 2003.  In 2010, the DoD added climate change to its list of security threats, and in 2009, the CIA established a center aimed to assess the growing costs and risks of climate change. 

According to the most recent DoD Quadrennial Report, “Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

What does this mean for the management of conflicts in water-stressed regions such as the Middle East?  The historical record clearly demonstrates that we can't shoot our way to peace in the Middle East, particularly given the high stakes of the conflict for the involved parties.  Instead, the stakes of the conflict must be addressed directly. Radically new water management policies must be enacted and supported by the international community as well as relatively stable Gulf States such as UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, it is a near certainty that the current war on ISIS (which may involve tens of thousands of new ground forces) is at best ineffectual and at worse likely to exacerbate the conflict.  This is captured nicely by U.S. Retired General James Conway, who said at a recent conference in Washington that the current military campaign to destroy ISIS "doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding."

Trouble is that short-term military solutions nearly always trump the long dreary slog of diplomacy, particularly in U.S. politics.  Particularly in an election year.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How To Write a Successful Academic Book (Tips from an Academic Editor)

As with the publishing world in general, today’s academic presses—hardly ever known for profitability—have had to adapt to a series of hardships.  For many years now (a process accelerated by the recent economic crisis), libraries have been pushed to cut back on their book acquisitions (a central profit center for academic presses), and these days allocate ever more of their budgets to serials, databases, and other electronic resources at the expense of book monographs.  Meanwhile, due to university-wide budget cuts, university presses have had to live with reduced subsidies. 

As a result, academic presses are increasingly pressured to base their decisions on “what sells” in the publishing world.  They are thus “faced with the choice of publishing fewer books or of changing the mix of books they do publish by reducing the number of specialized monographs in favor of books with a larger potential market—broad syntheses, biographies of well-known figures, anthologies, books with a potential for undergraduate course adoptions, even textbooks.” 

Ironically, the pressure to publish books to attract a mass audience runs directly counter to academic trends toward increased research specialization.  There was some hope that electronic publishing might provide an outlet for niche academic research, but for now, prospective authors should be aware of what they are up against.  First time authors hoping to publish their dissertations as books are often the first casualty, as presses must be confident that their titles will sell at least 200-700 copies to be assured of breaking even.  This means that books must be shorter (thus cheaper to print), and they must sell.

To protect against potential losses,  presses often ask authors for “subventions,” which means that the author pays out of pocket to defray the costs of publication.  Although authors can sometimes “buy” publications at less reputable presses, subventions do not tip the balance in favor of publication at most academic presses.  Instead, the decision to publish is made on the merit of the book; subventions allow the publisher to push down the retail price of the book, increase the advertising budget for the book, and help to pay for “desirable illustrations” in the book—all of which cost money. 

Which Books Sell?

Roger Haydon—Executive Editor from Cornell University Press in the areas of international relations, politics, Asian Studies, and Russian/Eurasian studies—has observed a change in the disciplinary dominance in the titles he has handled over time.

Over the past decade or so, he has noticed that books on anthropology and political geography have tended to do well, as the authors tell interesting stories and bring unique insights to a lesser-known subject.  For this reason, he has come to value (even more highly) books that are written by authors with language skills and field expertise—people who have spent years in the field studying a topic in a way that yields something that few other people could have written.  Such books tend to be more successful than those where the author has gained little first-hand experience with the topic. 

Over the years, he has also been publishing more work from non-North American authors, particularly as Cornell extends its reach outside the U.S. and Canada.  He is not entirely sure why that is, but notes that much of the work that is done in American departments (particularly in political science) has become increasingly “formalistic and professional in a normal-science way,” and often fails to attract reader interest.  On top of this, improvements in the ease of communication and increased globalization have made it possible to collaborate with authors from around the world to bring their work to press.

How to Adapt?

For many of us, it may be too late (or otherwise ill-advised) to switch from formal theory to political geography or anthropology, but there are many things one can do to increase the chances of publication, nonetheless.

Make a Memorable, Even Controversial, Argument
Books that make a controversial argument on a topic that has gained considerable attention in the media do very well.  Cornell recently published a book entitled “Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Indicators and What to Do About It”, http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100939320.  In it, the author argued that the development statistics tend to be based on government accounting, and many developing countries in Africa, for instance, do not have the resources to generate reliable numbers.  When the author was invited to give a talk at an international economic conference in Africa, the economic ministry of one such country (disliking the book’s implications) managed to get the author’s invitation rescinded, leading to a scandal and skyrocketing book sales, which helped to heighten the profile of the author. 

Widen the Scope of the Argument
Books with wider scope and powerful (possibly controversial) policy advice and/or that go against received wisdom in the field or commonplace understandings tend to do well.  This should not be surprising, and dovetails with the above point.  This is tricky, of course, as authors should not be overselling their evidence.  The key is to push the argument to the limits of what the author’s evidence can support without crossing it.  This can be a tough tightrope to walk.

Strip out the Academic Jargon and Simplify!
With presses seeking to broaden their audiences (in hopes of covering the costs of publishing the book), academic jargon can be the kiss of death in terms of book sales.  As academic disciplines increasingly specialize, it may be that only a handful of specialists can read books using certain niche nomenclatures.  Of those who can read this jargon, only a subset of them will choose to do so—and a smaller subset of these will actually be willing to spend cash on your book.  For this reason, book editors often urge authors to avoid as much academic jargon as possible.

Promote Your Argument and the Book
Once you are published, your book may do better in sales and scholarly impact when you are actively involved in promoting the book.  We live in the age of connectivity and social networks, and the authors who promote their books on social media, through blogging, through writing op-eds in various journals and newspapers that promote the book help the sales and reputation of their book considerably.  Presses do not require this of their authors, but it is a win-win for the press, the author, and for the book itself, which consequently gets far more readers.

The Bottom Line

We are entering largely unchartered territory with ever increasing pressures on academic presses to turn a profit and with declining sales of print copies of academic books.  (Just think: how willing is anyone these days to spend 50+ USD on a book written by an unknown author?)  E-books will hopefully ease these pressures and make it easier to bring niche academic research to market, but one never knows.  The very best academic books represent quality research, while expanding interest beyond a narrow (and often all-too-obscure) cadre of scholars.

The best advice I have heard about how to navigate these waters is to make your argument (and research!) as accessible, relevant and interesting to as many potential readers as possible, while being willing to promote your research on social networks.  It is possible to turn out a successful academic book without doing these things, but doing so undoubtedly tips the odds of success in your favor.