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.