Roots of next generation wars

by Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Aug 17,2019


A war for water between Umma and Lagash. — CellCode.us

A PRE-BIBLICAL Mesopotamian tablet has preserved the story of Ennanatum, ruler of Lagash who had slew 60 warriors from Umma. This is an ancient scenario that was locked in time, in today’s Iraq, central to what we know of the battle that took place, 45 centuries ago. An event of war does find record to have occurred between two ancient city states that were located at the confluence of rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The cause of conflict: water.

More than four millennia have passed since the two prehistoric ‘armies’ (warriors) clashed hand-to-hand over one city state’s attempt to steal water from another. While the instruments of war have changed, the issue is pretty much the same: whoever controls the rivers also controls the land.

A prophesy from a gifted fortune-teller has cautioned that the next modern-day global conflict is most to likely spring from petty water disputes, arising among smaller nations who would hold access to water resources.

Today, those biblical rivers are drying up partly because of overuse and wastage and partly because climate change has pounded the region with punishing multi-year droughts.

Syria and Iraq are at odds with Turkey over the Tigris-Euphrates. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile are tense. Jordan and the Palestinians accuse Israel of plundering river water to irrigate the Negev Desert and hogging most of the three aquifers that underlie the occupied West Bank.

According to satellites that monitor climate, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, embracing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is losing water faster than any other area in the world, with the exception of Northern India.

The Middle East’s water problems are hardly unique. South Asia, in particular the Indian sub-continent, is also water-stressed and Australia and much of southern Africa are experiencing severe droughts. Even Europe is struggling with some rivers dropping so low as to hinder shipping.

However, the Middle East has been been particularly hard hit. According to the Water Stress Index, out of 37 countries in the world facing ‘extremely high’ water distress, 15 are in the Middle East, with Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia heading the list.

For Syria and Iraq, the problem is Turkey and Ankara’s mania for dam building. Since 1975, Turkish dams have reduced the flow of water to Syria by 40 per cent and to Iraq by 80 per cent. According to the Iraqi Union Farming Associations, up to 50 per cent of the country’s agricultural land could be deprived of water, removing 124 million acres from production.

Iran and Syria have also built dams that have reduced the flow of rivers that feed the Tigris and the Euphrates, allowing salt water from the Persian Gulf to infiltrate the Shatt al-Arab waterway where the twin rivers converge. The salt has destroyed rich agricultural land in the south and wiped out much of the huge date farms for which Iraq was famous.

Half a century ago, Israel built the National Water Carrier canal diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the Jordan River. That turned the Jordan downstream of the Galilee into a muddy stream, which Israel prevents the Palestinians from using.

Jordanian and Syrian dams on the river’s tributaries have added to the problem, reducing the flow of the Jordan by 90 per cent.

And according to the World Bank, Israel also takes 87 per cent of the West Bank aquifers, leaving the Palestinians only 13 per cent. The result is that Israelis on the West Bank have access to 240 litres a day a person. Israeli settlers get an extra 60 litres a day, leaving the Palestinians only 75 litres a day. The World Health Organisation’s standard is 100 litres a day for each individual.

The River Nile is 4,184 miles in length and, by this virtue, is the world’s longest — Brazil disputes the claim — and traverses 10 African countries. It is Egypt’s lifeblood providing both water and rich soil for the country’s agriculture. But a combination of drought and dams has reduced its flow over the past several decades.

Ethiopia is currently building an enormous dam for power and irrigation on the Blue Nile. The source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. The Egyptian Nile is formed where the Blue Nile and the White Nile — its source is Lake Victoria in Uganda — converge in the Sudan at Khartoum. Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were initially tense over water but have eased somewhat with the two sides agreeing to talk about how to share it.

But with climate change accelerating, the issue of water — or the lack thereof — is going to get worse, not better, and resolving the problems will take more than bilateral treaties about sharing. And there is hardly agreement about how to proceed.

One strategy has been privatisation.

Through its International Finance Corporation, the World Bank has been pushing privatising, arguing that private capital will upgrade systems and guarantee delivery. In practice, however, privatisation has generally resulted in poorer quality water at higher prices.

Huge transnational companies like SUEZ and Veolia have snapped up resources in the Middle East and global south.

Increasingly, water has become a commodity, either by control of natural sources and distribution, or by cornering the market on bottled water.

Lebanon is a case in point. Historically, the country has had sufficient water resources but it is has been added to the list of 33 countries that will face severe water shortage by 2040.

Part of the current crisis is homegrown. Some 60,000 illegal wells siphon off water from the aquifer that underlies the country and dams have not solved the problem of chronic water shortage, particularly for the 1.6 million people living in the greater Beirut area. Increasingly people have turned to private water sources, especially bottled water.

Multi-national corporations like Nestle drain water from California and Michigan and sell it in Lebanon. Nestle, though its ownership of Shoat, controls 35 per cent of Lebanon’s bottled water. Not only is bottled water expensive and many times inferior in quality to local water sources, the plastic it requires adds to a growing pollution problem.

There are solutions out there but they require a level of cooperation and investment that very few countries currently practise. Many countries simply do not have the funds to fix or upgrade their water infrastructure. Pipes lose enormous amounts through leakage and dams reduce river flow, creating salt pollution problems downstream in places like Iraq and Egypt. In any event, dams eventually silt in.

Wells — both legal and illegal — are rapidly draining aquifers, forcing farmers and cities to dig deeper and deeper each year. And many times, those deep wells draw in pollution from the water table that makes the water impossible to drink or use on crops.

Again there are solutions. California has made headway refilling the vast aquifer that underlies its rich Central Valley by establishing ponds and recharge basins during the rainy season and letting water percolate back into the ground. Drip agriculture is also an effective way to reduce water usage but it requires investment beyond the capacity of many countries, let alone small farmers.

Desalinisation is also a strategy but an expensive one that requires burning hydrocarbons, thus pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change.

The Middle East may be drying up but so are California, much of the American Southwest, southern Africa, parts of Latin America, and virtually all of southern Europe. Since the crisis is global ‘beggar thy neighbour’ strategies will eventually impoverish all of humanity. The solution lies with the only international organisation on the planet, the United Nations.

It is, however, a start but whether nations will come together to confront the planet-wide crisis is an open question without it. The Middle East will run out of water but it will hardly be alone. By 2030, according to the United Nations, four out of 10 people will not have access to water.

There exists a precedent for a solution, one that is at least 4,500 years old. A cuneiform tablet in the Louvre chronicles, a water treaty that ended the war between Umma and Lagash. If our distant ancestors could figure it out, it stands to reason that we, too, can.

Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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