The New Oil

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The New OilThe New Oil

by Raywat Deonandan
May 7, 2003

This version of the article appeared in Rabble.ca. An earlier version appeared in the May, 2003, edition of India Currents Magazine. A third version, which is more complete, is also available here.


As water fights threaten to become water wars, the worlds got more to worry about from the fallout of the war with Iraq than were talking about.

Theres something an American television anchor said during the opening moments of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that I just cant get out of my head. “One of the key aims of this campaign is to avoid damaging the Iraqi infrastructure,” he said. “After all, in a few days were going to own this country.”

President Bush has been careful to avoid this kind of talk. This was, lets not forget, a war of pre-emption and liberation, not of conquest and acquisition. American flags erected on occupied Iraqi soil were hastily pulled down for fear of propagating such a perception. But beyond vague assurances of eventual Iraqi self-rule, theres been no real talk of an exit strategy. Thats because there isnt one: Iraq has become a permanent American protectorate.

Exactly why would the Bush administration seek to indefinitely occupy a shattered nation at terrible financial and human cost? Arguments of disarmament and counter-terrorism aside, a permanent dominating presence in Iraq confers upon its conquerors three great strategic advantages. First, U.S. interests would obviously benefit from controlling Iraqs oil reserves, estimated to be the second largest in the world. This will have the added benefit of positioning the dollar as the preferred petro-currency over the rapidly rising Euro, helping to sustain low U.S. domestic inflation levels. Giving credence to this vision is the feeding frenzy of U.S. oil companies, like Halliburton, seeking lucrative contracts to rebuild post-war Iraq and the rather conspicuous positioning of U.S. troops protecting the Iraqi oil ministry while cultural and civil treasures were looted. A second advantage of the occupation is that by reducing a controversial and expensive presence in Saudi Arabia, U.S. military might can move into permanent Iraqi bases, allowing the U.S. to project influence and force throughout the region, particularly in the direction of Iran and Syria.

The third advantage is the least discussed but it is perhaps the one with the greatest potential for grave international fallout: power over Iraqs other natural resource, water.

For years, Turkey, Syria and Iraq have bickered over access to the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, supposedly the Biblical veins that nourished the Garden of Eden. The middle and lower basins of these two rivers have traditionally comprised the most extensive wetland ecosystems in the Middle East. Damming and irrigation projects in all three countries threaten to reduce the water supply of their neighbours. Direct physical control over Iraqi water would prove effective as leverage against all of the competing interests vying for moisture. There is even some speculation that Iraqi water could be diverted to water-poor U.S. allies, such as Israel.

The UNs World Water Development Report, released in February, is the first report to evaluate the worlds dwindling water supplies. As was widely reported, it predicts serious global water shortages in the next few decades. While forty per cent of humans presently do not have access to sufficient clean water, by 2050 water scarcity will affect up to seven billion of a projected world population of 9.3 billion. The report was presented in early March at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, where Mikhail Gorbachev noted, “Water is an inalienable human right. Water is life.” Maybe so, but it seems that armies are now willing to not only fight for this particular right, but also for the ability to deny it to others.

Throughout history, water has often been a resource sought in battles of conquest. Such battles were often tribal skirmishes to secure wells or major battles to obtain passage to shipping ports. For the first time in the modern era, however, we are seeing armed conflict waged, at least in part, over water and its political power. The war in Iraq is a subtle example, its aquatic dimension overshadowed by talk of oil and weapons of mass destruction. But water is increasingly becoming a flashpoint for conflict.

The UN report lists thirty-seven international water conflicts that have, over the past fifty years, escalated to actual violence. The Middle East, already a powderkeg, is particularly ripe for such conflict. Last September, Israel threatened war with Lebanon over plans to divert a tributary of the Hasbani river to supply twenty villages in southern Lebanon. The river supplies about twenty per cent of the Sea of Galilee — Israels main source of fresh water.

India and Pakistan, nations with a long history of mutual enmity, have argued over water rights for decades. Amazingly, in 1960, they settled on an accord that still dictates appropriate rights to the waters of the Indus river. Yet in big Indian cities, water shortage is sometimes so severe that organized crime has taken to managing illegal access to water mains. When tensions between the South Asian nuclear powers are high, the much praised 1960 water accord gets weaker.

Nations arent supposed to fight wars over management of resources. States can agree on fishing rights, for example, and, for the most part, on air quality standards, without having to rattle sabres and mobilize fleets. Yet, where this particular resource is concerned, previous models of compromise and sharing dont seem to apply. This is despite the UN reports insistence that, “violence over water is not strategically rational, effective or economically viable.”

Part of the problem is the dramatic nature of water diversion. Unlike an encroachment into fishing territories, for example, the damming of a river means instantaneous and permanent deprivation of water to those downstream. The effect is dramatic and obvious. For example, the construction of the Farraka Dam on the Ganges, intended to divert water to Calcutta, resulted in dramatic reductions in Bangladeshi water tables. An international crisis was thus created, which still simmers decades later.

The political economy of water diversion and large-scale irrigation plans is also problematic, as there usually evolves a continuum of privileged access based on proximity to the water source. This means that drastic water management plans — damming, irrigation or hydroelectric projects — often result in a widened gap between rich and poor, which in turn is closely tied to food security and ecological denigration, both of which further vary with water access. When such crises are effected across an international border, tensions rise and military intervention becomes a possibility.

But even more disturbing, the U.S. invasion of Iraq produces another scenario. We must wonder not only whether armed conflict might arise from the consequences of poorly planned water management projects, but whether nations will pre-emptively launch attacks to secure water access.

The UN suggests that water wars can be avoided if world leaders choose to allow impartial international bodies to mediate water disputes, an art the report calls “hydrodiplomacy” — a strategy the war in Iraq can help but make us question.

Mr. Gorbachev spoke optimistically when he called water an inalienable right. More accurately, water is fast becoming “the new oil.” Nations will war over it. Political fortunes will ebb with it. Millions will die for it and for lack of it.


Raywat Deonandan is a Canadian epidemiologist and writer living in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the award-winning book Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR, 1999).

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