The New Oil

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The New OilThe New Oil

by Raywat Deonandan
March 24, 2003

This article appeared as a feature essay in the May, 2003, issue of India Currents Magazine. Another version appeared on the Rabble.ca website on May 7, 2003, and was reprinted in the June, 2003, issue of Global Voice (Vol 2, #5), the newspaper of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, uner the title, “Water fights threaten to become water wars.” A more complete version is also available here.

There’s a quote from Tom Brokaw, during the opening moments of the US invasion of Iraq, that I just can’t seem to 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 we’re going to own this country.” President Bush has been careful to avoid open discussion of such territory acquisition. This is, after all, supposed to be a war of preemption and liberation, not one of conquest and acquisition. But there’s been no talk of an exit strategy. That’s because there isn’t one: Iraq will likely become a permanent adopted American protectorate.

But why would the Bush administration seek to indefinitely occupy a shattered nation at terrible financial cost? Arguments of disarmament and counter-terrorism aside, a permanent dominating presence in Iraq confers upon its conquerors three great strategic advantages. First, US interests would obviously benefit from controlling Iraq’s 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.) Second, expensive Saudi bases notwithstanding, overwhelming military might could be moved into permanent Iraqi bases, allowing the US to project influence, and perhaps force, throughout the region, particularly towards Iran and Syria. The third advantage is the power to be wrought by controlling Iraq’s least discussed 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 basin 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, and have been used thus for political gain. 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 US allies, such as Israel.

The UN’s World Water Development Report, released in February, is the first such report seeking to evaluate the world’s dwindling water supplies. As was widely reported, it predicts serious global water shortages in the next few decades. 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 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, to use water as a dominating political resource. 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. Last September, Israel threatened war with Lebanon should the latter proceed with plans to divert a tributary of the Hasbani river to supply 20 villages in southern Lebanon. The river happens to supply about 20% of the Sea of Galilee, which is also Israel’s 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 which 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 tapped water mains. As tensions between the South Asian nuclear powers continue to intensify, the much praised 1960 water accord appears increasingly brittle.

The subcontinent is an interesting theatre for water disputes. Despite an abundance of fresh water sources, many of the water access issues arise from the marked variations in seasonal rainfall. The Himalayas provide protection from the harsh north winds billowing from the Russian steppes, but confer upon the region the trials of a tropical monsoon cycle. As a result, water shortages abound in the same year as devastating floods and deluges. The issue facing the region, and indeed the world, then, is not one necessarily of water shortage, but of water management. As a result, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan all quarrel endlessly over appropriate strategies to distribute precious Himalayan water.

To phrase it thusly, as a management issue, creates an expectation of peaceful resolution through negotiation and compromise. After all, nations aren’t supposed to fight wars over management issues. 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 don’t seem to apply.

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 who are downstream of the dam. 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 it seems that 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 vary with water access. When such crises are effected across an international border, tensions rise and military insecurity becomes a possibility. The potential scenario facing us now, however, is not only whether armed conflict might arise from the consequences of poorly planned water management projects, but whether nations would preemptively launch attacks to secure water access before such projects could be implemented.

A UNESCO spokesman suggested that water-wars can be avoided if world leaders choose to allow impartial international bodies to mediate water disputes. But, as the war in Iraq has taught us, when an unparalleled military power seeks to obtain a thing, it will do so regardless of the opinions of any international body. 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.


Ray Deonandan is a Canadian living in Washington, DC. Visit him online at www.deonandan.com.