The New Oil

The New OilThe New Oil

by Raywat Deonandan
May 7, 2003

This is the complete referenced version of this article. Other versions, here and here, have been published in indepdendent venues.

There’s a quote from an American television anchor, 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 was, after all, supposed to be a war of preemption and liberation, not one of conquest and acquisition. American flags erected on Iraqi soil were hastily pulled down for fear of propagating such a perception. But beyond vague assurances of eventual Iraqi self-rule, there’s been no real talk of an exit strategy. That’s because there isn’t one: Iraq has become a permanent adopted 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, 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, helping to sustain low US domestic inflation levels. Giving credence to this vision is the feeding frenzy of US oil interests, such as Halliburton, seeking lucrative contracts to rebuild post-war Iraq, and the rather conspicuous positioning of US troops to guard 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, overwhelming military might will be moved into permanent Iraqi bases, allowing the US to project influence and force throughout the region, particularly towards Iran and Syria. But the third advantage is the least discussed: the power to be wrought by controlling Iraq’s 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 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. While 40% of humans presently do not have access to sufficient clean water, by 2050 water scarcity will affect up to 7 billion of a projected 9.3 billion people. 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, 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. The UNESCO report lists 37 international water conflicts which, over the past 50 years, have escalated to actual violence. The Middle East, already a powderkeg, is particularly ripe for heated water disputes. 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 thus, 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. This is despite the UNESCO report’s 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 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 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 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, an art the report calls “hydrodiplomacy.” 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.


  1. World Water Development Report
  2. Gorbachev quote
  3. Indus Water Treaty and here.
  4. Himalayan water disputes
  5. Organized Crime involved in water access
  6. Water as a potential source of international conflict
  7. Quote from UNESCO spokesman Gordon Young
  8. Hydrodiplomacy
  9. Israel-Lebanon Conflict over Sea of Galilee
  10. Iraq: “Most Extensive Wetlands in the Middle East”
  11. Farraka Dam dispute

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).