Water Wars are Looming on the Horizon

In a special address held last week at the Chetham House Institute in London U.K. Minister of Defense John Reid revealed he had instructed his department and general staff to examine strategic aspects related to energy and water resources and the availability and situation of arable land worldwide.

A pessimistic evaluation for the middle of the 21st century, suggests future conflicts over vital resources will reach dangerous proportions as the limits of water, oil and gas reserves are neared. Middle East strategists were not surprised by Mr. Reid’s forecasts, or by a similar Pentagon review dated 2003, since water scarcity has been a growing problem for some decades already and it is a well-known fact oil reserves are declining rapidly.

At the basis of Reid’s assumptions are climate changes directly affecting the geo-political future in certain regions of the world where water, more than any other resource, is in short supply.

The British Ministry of Defense assesses, therefore, that “water wars are looming on the horizon.”

For more than 100 years the world has become used to conflicts over oil resources such as Imperial Japan’s need for easy access to energy supplies, which led to the attack on the U.S. and European colonies in the Far East during the Second World War. The same necessity was behind Germany’s thrust into Russia, hoping to reach the oil fields of the Caucasus and the rich soil of the Ukraine and other eastern regions.

It appears, however, that before alternate energies are developed and before oil and gas reserves are depleted, the quest for fresh water will become the major drive behind new confrontations. The same drive will also cause thirsty nations to go on expansionist wars in search of more fertile and arable lands. These future conflicts can happen, not only between traditional foes, but also within existing political and military alliances.

It is impossible to ignore the water needs of Western Europe or the U.S. against, for example, the backdrop of water availability in Canada, the second largest country in the world, with a relatively sparse population, merely 10 percent of the U.S. population.

More acute is the problem of water scarcity in the Middle East and Africa. Water wars were fought between Israel and Syria during the 60s, in what is known as the Syria-Jordan diversion plan, or Israel’s Battle of the Water. The problem of who will control the Middle East faucet is constantly intensifying with severe water shortages already haunting Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Nowhere else in the world is the lack of arable land causing such havoc as in the Gaza Strip, the world’s most densely populated place.

The thousands of miles long Nile River nourishing Egypt appears to be an ever-lasting resource. But Egypt is locked in a narrow arable land straight-jacket with no feasible future other than pushing south, possibly comparable to Germany’s expansionist Drang nach Osten (Push towards the East) in the Second World War.

With merely 2.87 percent of Egypt’s total land area of 995,450 square kilometers being arable, it is easy to visualize the acute difficulty in feeding a population of 76-million and constantly growing. Other countries in the larger Nile basin, such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda, not only control the sources of the river, but have also been demanding a greater share of its waters.

The African continent as a whole is becoming more arid, with cyclical famines plaguing millions of Africans. The quest for water and food, and consequently for a better and safer life, is also one of the reasons behind African immigration pressure on Europe. The largest demographic danger haunting Western Europe emanates mainly from hungry sub-Saharan and East African countries.

According to the British Ministry of Defense; if the world community and individual governments continue to neglect developing adequate strategies to cope with water scarcity the world as we know it is bound to change. Israeli scientists who for years have been trying to tell their government to address the issue before its too late, warn that unless their country develops a mega water desalination project both Israelis and Palestinians are doomed to suffer.

Another region likely to develop major water disputes is between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Both the Euphrates and the Tigris, the nurturing lifelines of Syria and Iraq from time immemorial, originate in Turkey where huge dams have been built to enhance agriculture in that country’s arid eastern regions.

Water shortage management will also have an affect on the rapid emergence of new super powers like India, and China and on the re-awakening of Russia. The Amor River on the borders of Russia’s Far East and China, or the Ganges in India will not be able to quench the thirst of these nations in the not too far future.

Leading world powers, therefore, realize they might need to defend their own water resources or demand, through diplomacy or even with the use of military power, consistent and reliable supplies from neighboring, water rich countries. This factor by itself explains one of the reasons for the renewal of a world arms race.

Yoram East
Yoram East is a retired Israeli colonel born in Jerusalem, who writes about foreign policy and goings-on in the Middle East. Sadly, Yoram passed away in October 2010.