Jan Selby's article, The Geopolitics of Water in the Middle East; Fantasies and Realities demonstrates the complexities and politics of water and resource management in the Middle East. Here is a summary of that article....
THESIS: Water problems should be understood as questions of political economy; that water is structurally insignificant within the political economy of the modern Middle East. As a consequence, water is generally unimportant as a source of inter-state conflict and co-operation; and yet, water supplies are a crucial site and cause of local conflicts in many parts of the region. Given the worsening state of economic development within the Middle East, these local conflict dynamics are likely to further deteriorate.
Many Middle Eastern states are facing situations of “water stress”, overstepping the ‘thresholds’ and ‘carrying capacities’ of their delicate natural resource bases, to potentially disastrous ecological, economic and political effect. Only by reducing population growth are water crises and conflicts likely to be averted. But such a remedial step is, for understandable reasons, exceedingly remote. The roots of water crisis lie less in the realm of population and resource thresholds than in various forms of sub-optimal management and governance.
These inefficiencies can take any number of forms and are the essential causes of water problems:
• the failure to make best use of modern technologies in the production, storage, conveyance, conservation, treatment, use and reuse of water;
• the failure to treat water as an economic commodity, and to put realistic prices on it that reflects its economic value; the failure to allocate water appropriately between different users;
• the failure of state institutions to manage water properly through appropriate regulatory and tariff structures, through systematic resource monitoring, and through rational, rather than politicised, decision making.
• Technological, economic and institutional inefficiencies: these, for most international finance and development organisations, and international water experts,
Israel provides the clearest illustration in the Middle East of a state and society that has managed to keep ahead of water crisis by creating new resources. By managing its waters reasonably efficiently Israel has a highly integrated national water network which allows water to be circulated around the country and conveyed from the Sea of Galilee right the way down to the Negev. It is a major user of sophisticated drip irrigation technologies. Seventy percent of its municipal water supplies are reprocessed and reused.
Israel is also on the verge of importing 50 million cubic metres of water per year from Turkey, and is currently constructing a raft of major desalination plants. Israel’s relative success at coping with water scarcity has been less the product of the technical competence of its water managers than of certain enduring structural features of its society.
Water within contemporary political economy
Water has been a vital input into Middle Eastern agricultural development--this has been water’s major contribution to regional economic growth. In most countries agriculture accounts for over two-thirds of total water use, the only exceptions being Israel (54%) and Kuwait (60%), where overall scarcity dictates that a higher proportion of water be allocated for domestic and industrial uses. Across most of the region the water–agriculture nexus remains tight, with even water-stretched states such as Jordan allocating 75% of their water to agriculture.
Yet, the structural significance of agriculture to the region’s economies and societies is in steep decline, and with it the political-economic significance of water is also declining.
The Middle East as a whole is increasingly dependent on the global trade in agricultural commodities for its food security.
The corollary of this economic decline is that agriculture, and with it water, is of declining centrality to the political economy of the modern Middle East. Water has become (and will continue to become) less and less central to the political economy of the Midle East. While oil has been a principal cause of and input into regional economic growth, adequate water supply has been much more its product.
Overall, water has been much more the dependent than the independent variable in modern Middle Eastern development.
Inter-state conflict and co-operation
Water is an endless source of controversy. However, that is a world away from suggesting that water is, or could become, a key cause of military conflict. Water disputes, to the contrary, are generally characterized more by heat and noise than by military action.
Water is not important enough within the political economy of contemporary capitalism for it to be of any great, or wide-ranging, geopolitical consequence
The local politics of water
If water is generally insignificant as a source of international conflict and cooperation, however, it does not follow that it is equally so within the domestic arena. Water may not be a priority for most Middle Eastern regimes or ruling classes, but it is undoubtedly a key concern for the many ordinary people and politically peripheral communities that are forced to make do with poor quality water, or with uncertain supplies. Countries like Yemen, on the other hand, will—unless they manage to reverse their political and economic crises—increasingly be home not only to ecological destruction and water scarcities, but also to violent local social conflicts over water resources and supplies.
The argument that water is, or will soon become, a crucial factor in Middle Eastern geopolitics might sound superficially plausible, but it is misplaced. In the modern capitalist world, economies are more dependent on oil than they are on water. Oil can be used to make water, while water cannot be used to make oil. Short-term demand for oil in developed economies is much less elastic than is demand for water: a country like Israel, for instance, can respond to drought conditions by cutting water consumption by a third (as it had to do during the early 1990s), with negligible economic or social repercussions—but the same could never be achieved of oil. Oil is much more important than water as a source of profits, revenues and power. The wars of the next century will not be fought over water instead of oil. Water is a locally crucial resource. Water scarcities in the region’s poorest areas are engendering local social conflicts and—much more importantly, in terms of overall human suffering—malnutrition, ill-health and, in Sudan and Ethiopia, famine. It is merely to assert that this does not translate into water being of growing geopolitical significance. Whatever the U.S. motives were for invading Iraq, rest assured that this was not in order to control the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.