Will Water Pressures Spark the Next Middle East Conflict?

Mention the words “Middle East” and “war” in the same sentence and almost immediately thoughts turn to religion or oil as the source of conflict. Yet it is a resource more vital than oil that might well determine the outbreak of future wars in the region. While control of oil resources remains a key determinant of outside pressure from non-regional actors, inside the Middle East nations face the very real prospect of a dwindling supply of water.

In this volatile arena burgeoning populations are outstripping supply, in the process creating a looming freshwater crisis. Such a crisis may herald the very resource wars prophesied by environmental scholars, think tanks and government agencies. In such a fragile region the upheaval caused by water disputes in one area could threaten to spill across borders, dragging multiple nations into conflict.

With water a necessary and finite resource, industrialized nations such as Israel are pressed to improve their water-use technology while insuring hydrological capabilities and supply are not infringed upon by rivals. In other words, water security – both in terms of infrastructure and sources – is an imperative for the tiny state as its consumption rises due to improved living standards and a growing population.

Meanwhile the conflicting pressure caused by declining supply and increasing demand in the Arab world is aggravated by poor management and inefficient usage at the national level. Countries such as Jordan and Syria are running out of clean water, while Egypt has become more and more protective of its supply of Nile River waters.

Wars over water resources are not altogether a new concept in the Middle East. The Six-Day War of 1967 was in part an Israeli response to a Syrian attempt to dam the Yarmuk River, which feeds the Jordan River – itself a crucial water source for Israel. Altogether some 30 military clashes over water have occurred since the Israeli state was founded. These have alternately involved Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese attempts to divert waters flowing from the Banyas, Dan, Hasbani and Yarmuk rivers into Israel. Feuds between Jewish settlers and Palestinians over a well in the West Bank city of Nablus back in March resulted in the shooting death of a Palestinian by Israeli forces.

While the Levant makes up the obvious flash-point for an outbreak of water-related conflict, to the south it is Yemen that represents the greatest resource-deprived danger in the region. The country is already home to myriad civil pressures involving secessionist violence in the south, an active insurgency along its northern border with Saudi Arabia and an embedded Al Qaeda presence offering itself up as an alternative to the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But aggravating the situation are the country’s demographic and resource realities. Economically, Yemen remains heavily dependent upon its declining oil production sector. While the country’s oil and gas reserves dwindle its population grows at an explosive rate: from 7 million in 1975, to 23 million in 2010 – with that figure expected to double by 2035. Mixed in with population pressures, economic problems and civil strife is Yemen’s declining freshwater supply which currently provides Yemenis with less than two percent per person of the global average. Cultivation of the mild narcotic, Qat, has only worsened the situation by forcing farmers to drill deeper into underground aquifers rapidly running dry.

The Houthi insurgency to the north has already dragged Saudi Arabia into Yemen’s internal conflicts and the prospect of a greater breakdown might persuade other regional and outside actors to involve themselves in Yemeni affairs.

Will Water Pressures Spark the Next Middle East Conflict?

Other areas of the region may also see water-related tensions escalate in coming years. Turkey’s control of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers places Syria and Iraq at the mercy of Ankara to keep the water flowing. The power thus placed in Turkish hands may serve to undermine relations between a fledgling central Iraqi government and an increasingly confident Turkey determined to play a more active role in the Middle East.

Should the Iranian nuclear issue deteriorate to the point a U.S. and/or Israeli preemptive strike occurs, the infrastructure of the Gulf Arab states – not just in terms of oil, but water – might be impacted. Tehran has threatened to retaliate against any first U.S./Israeli strike by launching missile attacks against the Gulf Arab nations allied with Washington. Such aerial assaults might target oil terminals, ports, urban centers and desalinization plants that provide countries like the UAE with the bulk of its drinking and clean water supply.

Little wonder that the UAE has focused a significant portion of its defense investment over the past several years on building a modern, diverse missile- and air-defense network. This includes the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile defense system, the Russian-built Pantsir-S1E surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft weapon system, and, most likely, the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system which comes with a base price tag of a cool $1.9 billion.

When the threat to the region from resource pressures is juxtaposed with the ongoing arms spree seen in many of its countries what emerges is a tinderbox. Defense expenditures for the Middle East rose by nearly 31 percent between 2006 and 2010. This upward trend in defense spending is unlikely to stop any time soon – much like the increased demand for water amidst an expanding regional population.

Of course such population and water supply pressures are not unique to the Middle East. Indeed, in 1900 the world population was 1.5 billion; today it is roughly 6.8 billion. Yet while the world’s population has grown its water supply has remained static since the dawn of humankind. Water scarcity, therefore, is a very real threat facing the world and one in which the Middle East might merely serve as the first area of conflict in a broader global resource clash.

Photo by Tracy Hunter.

Dan Darling is an international military markets analyst with Forecast International Inc., an aerospace and defense research company. A graduate of Kansas State University with a degree in history, he ...read more


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