Creating new perspectives since 2009

Water, the forgotten cause of conflict in the Middle East

March 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm

To understand the significance of water in the Middle East we need only to glance at the driving force behind many of the intensified conflicts across the region. Whether it is Turkey’s absorption of water which Iraqi farmers depend on, or Palestinians in the occupied West Bank being apportioned far less water that the Israeli occupiers, or Egypt’s tensions with countries upstream on the Nile, water has a significant impact on the security and stability of the region.

All this leads to increased scrutiny of the intense drought situations faced by many countries in the region this winter. As the wettest portion of the year reaching its end and the summer heat is approaching, poor crops have increased the possibility of declining food security and higher costs, this will greatly affect residents who are left unable to pay for foodstuffs. It is important to remember that an increase in the food prices of last decade was considered a primary factor of the uprisings across the region.

Though droughts are a factor, the majority of ongoing conflicts in the region are caused by policy decisions concerning water supplies shared across frontiers rather than the fluctuation of the weather.

Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian territory has witnessed illegal settlers acquiring almost three times as much water per head as the Palestinians. The unfairness of settlements having swimming pools while Palestinians are unable to dig wells is another humiliation of occupation.

Much the same situation is occurring along the Nile. Egypt is lobbying countries upstream, such as Ethiopia and the Sudan, about their extraction of water and their ambitions to develop water dams. As in Iraq and Syria, most Egyptians would struggle to endure any spike in the price of staple foods.

Turkey is another case in point. The two rivers of Euphrates and Tigris start in the mountainous areas of south west Turkey prior to crossing Iraq and Syria to get to the Gulf. With very low rainfall this winter, farmers downstream on either rivers are even more dependent on the water for the survival of their crops but the Turkish government has lately increased the amount of water it acquires before the streams crosses its borders and deems it has enough overall hydrological reserves to siphon water from another Turkish catchment to the north of Cyprus. This will likely cause a significant water crisis in Iraq and Syria – two countries that already experience different ongoing troubles from an entrenched Sunni rebellion and civil conflict.

There has also been a drought with respect to the international communities’ involvement in these issues to end them without conflict, leaving upstream countries with the upper hand. This is in spite of the consequences to the security and stability of the Middle East.

If we fail to recognise the role water plays in the peace and security of the Middle East, the situations are likely to continue, or even be exacerbated.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.