Speaking of Water Part II: Virtual water and water wars in the MENA region

“Water,” goes the bromide, “is the new oil.” The apparent equivalence of the two resources–both are relatively scarce–masks a curious misunderstanding of their relationship. The analogy ignores structural inequalities. For now, after all, the “old oil” aids greatly in finding and purchasing the new. As long as the global industrial and consumer economy remains dependent on oil, “oil economies” will continue to accommodate their own water demands through recourse to the energy demands of others. Wealthy countries can more easily afford to buy water, virtually or literally, than to go to war over it.

The very terms of discussions of water, environmental sustainability, and resource politics divides the world into two moieties: a technologically advanced, petrochemical half, and a less economically sophisticated, drought-stricken, water-centered half. No economies depend on oil so greatly as the oil-producing states of the Middle East. But redefining the Persian Gulf states as participants in a complex economy of virtual water quickly reveals the centrality of water not only to less industrialized economies, but to the producers of oil themselves.

Acquisitive, wealthy and in dire need of food imports, oil producers represent, too, virtual water consumers and, as seen in their land purchases in Uganda, Tanzania and elsewhere, sometimes their role as consumers takes precedence. There may never be an Organization of Virtual Water Importing Countries, but environmental activists and Middle Eastern policymakers can no longer afford to avoid economic systems–even “virtual” ones–intimately linked yet in no way subordinate to the petrochemical economy.

The politics of water, however, has demonstrated a tenacious tendency to devolve into simplistic opposing camps that largely decline to reframe fundamental questions of success and failure. Optimistic portrayals put great hope in the technological resolution of environmental problems, while pessimists, particularly in relation to water in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of the global south, not ungleefully depict a world of water wars and desert wastes. The mitigation of such environmental challenges depends not only on the amount of water present, but the technological ability, economic capacity, and social and political will to do so.

Such questions, though not in the strictest sense ecological in that they do not result from an actual lack of water, nonetheless determine the amount of water effectively available. Thus, these constraints may not differ functionally from physical water scarcity: If Sudan, for instance, cannot provide water to its citizens because the canals have silted up, the Sudanese people will experience the shortage as if it were a drought, no matter what the climatological conditions.

Nor will states necessarily be able (or willing) to provide water equally across space, to all geographic regions and social groups. In short, the pessimists may be right, but for the wrong reasons. Water wars in the Middle East may emerge not out of large-scale conflicts between nations, but organized actions by majorities or elites within nations to take the water of minorities or the marginalized. Discourses on water scarcity have focused almost exclusively on scarcity as a natural phenomenon threatening to sow international discord, rather than as an engineered weapon utilized in destabilized states as part of wars of dispossession. Here again Sudan may prove a grim augury. Ethno-religious conflict, untapped oil reserves, plentiful but coveted water, readily available weapons, neighbors posed to intervene–the elements of an internecine “resource war” are all in place.

Indeed, the mere threat of dispossession may prove enough to alter political landscapes in profound ways, even internationally. In politically charged environments, water reflects the preoccupations and anxieties of adversaries. No site better exemplifies this tendency than southern Lebanon’s Litani River. Running through eastern Lebanon until a turn, in the south, toward the sea, the Litani’s lower course has come under Israeli domination at various points in Israel’s intervention in southern Lebanon, most recently until 2000. The Litani River’s water could prove highly useful to those living in the Jordan River catchment, and diverting its water would not prove difficult. Moreover, Israel has not concealed its awareness of the potential utility of Lebanese water sources. At least as of 2000, however, no substantial diversions from the Litani River had actually occurred.

From the perspective of environmental science, the actual quantification of water flow in the Litani matters greatly, as it no doubt does to those who depend on it in their daily lives. Politically, however, the actual existence or non-existence of Litani River diversion proves of little import if people in the region believe it possible or likely, and behave accordingly. Residents of southern Lebanon, with good historical reason, question Israeli interests in their homeland. The actual use of water matters less than its potential use, which stokes popular anxiety about future interventions that would steal their livelihoods and drinking water.

George R. Trumbull IV is assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College and an editor of Middle East Report.

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