There’s something an American television anchor saidduring the opening moments of the U.S. invasion of Iraqthat I just can’t get out of my head. “One ofthe key aims of this campaign is to avoid damaging theIraqi infrastructure,” he said. “After all, in a fewdays we’re going to own this country.”
President Bush has been careful to avoid this kind of talk. This was, let’s not forget, a war of pre-emption and liberation, not of conquest and acquisition. American flags erected on occupied Iraqi soil were hastily pulled down for fear of propagating such a perception. But beyond vague assurances of eventual Iraqi self-rule, there’s beenno real talk of an exit strategy. That’s because there isn’t one: Iraq has become a permanent American protectorate.
Exactly why would the Bush administration seek toindefinitely occupy a shattered nation at terriblefinancial and human cost? Arguments of disarmament andcounter-terrorism aside, a permanent dominatingpresence in Iraq confers upon its conquerors threegreat strategic advantages. First, U.S. interests wouldobviously benefit from controlling Iraq’s oilreserves, estimated to be the second largest in theworld. This will have the added benefit ofpositioning the dollar as the preferred petro-currencyover the rapidly rising Euro, helping to sustain lowU.S. domestic inflation levels. Giving credence to thisvision is the feeding frenzy of U.S. oil companies, like Halliburton, seeking lucrative contracts to rebuild post-war Iraq and the rather conspicuous positioningof U.S. troops protecting the Iraqi oil ministry whilecultural and civil treasures were looted. A secondadvantage of the occupation is that by reducing acontroversial and expensive presence in Saudi Arabia,U.S. military might can move intopermanent Iraqi bases, allowing the U.S. to projectinfluence and force throughout the region,particularly in the direction of Iran and Syria.
The third advantage is the least discussed but it is perhaps the one with the greatest potential for grave international fallout: power over Iraq’s other natural resource, water.
For years, Turkey, Syria and Iraq have bickered overaccess to the waters of the Tigris and Euphratesrivers, supposedly the Biblical veins that nourishedthe Garden of Eden. The middle and lower basins ofthese two rivers have traditionally comprised the mostextensive wetland ecosystems in the Middle East.Damming and irrigation projects in all three countriesthreaten to reduce the water supply of theirneighbours. Direct physical control over Iraqi water wouldprove effective as leverage against all of thecompeting interests vying for moisture. There is evensome speculation that Iraqi water could be diverted to water-poorU.S. allies Israel.
The UN’s World Water Development Report, released inFebruary, is the first report to evaluatethe world’s dwindling water supplies. As was widelyreported, it predicts serious global water shortagesin the next few decades. While forty per cent of humanspresently do not have access to sufficient cleanwater, by 2050 water scarcity will affect up to sevenbillion of a projected world population of 9.3 billion. The reportwas presented in early March at the World Water Forumin Kyoto, where Mikhail Gorbachev noted, “Water is aninalienable human right. Water is life.” Maybe so, butit seems that armies are now willing to not only fightfor this particular right, but also for the ability todeny it to others.
Throughout history, water has often been a resourcesought in battles of conquest. Such battles were oftentribal skirmishes to secure wells or major battles toobtain passage to shipping ports. For the first timein the modern era, however, we are seeing armedconflict waged, at least in part, over water and its political power. The war in Iraq is asubtle example, its aquatic dimension overshadowed bytalk of oil and weapons of mass destruction. But wateris increasingly becoming a flashpoint for conflict.
The UN report lists thirty-seven international waterconflicts that have, over the past fifty years, escalated to actual violence. The Middle East,already a powderkeg, is particularly ripe for such conflict. Last September, Israel threatened war with Lebanon over plans todivert a tributary of the Hasbani river to supply twentyvillages in southern Lebanon. The river supplies about twenty per cent of the Sea of Galilee — Israel’s main source of fresh water.
India and Pakistan, nations with a long history ofmutual enmity, have argued over water rights fordecades. Amazingly, in 1960, they settled on an accord that still dictates appropriate rights to the watersof the Indus river. Yet in big Indian cities, watershortage is sometimes so severe that organized crimehas taken to managing illegal access to watermains. When tensions between the South Asian nuclearpowers are high, the much praised 1960water accord gets weaker.
Nations aren’t supposed to fight wars over management of resources. States can agree onfishing rights, for example, and, for the most part,on air quality standards, without having to rattlesabres and mobilize fleets. Yet, where this particularresource is concerned, previous models of compromiseand sharing don’t seem to apply. This is despite theUN report’s insistence that, “violence over wateris not strategically rational, effective oreconomically viable.”
Part of the problem is the dramatic nature of waterdiversion. Unlike an encroachment into fishingterritories, for example, the damming of a river meansinstantaneous and permanent deprivation of water tothose downstream. The effect isdramatic and obvious. For example, the construction ofthe Farraka Dam on the Ganges, intended to divertwater to Calcutta, resulted in dramatic reductions inBangladeshi water tables. An international crisis wasthus created, which still simmers decades later.
The political economy of water diversion and large-scale irrigation plans is also problematic, as thereusually evolves a continuum of privileged access basedon proximity to the water source. This means thatdrastic water management plans — damming, irrigationor hydroelectric projects — often result in a widenedgap between rich and poor, which in turn is closelytied to food security and ecological denigration, bothof which further vary with water access. When suchcrises are effected across an international border,tensions rise and military intervention becomes apossibility.
But even more disturbing, the U.S. invasion of Iraq produces another scenario. We must wonder not only whether armed conflict might arise from the consequences of poorly planned water management projects, but whether nations willpre-emptively launch attacks to secure water access.
The UN suggests that water wars can beavoided if world leaders choose to allow impartialinternational bodies to mediate water disputes, an artthe report calls “hydrodiplomacy” — a strategy the war inIraq can help but make us question.
Mr. Gorbachev spoke optimistically when he calledwater an inalienable right. More accurately, water isfast becoming “the new oil.” Nations will war over it.Political fortunes will ebb with it. Millions will diefor it and for lack of it.