Water, Not Oil, Is The Major Cause of War in the Middle East; and Polygamy Is the Reason For Strong Tribes and Weak States

Water is a necessity of life.  All the states in the Middle East except Turkey, Sudan and Lebanon are water deficient states.  Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar are short of water, but have sizable oil assets.  Iran and Algeria are short of water and have oil, but their populations are so big that the oil assets can not easily compensate for the water deficiency.  Egypt has little oil and a large water deficit.  Morocco, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Israel and Jordan all lack sufficient water and have difficulty finding the resources to compensate.

    The biggest user of water in the Middle East and elsewhere is agriculture.  A human requires 100 cubic meters of water per year, about 3,000 cubic feet, or enough to fill a large 20 X 20 room to the ceiling. Growing the food to feed one person requires ten times more, or 1,000 cubic meters of water.  In the Middle East and North Africa, 53% of the people live with less than 100 cubic meters per capita, and 18% have access to 1,000 to 2,000 cubic meters per person.  Oil assets can be easily be used to substitute for water by earning hard foreign currency with which to import food from countries with large agricultural surpluses and plentiful rainfall.  So, the Middle East could easily make up its water deficit by importing food, but this raises important political, social and security issues. 

   Politically, it is difficult to propose a national policy dependent on foreign supplies of food.  Self-sufficiency in essentials is considered basic to national security.  Social stability in many middle eastern countries requires devoting a lot of water to agriculture.  Agriculture is an integral part of the social and economic fabric and history of the Middle East.  Farm products are one of the few sources of foreign exchange in many poor and developing countries, and agriculture provides employment for many people, mostly poorly educated  with few other skills.

   In Egypt, 20% of the Gross National Product, 14% of its foreign exchange earnings, and 33% of its employment was provided by the agricultural sector in 1990.  In Sudan, 34% of the GNP, 95% of its foreign exchange earnings, and 61% of its employment comes from agriculture.  So, the competition for water from the Blue Nile between Sudan and Egypt is quite ferocious, especially as the populations of both nations expands.

   In Israel, by comparison, only 7% of the GNP, 4% of its foreign exchange earnings and 4% of its employment is in agriculture.  In Jordan the figures are 8% of the GNP, 14% of foreign exchange earnings, and 7% of employment.

   Agriculture provided for 18% of Syria's GNP, 10% of its foreign exchange earnings, and 24% of its employment.  In Iraq, agriculture provided 12% of the GNP, no foreign exchange, and 20% of its employment. 

   So, water is a life and death issue in the Middle East.  Turkey, which has the biggest water surplus, does not think it has any obligation to share it with its' neighbors, even though both Syria and Iraq are dependent on the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which have most of their headwaters in Turkey.

   Turkey thinks of water the same way the Arabs think of oil.  If it falls on their land, it is theirs to do with what they want, regardless of the consequences to the people living downstream. One reason that Israel wants control of the West Bank is for the water.  Israel is "downstream" to the West Bank aquifers.  For the past 36 years, Israel has been overpumping  water from the West Bank, degrading the aquifers and destroying that source of water for the Palestinians.  In effect, Israel is trying to make the West Bank uninhabitable, a subtle form of ethnic cleansing. Maybe that's one reason for the Palestinian suicide bombers.  When someone is trying to destroy you and you're going to die anyway, it makes perfect sense to launch a pre-emptive suicide attack and at least take some of them with you.  Remember, water is life in the Middle East.

War and Water - Why Iraq Invaded Kuwait in 1990

   Water is such a precious resource in the Middle East that the Arabs traditionally omitted water resources as targets of war.  The need for scarce water is another reason socialism is so strong in the Arab world.  Free market capitalism is the invention of a culture with abundant agricultural land and plentiful free water.  When the necessities of life are easy to obtain, free markets can work.  (It is important to note that this was not a big problem with the Zionists who founded Israel.  They were Socialists.  It was only when Menachem Begin and Likud came to power in 1978, that the Arabs realized that Israel was changing the basis of its society from socialism to capitalism and private ownership of land and water, the source of life.  In the wake of this clear philosophy of Arab extermination/removal, came the first Intifada.  Also, the first Intifada was launched by the first generation of Palestinians to be born and raised in captivity.  Raising children in jail does not make for peaceful citizens, but for suicide bombers.)

   But in an area where the necessities of life, food and water, are difficult to obtain, socialism makes more sense.  Everyone needs access to water, or they die. The core principles of Islamic water law (the shari'a) is: Water is a gift of God, and belongs in principle to the community.  This creates a primary right of shafa (drink) for an individual and for cattle and household animals.  To withhold or misuse water is an offense against Islam.

   Nevertheless, in 1965, Arab riparians began work on a scheme to divert into the Yarmuk River the headwaters of the Jordan River which rise in Lebanon and Syria.  This was intended to divert water away from Israel's National Water Carrier, completed in 1964.  Between 1965 and early 1967, Israeli forces attacked the works which were part of the Arab diversion plan.  The 1967 war completed the annexation by Israel of formerly Arab water supplies.  Israel has no intention of returning them to the Palestinians.  That is the real reason that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will do everything in his power to sabotage the "road map" to peace.  In the end, George W. Bush will go along with the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and the permanent Israeli theft of the water.   Security is just an eyewash for the real issue which is water.

   Now, compare the Israeli situation with the Iraqi situation in 1990.  Turkey's Greater Anatolia Project (GAP) constructed a series of 21 dams and 17  hydro-electric power stations on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  The centerpiece of the project, the Ataturk Dam, the fourth largest in the world, designed to hold 49  billion cubic meters of water.  (The available annual flow of the Euphrates River is 30 billion cubic meters.)

    Once the project is completed, the annual flow of the Euphrates will fall from about 30 billion to 16 billion cubic meters a year in Syria and from 16 billion to five billion a year in Iraq.  

    The filling of the Ataturk Dam in January 1990 caused an estimated 15% loss of Iraq's harvest.  This was equivalent to 2% of Iraq's Gross National Product.  Every missing billion cubic meters of water caused the loss of 150,000 acres of production. 

   At the same time, Kuwait started slant drilling into Iraq's biggest oil field.  Both Kuwait and Turkey are allies of the United States and Britain.  Turkey is a member of NATO.  Iraq was, furthermore, stuck with external debts of billions of dollars as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, which Iraq fought with the help of the United States in order to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution.  Certainly, any rational Iraqi, including Saddam Hussein, might have seen these events as a squeeze play by the west and its allies to destroy Iraq.  Hussein was not as paranoid as the western governments have claimed.   And just as the Israelis attacked Syria in the 1960's to secure water, Iraq attacked Kuwait partially because Turkey was taking water which previously had come to Iraq. 

   Iraq was too weak militarily to attack Turkey, and Kuwait was pumping Iraqi oil and depressing the price making it more difficult for Iraq to make the money to buy the food which it needed to substitute for the lost agricultural production and to repay its war loans.

Polygamy and the Weak State

   Western Christian countries have an abiding belief in companionate, monogamous marriage.  Islam allows polygamy.  In polygamous societies, clans thrive and the central state is weak because individual men can have many wives and father dozens or even hundreds of children.  These extended families result in strong personal bonds, to the detriment of a strong central authority.

      There are no democracies in the Middle East and North Africa.  Sons routinely succeed their fathers as heads of state, Prince Abdullah for King Hussein in Jordan, Bashir al-Hassad for his father Hefetz Al-Hassad in Syria.  The Saudi royal family holds all the top posts in the government.  Saddam Hussein's sons were touted as his successors before their murders.  Algeria and Egypt are military dictatorships. 

   The combination of the weak state and water deficits makes the nature of the society and problems faced in the Middle East and North Africa (and Africa) significantly different from the problems faced in the west.  Any idea that the western institutions and economic models are appropriate for the Middle East, especially when imposed by military force, are bound to come to grief.

   One thing is certain, however.  According to countless studies, there can be no lasting, peaceful solutions to the problems of the developing world, including the Middle East, without the emancipation and education of women.  In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, women were the least oppressed of any in the Arab world.  It would be ironic indeed if the United States overthrow of the secular Baathists in Iraq eventually resulted in the coming to power of an Islamic government, but that would not be surprising given the anti-democratic quasi-religious regime which has seized power in the United States.  Hereditary power, minority victors, colonial wars, we're going back to the 19th century with an impostor president at the helm.

True security can only come from the fastest possible sustainable economic development of the developing world.  To that end, the billions being wasted on security and the war on terror, instead should be spent on technological research to solve the water deficit problems in the Middle East and Africa, even the construction of water pipelines if that is necessary.

Also, the development of affordable sanitation technology is essential to give everyone access to sanitary waste disposal and clean water.  Finally, a world wide education campaign to bring all the world's people, especially women, including the neglected underclass in the developing world, up to a high level of educational attainment so that they can participate in the technological future which will be indispensable to productive work and leisure.  That is one reason why the American voters selected the author of Earth in the Balance as president in 2000, not the author of A Covenant to Keep.

Note: Much of the analysis for this article has come from WATER IN THE MIDDLE EAST:  Legal, Political and Commercial Implications Edited by J.A. Allan and Chibli Mallat, with Shai Wade and Jonathan Wild, Library of Modern Middle East Studies, Tauris Academic Studies, I.B. Tauris Publishers - London - New York, 1995.  Distributed in the United States by St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010

And on the role of polygamy and weak states: SEX AND REASON by Richard A. Posner, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1992.

Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf

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