Water is the new oil of the Middle East

Ali Hajizade

Editor’s column


Since ancient times, water is an important component of life, for both people and animals. In dry areas water has been and still is worth its weight in gold, often bloody conflicts arose because of access to fresh water. In the Middle East, with its hot climate and deserted reliefs, access to fresh water is one of the main conditions of stability.

With the growing population, as well as the development of industry and infrastructure, water consumption is constantly increasing. While water resources are not.

water-crisis-middle-east_standardSuch countries of the Great Middle East like Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are relatively well endowed with water resources, and in the short term, they would not be subjected to an acute water shortage. However, there are those who are less fortunate, such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, Qatar and others. Water resources are scarce in these countries. And if, for example, Qatar and Bahrain can afford “expensive water”, Jordan and Syria cannot afford it. The year 2011, i.e. the year of the beginning of the Arab Spring, coincided with severe drought and water scarcity in some Arab countries, including Syria. The drought caused heavy damage to the already underdeveloped agriculture of Syria. De facto termination of the existence of a centralized Syrian state caused tremendous damage to the system of water supply and irrigation in Syria. That, of course, led to the aggravation of problems with the water supply.

The development of industry and infrastructure, tourism, and intensive urbanization and population growth (including expats) in countries such as Qatar (Doha and vicinity), United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah), Saudi Arabia (Jeddah) have significantly increased the demand for water. Those countries without sufficient natural reserves of fresh water are forced to use “expensive water”. Also, groundwater is heavily used in these countries, which leads to its rapid depletion and disturbance in natural metabolism in soil. Greening of UAE cities and new Doha, even with the use of intellectual watering system, constantly requires large amounts of water.

Despite the sharp drop in oil prices, the financial condition of the Arabian monarchies yet allows them to spend a lot of money on the desalination of sea water, and delivery of drinking water from abroad. But do not rule out that after the critical fall in their income, economies of these countries will enter a long period of recession. With negative economic indicators, expenditure on water supply and maintenance of infrastructure can be a heavy burden for the budgets of these countries. Over the years, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf have accumulated huge foreign exchange reserves from the profits derived from oil exports. Under these circumstances, I do not exclude that some of these reserves over time will be spent on the purchase of water and solving problems related to water supply.

Things are even worse in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, torn by civil war.  The work of government structures in these countries is disrupted; there is no money, and often no specialists able to solve water supply problems. And it is not only about the lack of water for irrigation, but also drinking water.

 The lack of water for irrigation leads to a reduction in plantings in some countries, which, coupled with the continuing population growth threatens to become a hunger crisis, and as a consequence, turn into a political instability.

A Yemeni woman carries jerrycans to fill...A Yemeni woman carrieDemographic, climate and economic forecasts regarding the near future of the Middle East (25-30 years) indicate that the water problem, namely the lack of it, will be more aggravated with each passing year.

Military conflicts in the region, the aim of which will be control over the water resources are not excluded. That is, if the earlier wars were fought over control of energy resources, now we can witness the wars which purpose will be the control over water resources. The status of the governments who failed to provide its citizens with at least a minimum amount of drinking water will be shaky.

I mentioned the risk of conflicts over water sources for a reason.  If you look at a map of military operations during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, it becomes clear that the control of water sources played a significant role in the actions of Israel.

At the moment, the Middle East has become the source of the flow of migrants, which rushed mainly to the EU. It is clear that the reason for this stream is the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. However, we cannot exclude that in the future an acute shortage of fresh water will also force people to leave their homes and their countries. In this scenario, we will witness both massive internal displacement and mass migration abroad, and especially into the EU countries. Such a massive displacement of large numbers of people, will cause demographic, economic, and cultural issues, and, as a consequence, political instability and radicalization of society.

In summary, I would like to emphasize that the EU should also be interested in the resolution of water problems in the Middle East, along with the local governments. If timely action is not taken, the region will suffer much more terrible disaster than the Gulf War and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen combined.

Ali Hajizade, a political scientist, head of the project “The Great Middle East”



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