Resource wars and the Middle East
This is a write up of a talk given at the Green Left-Socialist Resistance day school on the Middle East, London, 16 January 2010.
Imperialism has always involved the theft of resources. Julius Caesar said that after his conquest of Gaul, of the 11 million inhabitants, three million had been killed and one million taken into slavery – land, food and slaves were the key resources that fuelled the Empire. Western capitalism’s industrial revolution was based on its own theft of millions of slaves from West Africa and precious metals from South America, the latter involving the biggest genocide in human history.
As the guardians of modern capitalism face the prospect of growing environmental crisis, their resource needs are very clear. Resource conflicts in the modern world will revolve around:
Few if any of the latter category of key raw materials are to be found in the Middle East or North Africa. Resource conflicts however involve all the others.
Perhaps the most pressing crisis for the people of the region is water. According to Deborah Amos:
“The Middle East is facing its worst drought in decades. For three summers, the annual rains have failed to come. Farmland has dried up across the region in Iraq, Syria, southeast Turkey and Lebanon....Experts say the climate warming in the Fertile Crescent, the area of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is contributing to the water shortage and helping to create a new phenomenon – water refugees....More than 160 villages are abandoned in Syria alone. According to a United Nations report on the drought, 800,000 people have lost their livelihood. Hundreds of thousands left once-fertile land that turned to dust and pitched tens near the big cities, looking for any kind of work.” [nps 7 January 2010(http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122294630&ps=cprs)]
If the current drought represents long-term climate change and means that the Middle East is going to be further desertified, then evidently the food security of the region, and hence its ability to support a growing population, will be stretched to breaking point. It eventually means millions of climate change refugees or a radical change in the forms of water use and conservation, which in turn means a radical overhaul of agriculture, which in turn probably means major political changes (see below).
The drought is the general background to the water disputes between states and between the Palestinians and Israelis. There are two major inter-statal water disputes, that between Syria and Iraq on the one hand and Turkey on the other over the Tigris and Euphrates, and that between Egypt and the other states in the Nile basin.
Turkey is always trying to assert its power regionally and one weapon is its control of the Euphrates and Tigris which both rise within its borders. The Euphrates which goes through Syria before entering Iraq is dammed by the massive Ataturk dam in south-east Turkey. It takes more than 50% of the river flow. One thing is symbolic. Saddam Hussein drained the southern Iraq marshes in an attempt to punish them for the alleged role in the uprisings that concluded the first Iraq war. In 2003, the marshes were symbolically re-flooded, but now they have dried up again because of the lack of water from the Euphrates.
The conflict over the waters of the Nile concerns the long-standing agreements between the Nile basin nations. Egypt is entitled to more than 50% of the Nile water and this is too much according to countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Sudan. Ninety-five per cent of Egypt’s water comes directly from the Nile, and issue is fuelled by the country’s skyrocketing population, currently 80 million, which make it reluctant to cede any of its extraction rights under the 1929 and 1959 agreements.
In fact the flows of the Nile into Egypt are already lessening, after Ethiopia dammed the river in four places.
Egypt is under a two pronged attack. On the one hand the flows from the Nile are declining, on the other the whole of the Nile delta is under attack from rising sea levels. The Mediterranean has risen by more than a foot in a century, itself likely caused by global warming.
The rising water has already crept into aquifers and lapped across fields of crops, turning them into marshland. According to Jim Maceda:
“’It's terrifying,’ said farmer Mohamed Helawany as he pruned his few surviving guava plants. ‘We've built barriers with wood and reeds, but the water keeps coming on the plants and kills them’….
“Some scientists predict that, based on current data, the sea will rise another three feet in about 30 years. (Hydrologist Dr Mamdouh) Hamza translated that projection into flesh-and-blood reality. ‘It will mean losing at least a quarter, perhaps 40 percent of our delta. It's not only agriculture, it's roads, it's railways, hospitals, schools, banks, government buildings - it will be an economic disaster.’”
According to Maceda, Egypt has always been open that a threat to its water supplies from the Nile will be a causus belli, and Egypt is much more militarily powerful than its southern neighbours. Sudan, immediately to the south, has sold 30 million acres of commercial land to China for farming, and this will require irrigation waters of at least 180bn litres a year. Major conflict over the Nile’s water is looming.
As anyone who has followed the conflict in any sort of detail knows, water is a key point in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Through its occupation and military might, Israel controls most of the water available in Palestine. One recent report says:
“Of the water available from the West Bank aquifers, Israel uses 73%, West Bank Palestinians use 17% and illegal Jewish settlers use 10%. Three million West Bank Palestinians use only 250 million cubic metres per year (83 cubic metres per Palestinian per year) while six million Israelis enjoy the use of 1,954 cubic metres (333 cubic metres per years), which means each Israeli consumes as much water as four Palestinians. Israeli settlers are allocated 1,450 cubic metres per person per year.” (Palestine Monitor http://www.palestinemonitor.org/spip/spip.php?article14)
"Israel also consumes the vast majority of the extracted water from the river Jordan, despite only 3% of the river falling within its pre-1967 borders. Palestinians have no access to this water. Many Palestinian villages now have to rely on water delivered by tankers, and some families spend up to 40% of their income on water. According to Amnesty International:
‘Israel allows the Palestinians access to only a fraction of the shared water resources, which lie mostly in the occupied West Bank, while the unlawful Israeli settlements there receive virtually unlimited supplies. In Gaza the Israeli blockade has made an already dire situation worse,’ said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's researcher on Israel and the OPT.
In a new extensive report, Amnesty International revealed the extent to which Israel's discriminatory water policies and practices are denying Palestinians their right to access to water.
Israel uses more than 80 per cent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the main source of underground water in Israel and the OPT, while restricting Palestinian access to a mere 20 per cent.
The Mountain Aquifer is the only source for water for Palestinians in the West Bank, but only one of several for Israel, which also takes for itself all the water available from the Jordan River.
While Palestinian daily water consumption barely reaches 70 litres a day per person, Israeli daily consumption is more than 300 litres per day, four times as much.
In some rural communities Palestinians survive on barely 20 litres per day, the minimum amount recommended for domestic use in emergency situations.
Some 180,000-200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities have no access to running water and the Israeli army often prevents them from even collecting rainwater.
In contrast, Israeli settlers, who live in the West Bank in violation of international law, have intensive-irrigation farms, lush gardens and swimming pools.
Numbering about 450,000, the settlers use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3 million.”
The inequality in water access ripples through to agriculture. Ninety per cent of Palestinian land is watered through rain-fed farming methods, whole more than 50% of Israeli farm land is intensively irrigated. The implications for Palestinian farming if the area continues to get drier are obvious. This of course compounds the situation where the continued encroachments of the settlers on Palestinian land is robbing many farmers of their livelihoods.
In Gaza of course the situation is completely catastrophic. Already before the attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, the water situation was difficult. Over-extraction from the Gaza aquifer meant sea water and sewage seeping into the reserves, as well as water shortages. Today, with the water infrastructure ruined, more than 60% of families have no tap water. The people of Gaza, living in one vast concentration camp, lack all basic amenities.
A semi-destroyed infrastructure is also compounding Iraq’s water shortages. Although there have been efforts to rehabilitate the water infrastructure, the effects so far have been limited. Many areas still lack regular access to clean water. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/oct/29/iraq-middleeast-red-cross)
Food security in the Middle East is limited because the area is no self-sufficient in food supplies, despite the exports from many countries, and is especially dependent on imports of wheat. It is thus highly sensitive to changes in world commodity prices. In 2007-8 there were food riots in Egypt as the prices of wheat on the world market shot up to a speculation fired $479 a cubic metre, from about $100 a cubic metre in 2000. Despite the sharp falls from this price spike, current world prices (January 2010) are still over $200 per cubic metre. The historic trend of world food prices is upwards, and in the epoch of climate change this is likely to continue. A repeat of the price spike of two year ago would mean millions thrown into hunger. In the long term there must be severe doubts about the ability of the region to feed itself, and thus the distinct possibility of hunger creating climate change refugees.
Some of the oil-rich Gulf states are responding to these dangers by joining the international rush to buy or lease agricultural land in other parts of the world. According to John Vidal:
“New reports from the UN and analysts in India, Washington and London estimate that at least 30m hectares is being acquired to grow food for countries such as China and the Gulf states who cannot produce enough for their populations. According to the UN, the trend is accelerating and could severely impair the ability of poor countries to feed themselves…..
“The UN's food and agricultural organisation and other analysts estimate that nearly 20m hectares (50m acres) of farmland – an area roughly half the size of all arable land in Europe – has been sold or has been negotiated for sale or lease in the last six months. Around 10m hectares was bought last year. The land grab is being blamed on wealthy countries with concerns about food security.
“Some of the largest deals include South Korea's acquisition of 700,000ha in Sudan, and Saudi Arabia's purchase of 500,000ha in Tanzania. The Democratic Republic of the Congo expects to shortly conclude an 8m-hectare deal with a group of South African businesses to grow maize and soya beans as well as poultry and dairy farming.
“India has lent money to 80 companies to buy 350,000ha in Africa. At least six countries are known to have bought large landholdings in Sudan, one of the least food-secure countries in the world.
“Other countries that have acquired land in the last year include the Gulf states, Sweden, China and Libya. Those targeted include not only fertile countries such as Brazil, Russia and Ukraine, but also poor countries like Cameroon, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Zambia.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/03/land-grabbing-food-environment)
We can be sure that the purchase of agricultural land in poorer countries will be at the expense of the food security of the poor in those countries, especially is climate change accelerates. Presently about 20% of the world’s land surface is desertified, but it is reckoned that at the present rate this figure will rise to around 40% by 2030.
A further, rather pessimistic, consideration is this: the onward march of desertification may just make much of the Middle East uninhabitable. There is nothing that makes this impossibility. If it is to be avoided, then it must mean at least an ending of the incredibly wasteful forms of irrigation typical of Israeli farms. As we know from the Australian example, it is not so much domestic households wastefully using water to shower, cook and water the garden that causes the major shortages, it is irrigation-intensive farming. That is what has wrecked the water security of south-east Australia.
One Jordanian hydrologist has made another doom-laden prediction: within seven years Israel will go to war with Egypt to gain access to the waters of the Nile. The fact this can even be speculated shows how desperate the situation is becoming.
Finally we come to the issue of oil. There was lots of discussion about whether the 2003 Iraq war was about oil, or whether it was all about establishing or reinforcing American political and military leadership in the region and world wide. Clearly it was about all those things.
We now know that detailed planning for the control of Iranian oil was very detailed before the first missiles were fired. Iraq has proven reserves of 115bn barrels of oil, but much of the Iraqi desert had not been explored for minerals. It may be that Iraq’s oil matches or exceeds that of Saudi Arabia.
US control of the oil ensures that this vast reserve will be exploited mainly by American companies and that the vast size of the underground oil reserve gives the US a huge energy back-up. It may not much prevent the onset of falling oil supplies internationally but it will act as a buffer to the worst effects as far as the US is concerned.
In addition, by its huge military presence in the region the United States is in a position to control the sea lanes and pipelines throughout the region. This means that it is in a position potentially to exert pressure on oil supplies to, for example, China and Japan should that be judged necessary in any future conflict.
America’s ultimate control of Iraq’s oil is overlaid by the conflict between the central Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous region in the north around Kirkuk. The central government controls the oil pipelines from the northern territory’s booming oil wells and is using this to try to block payment to the northern government and the oil companies. According to Ben Holland:
“Kurds….racing ahead of the rest of the country in luring oil investment and rebuilding after decades of war and sanctions. They have hit a speed bump: a four-month standoff with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over how to share the country’s oil resources and where to draw internal boundaries.
The dispute, which led al-Maliki to refuse payments to oil companies hired by the Kurds, may threaten the boom that has given Erbil new homes, conference centers and underground fiber- optic cables. It may also jeopardize Iraq’s stability as it approaches March 7 elections and the pullout of U.S. troops.
The tension ‘could potentially escalate into live fire’ if al-Maliki’s government tries to weaken Kurdish self-rule, said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a research institute in Washington. “Sectarian violence will never break Iraq but ethnic conflict can.”
The Middle East shows how climate change will inevitably deepen the struggle for resources, as land, water, food and energy supplies become scarcer and most difficult to obtain. The rich and the powerful are already using political and military muscle to ensure the losers will be the poor.