December 15, 2010

At CSIS, Water Politics in the Desert

A guest post today from Jess Glover, who came to CNAS from her time in the Middle East!

Monday I swung by CSIS to hear Jon Alterman and General Tony Zinni (ret.) discuss water as a strategic resource in the Middle East. A lot has been written to bring attention to the security consequences of water scarcity in the region, including here at CNAS.

Water is only likely to grow in strategic importance as aquifers and wells run dry across North Africa and the Middle East. According to Gen. Zinni increased demand by booming populations and from rapid urbanization often come at the cost of water supplies. Aquifers are taxed, pollution of water is a great challenge --- and all of these spell future strategic problems with massive humanitarian consequences.

But, what kind of problems might we expect? Border wars? Rogue damming activities?  

While the event acknowledged the possibility of actual “water wars,” Alterman and Zinni primarily focused on the political dynamics that surround water in the Middle East. And, instead of scarcity being a prelude to interstate conflict, Alterman predicted it will lead to massive internal conflicts and domestic threats to current regimes in the Middle East. 

This is important because Middle Eastern governments are often more concerned with domestic challenges and their ability to ensure they can “deliver the goods” – like water – needed to maintain legitimacy.  As a critical resource that impacts peoples’ lives, access to and power over water can be used by governments to co-opt opponents or reward regime supporters. In short, water is woven into the very fabric of social contracts.  Providing the life sustaining resource of water in the desert is used as a way to accumulate and demonstrate political power.

This becomes problematic because political unrest over access to water has already emerged.  According to page six of the CSIS report, Clear Gold,

“In May 2010, Yemenis clashed over the right to drill a new groundwater well; the dispute killed two, damaged 20 homes, and took the military eight days to resolve. Jordan experienced riots in the Ajloun area in 2009 over the introduction of new, more accurate water meters. In Algeria, severe water shortages in 2002 caused riots in several towns that destroyed government buildings and vehicles. (The government responded by promising to send water tankers and to reopen wastewater treatment plants supplying the towns.)”

These recent events do not bode well for water conservation efforts in the Middle East.  Governments are going to be reluctant to take conservation measures that, like cutting subsidies, are politically problematic. These political dynamics mean that solutions to water scarcity are more complex than simply reducing demand or rationing use.

Alterman and Zinni did not seem optimistic, yet they still offered several directions that could help mitigate the consequences of water scarcity. Chief among them was American investment in new technologies, potentially ones that can be shared with developing states,and assisting resource poor nations in fixing infrastructure that loses water or uses it inefficiently. For rich Gulf countries, desalination can prove a way to increase resources.  For poorer countries, like Yemen, the cost of infrastructure and energy needed to reduce water salinity makes the prospect a much steeper climb.

At the same time, policies to “green the desert” and ensure food security need to be seriously reevaluated by governments in the region. A compelling example Alterman referenced was Saudi Arabia’s dairy industry – which requires 2,300 gallons of water for each one gallon of milk produced.  Reducing the overall water demand by evaluating agricultural policies is something Alterman recommended, alongside efforts to meter and regulate use.

Regional strategies and technological advancement were Zinni’s main recommendations for the U.S. policy community. Even if “water wars” do not break out, water scarcity exacerbates existing conflicts and can add additional complexity to conflict resolution.  Here’s hoping that CSIS’s report can spark a stronger discussion in Washington of how these recommendations might translate into effective action in the United States and in the Middle East.