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By the Rivers of Babylon. March 15, 2003
By Vijay Prashad
As a teenager I befriended a boy whose family had moved from Mumbai
(India) to Canada. He told me an extraordinary story that has until
now marked my sense of resources and the Gulf. His father, he said,
once hired a series of ships that tugged an iceberg from the North
Atlantic to West Asia to provide drinking water for the Emirates.
Whether the story is true or not, and given the exaggerations of
youth it is probably false, it made the deserts of the Arabian
peninsula come alive to me. If you look at a map, the large area to
the south of the peninsula is called Rab al-Khali, the Empty Quarter.
It has no people, but it is filled with sand.
Where does a desert get its water?
Well from the rivers of Iraq, of course!
From 16 to 23 March the junior eminences from across the planet will
gather in Japan at the Third World Water Forum. They will worry about
the problems of population growth, increased irrigation demands for
food production and ecological destruction of drinking water.
Many will take a Malthusian approach, bemoan the population growth
rates in the darker corners and wash their hands of the crisis.
Others will call for further privatization of water delivery, to make
us all beholden to one or other of the big water firms (Vivendi,
Suez, Coca Cola, Pepsi).
A few will rail against large dam projects that displace those who
see no benefit from this kind of modernity. Just as at the two
previous Water Forums, scholars and politicians will raise the
problem of water for at least three west Asian states, Saudi Arabia,
Jordan and Israel.
Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Territories receive the annual
rainfall of Phoenix, Arizona, and house a combined population of
almost fifteen million, while the entire state of Arizona only
numbers just about more than five million. Israel relies upon
aquifers, or underground rock formations that store water, that lie
beneath the Occupied Territories of Gaza and West Bank for almost
half its water needs.
About a quarter comes from the Sea of Galilee, still a disputed site
with Syria. Israel, which tries to make the Levant into a piece of
Europe, uses four times the amount of water than the Occupied
Territories, even as its population of six million is less than
double that of the Palestinians (about three and a half million). In
the summer of 1999, Israel suffered a severe water crisis when the
region came under a drought.
Yedidya Atlas, a senior correspondent for Israel National Radio, put
the case squarely, "Withdrawing from Judea and Samaria, i. e. the
Mountain Aquifer - or from the Golan Heights would create a situation
in which the fate of Israel's water supply would be determined by Mr.
Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the Syrians respectively. Either
Israel has sole control of her national water sources or her very
survival is threatened."
At the 2nd World Water Forum Yousef Habbab, the Palestinian
ambassador to the Netherlands, turned to Mikhail Gorbachev, reminded
him of their public conversation about water during the Madrid
Palestinian-Israeli talks, and said, "You have touched the
untouchable in this conference," the "untouchable" being the problem
of water for a permanent settlement in the region.
Such pronouncements are also frequent in the Saudi press. In July
1997, King Faud said that water preservation "is a religious as well
as a national and development duty." In November 2002, Riyadh Daily
reported that Water Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi had told the press that
the kingdom needed a "national plan for water" because of an increase
in population and the deterioration of desalination plants.
Behind the US, the United Arab Emirates and Canada, Saudi Arabia
boasts the fourth highest use of water per citizen. Such averages
mean nothing because only ten percent of water goes for personal and
commercial use, while the remainder is used in agriculture.
In the 1970s, when Saudi Arabia felt that its oil embargo might be
met with a grain embargo, it tried to increase grain production. Oil
profits went toward agricultural subsidies as the harvest increased
to a high of five million tons in 1994. You have to imagine the
alfalfa fields in Saudi Arabia, grown to prevent dependence on
imported food for livestock.
I'm not a believer in the theory of comparative advantage, but what
about some ecological sense about what the region can bear? The
kingdom has since 1994 cut subsidies and reduced the harvest to just
over a million tons of grain. Saudi Arabia now imports grain on a
landmass of depleted water. The alfalfa fields continue to be tended.
How do the Saudi kingdom and the Israeli state expect to cover the
water shortfall? In 1987, the Turkish government announced that it
would build a "Peace Pipeline" that would pump about sixteen million
square meters of water to these two countries, as well as Syria.
Water from the Seyhan and Ceyhan river systems in south-eastern
Turkey would be diverted to this pipeline and thereby draw water from
the Euphrates that delivers water to the fertile plains of Iraq.
In 1957, the Turks started to build the Dam at Kiban, where the
Euphrates meets the Murad with a catchment area of 30.5 billion
square meters of water. That project began a long-standing dispute
with Iraq. When Turkey started the Al Ghab dam project to irrigate
the Harat plains as well as generate electricity, it intensified the
problems in the region. These are flashpoints of the ongoing conflict.
If there were a pliable government in Baghdad, and eventually one in
Amman, the power of both Riyadh and Tel Aviv would grow in the
region, especially over such scarce commodities as fresh water. This
is perhaps the hope of the Water Ministries in the oil rich and
weapon rich countries in the region. Even as the war is about US
hegemony, about oil, about the Bush family, don't forget the water.
As Fortune put it so plainly in May 2000, "Water promises to be to
the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious
commodity that determines the wealth of nations."
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept.