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Water is heavier than oil in Middle East power-plays

Saturday 07/July/2018 - 12:08 PM
Sada El Balad
"Financial Times" newspaper- By "JOHN DIZARD":

It is bad for a company، or a country، to lack the foreign exchange necessary to meet operating expenses or debt payments. It is much worse for it to lack water، a prospect that is faced by wide areas of the Middle East. Not Turkey، though.

Turkey’s consumer price index rose to an annualised 15.4 per cent in June. The Turkish lira has declined 19 per cent in the year to date. The current account deficit is 6 per cent of gross domestic product.

Unlike most of its neighbours، however، Turkey has enough water inside its borders، which might explain part of the Erdogan government’s seeming overconfidence. Think about it. What could you do without for a few days: oil، foreign currency . . . or water?

Eastern Americans and northern Europeans tend to take for granted water and water-based strategic power. We don’t have to import water in bottles — we choose to do that as a matter of taste or pretension.

The Iraqis are facing up to how water poverty more than offsets oil wealth. The Turks have chosen to reduce the flow of water on the Tigris river. In the summer. Apparently، Ankara chose to fill a reservoir behind a new dam ahead of schedule. Iraq has protested but there is not much else it can do.

As one water engineer says: “Turkey is an aggressive upstream country. It is not easy to take them to court if they do not release the water.” Turkey has its priorities، such as dealing with Kurdish nationalist groups. Their neighbours can be either less tolerant of Kurdish nationalists or find water elsewhere، somehow.

Most foreigners do not see Kurds in Turkey and its neighbouring countries as an existential threat but then many non-Americans cannot understand why some in the US believe the Mexican border represents a strategic threat.
Water resources shared by the US، Canada and Mexico are governed by detailed treaties. Turkey، where the Tigris and Euphrates originate، has much more latitude in releasing water to its neighbours.

Water shortages pose an immediate existential threat to Iran، Turkey’s ancient rival. In the words of Kaveh Madani، a former Iranian deputy vice-president for the environment and a professor at Imperial College London: “This is not a water crisis. It is a bankruptcy.”


Drought afflicts 97 per cent of Iran. The country’s most serious recent protests were not against “moderates” or “conservatives” or the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal، but about water. Mobs in the southwestern province of Khuzestan expressed outrage over the bad water that trickles from their taps. Farmers near Isfahan have demonstrated against a lack of water for their fields and the drying-up of a nearby river.

This has little to do with Donald Trump. If US sanctions ended tomorrow، it would take years to turn round government policies and social practices that have led to Iran’s water crisis.

“Europeans are always paranoid about energy security. In that part of the world people are paranoid about securing food،” Prof Madani says. That means that water-hungry crops such as wheat are produced by inefficient small farmers.

“There is a hidden function of water-inefficient agricultural methods،” he says. “They want to maintain the farmers’ jobs Otherwise they will migrate [to the cities].”

Also، Iran’s policy to increase national food production has led to the cultivation of marginal farmland and، in turn، over-irrigation، salinification and increased desertification.

The same has happened in Iraq and Syria. It is sobering for someone from the US to drive across the bleak sandbox of what was the Fertile Crescent.

It is not a simple matter of Iran adopting high-tech “drip irrigation”. “They are already subsidising farmers to use drip irrigation but experience shows that [these] methods increase water use by farmers،” says Prof Madani.


Iranian farmers’ water rights are cheap، so they do not have an incentive to reduce water use. The Iranian state has been active in developing water infrastructure: too active in many ways. There has been a deal of spending on wasteful and even destructive dam building and water-transfer projects. Inevitably، there has been political favouritism.

Americans and Europeans have made the same sort of mistakes but they have the water wealth and diversified economies to recover from the damage. Water-poor countries of the Middle East have a much narrower path.

There are other examples of the relationship between water power and politico-economic power. The Ethiopian state had long planned to dam the Blue Nile، upstream from Egypt. The political disruption of the Arab spring gave the Ethiopians an opening to start the project. It will be hard to stop.

When you talk about “liquidity” in sovereign or corporate analysis، consider real-world liquidity and the prospect of water-poor migrants.

Edited by Rasha Mohamed

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