World Water Woes

Conspicuously missing from the ubiquitous Iraq war critique was the subtle agenda of water rights in the parched Middle East region. Of all the reasons for invading Iraq, securing water rights was never mentioned because it implicates too many countries with volatile connections to Iraq, like Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Israel. Protest signs read, “No Blood For Oil,” as American corporations salivated in line for the opportunity to win contracts to rebuild the ravaged infrastructure. Why did no antiwar protesters carry signs saying, “No War for Water”? They should have.

The current litany of reasons for invading or threatening to invade countries pertains to terrorism, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and undemocratic, fundamentalist regimes. These reasons are particularized and specific, and keep the world guessing where the United States will launch its next attack. With an explicit agenda for controlling water in the Middle East, however, the roadmap for regime change and regional control would become transparent and predictable.

A land of displaced people and destroyed ecosystems, the once thriving marshland area of southern Iraq was home to hundreds of thousands of marsh Arabs who had sustained a 5,000 year-old culture until the ancient life-giving waters were drained and dammed by the recently-toppled Saddam Hussein government as well as by other riparian states. Truly Saddam created a catastrophic situation by redirecting the water and razing marsh Arab villages. Yet aside from the apparent ecological and humanitarian crisis pertaining to the area, why is the project of rehydrating the marshlands so urgently important for American interests?

A World Bank webcast in May 2001 quotes Jean-Louis Sarbib, Vice President of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region, as saying that the CIA had identified water as one of the key issues of the 21st century. Water is a pressing issue in the Middle East which, like the sparse underground aquifers, stays beneath the surface. With 45 million people in the Middle East not having access to drinking water and 80 million not having access to sanitation, Sarbib’s commentary is an understatement.

Jeffrey Rothfeder, author of explained in an article to the Boston Globe in January 2002 that “a freshwater crisis has already begun that threatens to leave much of the world dry in the next twenty years. One-third of the world’s population is starved for water. In Israel, extraction has surpassed replacement by 2.5 billion meters in the last 25 years. There are 250 million new cases of water-related diseases annually, chiefly cholera and dysentery, and ten million deaths. What’s more, vital regions are destabilized as contending countries dispute who controls limited water resources.”

Rothfeder, quoting another World Bank official, former Vice President Ismail Serageldin, reminded readers that “the next world war will be over water.”

Undercurrent of Water Politics

The dialogue about access to clean water is commonplace in peace talks throughout the Middle East, but Western diplomats rarely broach the topic. An anonymous U.S. State Department official quoted in National Geographic said, “people outside the region tend not to hear about the issue (of water). It just doesn’t make the news.” By design, not by accident, this issue is obscured from Western eyes because the propaganda machinery from Washington, DC has not allowed it. Although water is at the top of the list in negotiations between Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Iraq,

Only the region’s countries, the riparian states of Syria, Turkey and Iraq themselves have directly conferred on the issue of sharing the water of the Tigris and Euphrates. The United States cannot dictate water usage as a formal part of its foreign policy, or even legitimate the crisis surrounding clean water, in part because of its wholly unsustainable practices, and in part because a straightforward concession on the issue of dwindling water supplies would mean an complete overhaul of global diplomatic relations with a new emphasis on aquatic vulnerability.

Published after the 9-11 terrorist attacks but prior to the recent war on Iraq, Peaceful Uses of International Rivers: The Euphrates and Tigris Dispute written by water rights expert Hilal Elver outlines the hydrohistory of the Fertile Crescent as well as the present challenges to settling the disputes between countries vying for water access in the 21st century. She notes that the “last trilateral meeting of the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi technical committee was concluded in Damascus in 1996” with Iraq still under the United Nations-imposed sanctions regime which severely hindered international diplomatic relations. With the United States effectively in control of Iraqi politics and lobbying for the removal of the sanctions, presumably negotiations between the three nations will resume with respect to shared water issues.

According to Thomas Naff, a professor of Middle East History at Pennsylvania State University, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which provide Iraq with nearly 100% of its water “depend essentially on agreements with Turkey” where both rivers originate. Turkey disagrees over quotas to meet Syria and Iraq’s minimum requirements for what would be the natural flow of the water and what would provide their people with adequate access to those resources, claiming that Syria and Iraq take more than their allotted amount of water from the rivers as compared to how much each country contributes to the rivers’ flows.

Thus Turkey began constructing a major series of dams to control the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates and flex their regional muscle. The Southeast Anatolia Project consists of 15 dams, 14 hydroelectric stations and 19 irrigation projects. Maybe to prove its capacity for controlling Syria’s and Iraq’s access to the life-sustaining waters of the two rivers or maybe just to fill the largest of the Project’s dams, Turkey cut off the water flow for 29 days in 1990. The point of potable prowess was well taken, and Iraq and Syria effectively tabled their mutual disagreements and colluded in 1998 to resist the construction of the Southeast Anatolia Project in Turkey. In the close quarters of Middle East politics, shared water resources often make for temperamental bedfellows.

Closely tied to the disputes surrounding Iraq and Syria’s water supply is the proximity to Israel. Syria faces water difficulties on its southwestern border as well in the water-rich area of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. The Golan Heights has important water resources that, according to Professor Emeritus Dan Zaslavsky at Bar-Ilan University, if handed back over to Syria would mean that Israel loses nearly one-third of its fresh water.

On May 7, 2003 Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Bouthaina Shabaan of Syria to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to returning the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, as a key step in the peace process between Syria and Israel.

Should the U.S. broker a peace plan that guaranteed the Golan to Syria, Israel would have to find a replacement source for its lost resources. Stephen Pelletiere, a former CIA analyst, wrote in the New York Times that Turkey had envisioned building a Peace Pipeline carrying water that would extend to the southern Gulf States, and as he sees it, “by extension to Israel.” He continued by saying that “no progress has been made on this, largely because of Iraqi intransigence. With Iraq in American hands, of course, all that could change.”

The assumptions about pan-Arab unity seem to dissolve when talking about the scarce commodity of water, especially when the two of the countries commanding control over the resources are also recipients of large amounts of financial and military aid from the United States: Turkey and Israel. This cosmetic overture to feign regional fairness and non-partiality toward Israel in returning the Golan Heights to Syria does not mask the fact that the United States has strategic goals to control water and oil supplies in the Middle East. The continued destruction of Palestinian homes and agribusiness by Israeli settlers is second only to continued U.S. aggression toward Iraqis via sanctions and wars, inciting and exacerbating global disgust at perceived American imperialism and anti-Arab, anti-Islamic policies. These sentiments contribute to the ongoing worldwide terrorist threats, which in turn propels the United States foreign policy to search and destroy any would-be terrorists and lending encouragement for further invasions in “uncooperative” countries like those listed as the Axis of Evil.

The Dammed Water Problem

While the regional water issues have been obscured, to some extent the poor condition of water in Iraq is no new news.

Professor Thomas Nagy of George Washington University unloaded a massive compilation of U.S. Government documents from 1990-1991 that showed in no uncertain terms the malevolent intent to target sites of vital civilian importance in the first Gulf War. In an expose entitled “The Secret Behind the Sanctions” Nagy cites macabre foreknowledge of the effects of bombing water purification and sewage treatment facilities which provide clean water to the Iraqi people. Moreover, these documents detail how the economic sanctions, imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, would crescendo the effects of the bombings by banning items like water chlorinators and spare parts to rebuild the obliterated infrastructure, claiming that they could serve “dual use” purposes in making weapons of mass destruction.

The result has been pandemic waterborne illnesses that have targeted the most vulnerable people in Iraqi society the children. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 children under age 5 have died every month as a result of preventable illnesses such as cholera and dysentery. Because electrical facilities were also targeted in the first Gulf War, vaccinations needing refrigeration (which requires electricity or functioning generators) spoiled, and several generations of children in Iraq have not been inoculated for illnesses which had been completely controlled under the socialist, secular Iraqi government which once provided its citizens with comprehensive, free medical care.

It is safe to address topics like waterways contaminated by sewage in Iraq because most of the dialogue on impure water centers on the immorality of targeting civilian infrastructure. It is dangerous to talk about the scarcity of water in the region because less dialogue covers the most pressing issue: regional instability intensifying as a result of growing population rates and diminishing water supplies. The United States is testing the waters of hydropolitics by starting to acknowledge the shortage of water in the marshlands of Iraq. Missing from the critique of U.S. foreign policy in the region is a dialogue on regional and global sustainability, to the advantage of American interests.

In justifying the recent invasion, we heard history about Saddam gassing his own people, the Kurds, developing and hiding weapons of mass destruction, displacing the marsh Arabs and ruining their land, and leading a torturous repressive regime that deprived Iraqi people from democracy and self-governance and led them to the deplorable conditions they now live in.

The U.S. Department of State lists an interview with Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-born engineer and environmental activist, who explained that the Iraqi government diverted water by building canals and dams for many reasons. One was to catch soldiers fleeing the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980’s, and another was to punish the Shi’a people who, doing as the United States had told them to do at the end of the first Gulf War, led an uprising against the central Iraqi government and were abandoned by the U.S. military and forcefully put down by Saddam’s military.

Alwash describes three different systems that Saddam’s regime used for redirecting the water away from the marshlands, claiming that even in the early 1990’s when dams in Turkey and Syria were built to harness hydroelectric energy and retain water for their countries’ usage, the marshlands of Iraq were vibrant and thriving. He maintains that it was exclusively the malicious ehydration campaign led by Saddam which ruined the marshlands and displaced or killed between 100,000 and 500,000 Marsh Arabs, draining 60% of the marshes between 1990-1994.

Interestingly enough, draining the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers what the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) calls “one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters” was done under the auspices of the sanctions and the watchful eye of the southern No-Fly-Zone, patrolled by Great Britain, the United States and, for some time, France. The No-Fly-Zones were established in 1992 to protect the Kurdish people in the north and the Shi’a people in the south from Saddam’s regime. These minority groups have received targeted repression and mistreatment, and the No-Fly-Zones were supposed to inhibit Saddam’s power to further oppress them.

“We watched it happen,” said Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne at a forum on the marshlands at the Brookings Institution on May 7. “We had the power, the knowledge and the responsibility and we did nothing.” Undoubtedly, the long arms of Baghdad were able to reach to the southern marshlands despite the sanctions and the No-Fly-Zones, and wreak havoc on the indigenous people as well as the landscape.

For the past twelve years while Iraqis were unable to import pencils because they contained graphite, blood bags because they contained anti-coagulants and cleaning supplies, because the Sanctions Committee 661 asserted that some parts could be used in making weapons of mass destruction, the government of Iraq was able to bring in materials and massive equipment to construct dams which rerouted the marshland waters and wrought misery on the Madan.

Inundated by Foreign Interests

One of the many claims of barbarism on the part of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist regime is displacing hundreds of thousands of Madan, or Marsh Arabs, and draining the legendary swamps where millennia-old culture had been practiced and preserved. In post-war Iraq, the United States has assumed the responsibility of restoring these marshlands. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been a vocal proponent of bringing water to the arid landscape, addressing the humanitarian needs of the remaining Marsh Arabs, and fixing the ecological crisis which, according to the UNEP, has vanished about 90% of the 20,000 square kilometers of Iraq’s marshlands.

While addressing the marshland concerns attempts to smooth over twelve-year-old political rifts between the American administrators now governing Iraq and the displaced Madan people, it seems somewhat odd that such a relatively isolated minority of the Iraqi population would receive such attention and consideration so immediately after the war, especially since the Madan are Shi’a, a population that has largely rejected the occupying American forces and has rejoiced at the return of Islamic leaders from exile to Iraq.

And yet, American interests are moving forward swiftly.

Bechtel, an American firm with a controversial history of water privatization, who won the largest contract from USAID to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, is set to be a major player in the process with a contract worth $680 million. Bechtel’s history speaks for itself.

Blue Gold, a book exposing global control of water by private corporations, listed Bechtel in the second tier of ten powerful companies who profit from water privatization. According to Corpwatch, two years ago current USAID administrator Andrew Natsios was working for Bechtel as the chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, a massive transportation project in Boston whose cost has inflated exponentially in the billions of dollars. While providing political disclaimers on its website as a result of investigative reporting centering on the close relationship between government and private business, Bechtel certainly will benefit from its positioning as the sole contractor for municipal water and sanitation services as well as irrigation systems in Iraq.

Vandana Shiva also implicates Bechtel in attempting to control not only the process of rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, but also control over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers themselves. Bechtel has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Bolivia for their plan to privatize the water there, which would drastically rise the cost of clean water for the poorest people in the country. To control the water in the Middle East, Bechtel and its fiscal sponsors, the United States government, would have to pursue both Syria and Turkey, either militarily or diplomatically. Syria has already felt pressure from the United States over issues of harboring Iraqi exiles on the U.S.’s “most wanted” list, as well as over issues of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

It is not stretch of the imagination that a company like Bechtel with a history of privatization would have its sights set on water in the Middle East, starting with their lucrative deal in Iraq. However, the United States is not positioned to enter a new phase of global geopolitics where water, a limited vital resource that every human needs, is the hottest commodity and where American corporations like Bechtel have not already capitalized on the opportunity to obtain exclusive vending rights.

Devoting attention to restoring the marshes clearly serves U.S. businesses and corporations who have control over which areas of the marshes get restored, and which ones get tapped for their rich oil resources. Control of the marshlands by the U.S.-led interim government and by the American corporations who have won reconstruction contracts is crucial in deciding where new oil speculation will take place. If only a percentage 25% according to experts on a Brookings Institution panel on marshland reconstruction can be restored, then it would behoove those working on issues of oil and water not to rehydrate areas where such oil speculation will likely take place.

Water is vital to the production of oil as well; one barrel of water is required to produce one barrel of oil. Bechtel and Halliburton, who received a U.S. Army contract to rebuild the damaged oil industry which will likely reach $600 million, are the two most strategically-positioned corporations to control both the water and oil industries in Iraq.

Yet this ruse of generous reconstruction and concern seems both an unlikely and peculiar response after a less-than-philanthropic U.S.-led invasion of the sovereign nation of Iraq. Supporters and opponents of the war alike could hardly miss its transparency. Whether the reasoning was because of oil, liberating the Iraqi people, ferreting out weapons of mass destruction or exerting regional influence, few pretenses were made to distance the war profiteers from the battlefield in the war’s wake.

The actions of agencies like USAID, which has pledged more than a billion dollars to facilitate rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq which the U.S. military and policymakers had a large hand in destroying, are far from altruistic. The problem of the Marsh Arabs was not invented overnight at the end of the recent war, but rather has developed in plain view of the whole world via satellite images and documented in-country reports of displacement and abuse. Moreover, the marshlands are not Iraq’s sole antiquity. Museums, regions and sites of archaeological importance were destroyed, bombed and looted not only during this last war, but also continuously since the first Gulf War. Will we be paying to rebuild those as well?

According to Peter Galbraith, a professor at the Naval War College, three weeks of ransacking post-war Baghdad left nearly every ministry in shambles, including the Irrigation Ministry, except for the Oil Ministry that was guarded by U.S. troops. The people of Iraq are becoming rapidly disenchanted with a prolonged U.S. presence in their country as their former disempowerment under Saddam is translated into present disempowerment under the Americans.

According to those working closely with the project to rehydrate the arshlands, in the newly “liberated” Iraq the silenced voices of the oppressed peoples can now be heard and addressed, the stories of destruction can be told and the much-needed healing of humans and terrain can take place. Whether this will actually happen is another story. At the Brookings Institution forum on the marshlands, no native Iraqis were represented, and the larger question arising in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq is what tangible legitimacy is given to voicing the will of the people by putting representative Iraqis in power.

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Perhaps the issue of water is left unspoken on the global level because the transnational corporations supported by powerful Western governments ontribute largely to water pollution and privatization and do not want to draw attention to this fact lest they be forced to clean up their acts and sacrifice profits. Certainly higher standards and levels of accountability would be imposed on industries relying on expendable water resources if the true shortage of water were openly acknowledged.

Perhaps it is because the leaders, politicians and diplomats who negotiate issues like this do not want to cause mass hysteria in the region, or in the United States or Western world, by directly addressing the problem of diminishing water supplies. Instead they prefer to keep it their little secret, hidden from public view and accountability, prolonging the inevitable panic and hording that will ensue when people’s needs will outweigh the planet’s capacity for providing potable water.

Perhaps water issues in Iraq and in the Middle East in general do not make the news so as not to legitimize the environmental movement’s claims that water is a precious and ever-diminishing resource that requires drastic reprioritizing on a personal, national and global level. Sustainable practices of water conservation are given cursory attention worldwide and are not yet being implemented on a credible, meaningful scale.

Population growth expectations for the Middle East provide a staggering predicament. According to Michael Klare, author of Resource Wars, the regional population was near 500 million in 1998, and that figure is expected to double by the year 2050. There will be no peace in the Middle East without addressing issues of sustainability and access to water. The microcosm of war in the Middle East is a staggering prediction of a potential widespread global crisis if countries do not learn to conserve and cooperate.

Or perhaps it is because resources are not allocated fairly in the region, and acknowledging massive humanitarian crises means that the whistle-blowers are accountable to fixing the problem. Israelis and Palestinians already compete for limited water resources, with Palestine getting short shrift and less water. As noted in Resource Wars, Jewish settlers already get five to eight times more water per capita than Palestinians.

Addressing problems of war, famine, the environment, human rights, democracy and sustainability has traditionally been compartmentalized work with little overlap and interdependent relevance. The situation of the marsh Arabs integrates the urgency of ending wars, providing for humanitarian crises and looking ahead into the future at the necessity of sharing natural resources equitably. In the near future, wars may be fought not over intangible ideologies like communism, terrorism or religion, but rather fought overtly about access to clean water. It will soon be much more difficult for governments to euphemize about their intent to wage war.

The policy of rehydrating the marshlands of Iraq is significant in that it marks American interests’ recognition of water scarcity in the Middle East. It also means that following the blue lines on the map charts a precarious course toward war or peace, depending on the management of water resources.
Leah C. Wells serves as the Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( She has visited Iraq three times with Nobel Peace Prize-nominated organization Voices in the Wilderness (htpp://