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By the Waters of Babylon


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 t he 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.

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