E-BRIEFING: Water Wars to Come in the Middle East and at Home

News in the past weeks has focused on the Middle East, specifically Iraq.  And historians will no doubt look back to analyze the roots and growth of the current conflict.


However, this week’s University of Cincinnati e-briefing looks ahead at what experts agree will be the next source of conflict in the Middle East and other parts of the world.  No, it’s not oil, but water. 


Already, relations are strained in the Middle East over water.  For instance, Turkey is building 19 hydroelectric power stations and 22 dams across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Thus, it controls the life-giving waters that Syria and Iraq also rely on.  In January 1990, Turkey cut off the flow of the Euphrates completely for three weeks, causing near-panic in the Syrian capital of Damascus and black-outs around the country.  And one former president of Turkey has said that just as Turkey cannot claim other countries’ oil, neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to “Turkey’s rivers.” Current international law backs that viewpoint. 


Western nations are also part of the rising tide of water conflicts in the Middle East and in developing nations around the globe.  The expected water wars, which are predicted to have far more impact on mankind than current events in the Middle East, can be best summed up in the words of Mark Twain:  “Whiskey’s for drinkin’; water’s for fightin’ over.”


As war in Iraq continues and as Earth Day approaches on April 22, planners, economists, historians, engineers, water rights advocates and anthropologists focus on the role of water as power and profit.  The conflicts created are not limited to the Middle East.  In fact, corporate water-management giants – located in Europe -- are moving to privatize water systems (turning operation, control and ownership of public, municipal water infrastructure over to corporations) around the world, including the United States.  And that’s led to violent protests in some countries and an expected storm of conflict to come.


Table of contents: 

Wellsprings of contention in the Middle East

  • Riparian rights: First come, first served
  • A turn of the water wheel: repeating ancient history
  • Trading water for weapons

Water a military or terrorist target?

  • For U.S., safety in abundance
  • Traditional militaries don’t want to rock the boat

Privatization for profit

  • A rising tide of privatization
  • You’ll pay the piper

Anger on tap around the globe

  • Reaching a boiling point
  • Protests will flood U.S. municipalities
  • Water:  A traditional power tool
  • Thirst for water threatens archaeological sites, traditional ways of life
  • The coming water cartel
  • Privatization no rain-maker


The source of the problem (and solutions)

  • Political will is down the drain
  • Charting a creative course
  • Not welfare but waterfare
  • Channel the water monopolies
  • The poor pay no matter what
  • Expect shallow oversight
  • Some countries in hot water even with humanitarian aid





Dan Oerther, UC assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering, says that because of this scarcity of water in the Middle East and because of existing international law, water is likely to be THE subject of conflict in the Middle East in the near future. 


Internationally, water is treated on a “first come, first served” basis known as Riparian Rights.  Said Oerther, “This means that if you’re upstream and you use the water to feed your cattle or create energy, it’s too bad for those downstream if there’s not enough for them.  In the United States, it would be as if Nevada and Arizona used the Colorado River to create a giant cotton farm in the desert so that California had no water.  Just so, in the next 25 to 50 years, water will be THE liquid commodity of contention in the Middle East, more so than oil.  Turkey and Iraq already have a precarious relationship due to water.”


Water conflicts in the Middle East may also draw in Western nations.  “Right now,” said Oerther, “The U.S., France and Britain are preparing to lay oil pipes in the Caspian Sea region.  A big question is what route to take.  The most direct route would mean going close to valuable fresh water sources, but what if there’s an oil spill in the future?  That would make this water unusable.  To avoid fresh water, which is obviously what the locals want, costs more, billions more.  There’s a lot at stake, including jobs for the region.”

Contact: 513-556-3670



Vernon Scarborough, UC professor of anthropology and author of the book “The Flow of Power: Ancient Water Management and Landscapes” due out this summer, has studied the intersection of water, power and culture in the ancient world and draws parallels to the modern world. 


He said, “Water is the key lever to support the labor used to extract another controllable resource: Oil.  Right now, water is inflaming Turkey’s relations with both Iraq and Syria.  Turkey has built several dams that affect the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their flow into both Iraq and Syria.”  This is nothing new, Scarborough adds.  “Our future is in our past.  During the early second millennium B.C., two cities – Lagash and Umma – wrote the world’s first treaty concerning the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.”

Contact: 513-556-5776



Elizabeth Frierson, UC assistant professor of history and expert on Middle Eastern and North African history, says aquifers in the Middle East are being drained, new upriver dams are restricting, or bear the potential for restricting, water flows to Syria, Iraq, Israel/Palestine and Jordan. In addition, there's simply not enough water for everyone in some states already, due both to shortfalls and to poor or insufficient government planning and expenditures on managing water resources.


"Even Istanbul in Turkey, with relatively abundant sources of water, suffers from severe water shortages requiring residents to get by on a weekly allotment of water insufficient for running a household or a business."  In areas such as Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Iraq, water management tools have been damaged both as targets of war and as collateral damage of war. Turkey, Frierson notes, has an advantage in that it sits upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates, and Turkey has pursued a massive dam-building and hydroelectric project. "Iraq and Syria also have serious dam projects, but all of those will be severely damaged if Turkey decides to drastically lower downstream flow…”  Turkey also has agreed to supply Israel water in exchange for weapons.

Contact: 513-556-556-0919




Dan Oerther, UC assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering, says that in the United States, we use about 140 gallons of water per day per person, and we actually have about 10 times that amount available to us.  Thus, it would be fairly ineffective to try and contaminate U.S. water supplies.  “Because of the large quantities, any materials would be rapidly diluted.”


However, in the Middle East, residents use about 14 gallons of water per person per day and because the quantity of water is 10 times less than in the U.S., supplies there are more vulnerable to tampering.

Contact: 513-556-3670



Military historian and author George F. Hofmann, UC adjunct associate professor, explains that in ancient and modern war history, waterways have often been used as a defensive barrier, a hindrance to invaders.  There are instances when water has been used as a weapon, but this often has consequences for all parties involved in traditional military conflict.  Thus, traditional military armies rarely seek to destroy or contaminate waterways or water sources because “they want those assets in place for their own use.  It’s only an act of desperation to tamper with water supplies.  That’s why terrorist organizations are more likely to view water as a weapon and to seek ways to use biological or chemical materials dispersed into water.  They don’t foresee that they themselves will be affected.”

Contact: 513-347-9529




Janie Chermak, associate professor of economics, University of New Mexico, specializes in the study of the economics surrounding water.  She reports that, at present, about 40 percent of Europe’s water systems are privatized as compared to 15 percent in the U.S.  By 2015, those figures will stand at 75 percent and 65 percent respectively.

Contact: 505-277-4906



Janie Chermak, associate professor of economics, University of New Mexico, predicts that privatization will bring substantial increases in prices for consumers.  Currently, many U.S. consumers using publicly managed systems pay about $2 per every 1,000 gallons of water used   They’re basically paying the transportation costs associated with moving water through the pipes because politicians are loathe to raise rates even to upgrade aging water systems.  Even without privatization, consumers can expect that prices will rise to $10-$12 per 1,000 gallons within a few years’ time.  Those costs will rise substantially higher in privatized systems.


Chermak points to Atlanta, which contracted with Universal Water in 1996 to manage the city’s water system, as an example of what the U.S. can expect.  For instance, in its 20-year contract, Universal estimated that it would need to replace 1,000 old and worn meters every year.  Instead, the replacement rate is about 11,000 a year, just one factor in Universal’s bid to renegotiate for $80 million more in city payments.

Contact: 505-277-4906




Maude Barlow, co-author of “Blue Gold, the Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water” and national chair of The Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, says we can expect showdowns between water corporations and local communities.  And, she says, expect them to get more violent.


A handful of transnational corporations, backed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are aggressively taking over the management of public water services in countries around the world, dramatically raising the price of water to local residents and profiting especially from the Third World’s desperate search for solutions to its water crisis.

Contact: mbarlow8965@rogers.com



Janie Chermak, associate professor of economics, University of New Mexico, says that just as has happened in Argentina and other countries, U.S. consumers will vigorously protest the rate hikes that privatization will bring.  She pointed to recent events in Albuquerque as foreshadowing what may come.  “Many consumers in the U.S. are used to receiving their water virtually free.  When the substantial increases come due to privatization, they’ll be very unhappy.  Just last summer in Albuquerque, the city increased the surcharge it levies against anyone whose winter water usage is 50 percent above the average user.  The mayor’s office was flooded with protest calls, people calling for an audit of their water usage, for the city to come and check that the meters were working properly.  After 30 days, the mayor’s office rescinded the increased surcharge.”

Contact: 505-277-4906



Vernon Scarborough, UC professor of anthropology, says that water was a fundamental building block of the earliest nation-states in arid and semi-arid regions.  He said, “There was the potential for a few individuals to commandeer and control water.  Throughout history and even now, water became a dividing line between the world’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’  This happened in various locales and was one stimulus for the earliest states: The control of a valuable, utterly necessary resource.  Controlling water means controlling food.  It’s almost akin to being able to control air. 

Contact: 513-556-5776



Michael Romanos, UC professor of planning, has researched the interplay of transportation, the environment, urban growth along with tourism and other forms of economic development around the world, including Southeast Asia.  He said the thirst for potable water threatens historic cultures and peoples.  In Crete for instance, the government is considering a dam project that will flood a rural valley – submerging 75,000 trees on hundreds of acres of agricultural land, roads, archaeological sites and at least one village – in order to provide more water to urban areas and tourist resorts on the coast.  “It’s an environmental disaster and the destruction of a way of life in exchange for tourism.”

Contact: 513-556-0258



Maude Barlow, co-author of “Blue Gold, the Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water,” reports that faster than most realize, water is becoming a cartel.  There are 10 major corporate players now delivering fresh water services for profit. Between them, the three biggest - Suez and Vivendi Environment of France and RWE-AG of Germany – deliver water and wastewater services to almost 300 million customers in over 100 countries, and are in a race, along with the others such as Bouygues SAUR, Thames Water (owned by RWE) and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe. Their growth is exponential; a decade ago, they serviced around 51 million people in just 12 countries. And, although less than 10 percent of the world’s water systems are currently under private control, at the rate they are expanding, the top three alone will control over 70 percent of the water systems in Europe and North America in a decade.


The revenue growth of the big three has kept apace.  Vivendi earned $5 billion a decade ago in its water-related revenues.  By 2002, that had increased to over $12 billion.  RWE, which moved into the world market with its acquisition of Britain’s Thames Water, increased its water revenue a whopping 9,786 percent in 10 years. All three are among the top 100 corporations in the world; together their annual revenue in 2001 was almost $160 billion and growing at 10 percent a year – outpacing the economies of many of the countries in which they operate.

Contact: mbarlow8965@rogers.com



Peter Gleick, director, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, says that privatization hasn’t been a big money maker so far—indeed, he adds that many of the companies have taken some pretty severe losses.  In addition, Gleick states that there is nothing wrong with full-cost pricing.  Full-cost pricing is perfectly appropriate, with the caveat that provisions must be made for ensuring that subsidies are available for the poorest segment of the population if they cannot afford a basic water requirement.

Contact: 510-251-1600




Haynes Goddard, UC professor of economics, studies the interplay between economics and the environment.  He said, “Be it Argentina or Mexico City, local politicians are unwilling to raise water rates to keep pace with real costs and inflation because citizens want unlimited water at low costs.  That means water prices around the world have been falling in real terms, which erodes the purchasing power necessary to maintain the systems and expand them into newly settled areas.”


The French companies which dominate the water privatization industry have made substantial investments to improve inefficient water systems, thereby improving water conservation.  This also means they’ve had to increase prices, which has touched off protests in Argentina and elsewhere.  Added Goddard, “There is no easy solution.  Water service has been and always will be politicized.”

Contact: 513-556-2621



Carla Chifos, UC assistant professor of planning, has researched water management in Southeast Asia.  She says that governments, even when receiving funds from the World Bank, cannot keep up with the demand for water because urban growth and development is so rapid and dense.  “To lay down a water system, you’d have to tear up huge parts of the cities.  It just cannot be done.  So, people must come up with alternative systems, perhaps clusters of communal toilet and shower facilities.”


She added that residents of the developing world are very savvy about the economics of water.  They’re willing to pay a premium for water that they perceive as being clean and suitable for drinking.  Thus, they may pay for drinking water from a vendor at a fairly high price while they go to the river to wash clothes and bathe using well water.

Contact: 513-556-0214



Michael Romanos, UC professor of planning, says that in the short run, market-driven water systems along with market pricing are the only means for providing sufficient water.  Said Romanos, “What would be best is if all households would pay something, but a water subsidy from the government were to help the poorest.  And,” he added, “Market-driven systems also aid in water conservation.  Presently, 20 to 50 percent of water is lost in antiquated, faulty water systems.”     

Contact: 513-556-0258



Haynes Goddard, UC professor of economics, thinks the trend toward privatizing water services will continue because governmental management of systems has proven so inadequate.  Companies like Vivendi Water Systems and Suez will be granted local or regional monopolies, and Goddard recommends that these monopolies be regulated in terms of rate of return much like phone and electric service were once regulated monopolies in this country.  He also added that it might be necessary for governments to subsidize water service for the most destitute and/or mandate that water service be provided on a sliding scale: The first units of water coming at the lowest rates while higher prices are charged for higher volume water usage.

Contact: 513-556-2621



Haynes Goddard, UC professor of economics, states, “The poor have already shown their willingness to pay for water.  In Mexico for instance, tanks of water on trucks come into communities where there is no piped water.  The poor pay dearly for this water, a lot more than they would pay for piped water.  Privatization of systems is probably the only means for bringing water into burgeoning communities at reasonable rates.”


He added that he’s personally seen how increases in water prices mean better conservation.  For several years, Goddard taught in Mexico City.  While there, he lived in a house with a constantly running toilet and a broken water meter.  “The toilet was never fixed until after the water meter was replaced, and the owner was now going to have to pay for the wasted water.”

Contact: 513-556-2621



Robert Patrick, associate professor of finance and economics at Rutgers University, states that it’s likely that privatized water systems in the U.S. won’t face stringent regulation or rigorous oversight.  “In Europe, an electricity or water regulator tends to be a regulator for life.  We have a revolving door between public and corporate employment that tends to place more power in corporate hands.  Also, water systems are all localized systems.  They’re not part of a large grid like electricity.  That will be an advantage to the corporations managing U.S. water systems.”


He added that in the short term, the privatization of water management in the U.S. should bring more economic and operational efficiency to the system.  In the long term, he’s less optimistic.  “Each municipality will be a local monopoly for corporate water management.  You can’t build multiple sets of pipes.  So, with only one pipe system, you can have only one company in operation, and regulated monopolies don’t have any incentive to do more than just what’s needed in terms of infrastructure maintenance, repair or replacement.  So, long-term, corporate water management may be no better than municipal water management in terms of care and upgrades to the system.”

Contact: 973-353-5247



Michael Romanos, UC professor of planning, contends that even when water systems are provided via humanitarian aid, problems persist.  Romanos cited the example of the Indonesian island of Lombok, next to Bali which received Australian assistance to bring clean spring and well water to rural communities.  “The valves eventually rusted and some pipes broke.  The Australians had left because the project was done; however, the Indonesians could not get the correct Australian replacement parts in the local area.  So, they were again without water.”

Contact: 513-556-0258


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