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Violence, Climate Change and the Water Crisis | Mellanöstern Tidningen Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
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Published On: Wed, Dec 28th, 2016

Violence, Climate Change and the Water Crisis

From a historical perspective, it is difficult to argue that the current level of violence and armed conflict in the Middle East is unique. The monumental inscriptions of Pharaohs, Babylonian and Assyrian kings are rife with the tributes of war. In a biblical sense, Saul slew his thousands and David his ten thousands. The Mongols, the Crusades, the Ottomans, two World Wars, the Cold War: there has been anything but peace in the cradle of the three major monotheisms.

But there is another factor that makes the current level of political conflict more complex than Israel vs. Palestine, the rise of al-Qaida and ISIS, the devastating wars in Syria and Yemen, and the fallout from the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While futurists debate the impact of the loss of oil as the economic pillar of the Gulf States, there is a far more dangerous issue looming. In all parts of the Middle East there is a water crisis with declining fresh water tables, increased competition for river flow and an increasingly hostile forecast of climate change. Consider that the Middle East and North Africa are by far the most water-stressed regions in the world.

The projected shortfall in water as a resource is ominous. One of the most stressed countries is Jordan. The per capita amount of water supply is a mere 200 cubic meters annually; this is one-third the global average. By 2025, when the population is expected to reach 9 million, this will be reduced to 91 cubic meters. There is also massive waste of water, as reported by Mercy Corps: “By one estimate, the amount of water lost nationwide every year could satisfy the basic needs of 2.6 million people, or more than a third of Jordan’s current population.” A World Bank-funded feasibility study to provide desalinated water from the Red Sea to save the Dead Sea, which is losing a meter a year, and provide fresh water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority has stalled. The influx of over a million Syrian refugees, on top of the number of Iraqi refugees, further strains existing water use.

Yemen is a second environmental disaster in the making. The drastic water table declines in Yemen have been predicted for over three decades. As long ago as 2009 The Times reported that Yemen could be the first country to literally run out of water. Predicting water decline is not an easy task, but there is no doubt that Yemen faces one of the most severe water shortages of any state in the world, now exacerbated by a war that has dragged on for over 18 months. As drastic as the humanitarian crisis due to war has been in Yemen, the looming shortages of water may be a more severe threat to the future of its estimated 27 million people. Yemen is listed by the World Resources Institute as the 16th most water stressed country in the world, but several of the regions more-stressed states are wealthy and can afford desalination. The per capital availability of fresh water in Yemen is estimated at 86 cubic meters, which is well below that of Jordan and the threshhold of water stress at 1,700 cubic meters per year. The combination of less rainfall, incredible population growth, overuse of irrigation water, and intrusion of salt water in the coastal region are problems not likely to be mitigated in the near future.

As history makes abundantly clear, there is no single cause for war or violent conflict between or even within countries and regions. We tend to focus on political motivations: the quest for power, endemic internecine conflict over generations, religious or sectarian motivation, external influence, economic hegemony and the like. But the bottom line often relates to fundamental environmental concerns, increasingly over access to water. In 1965, when the Middle East was far quieter, Frank Herbert published a noteworthy science fiction novel called Dune. The fictional Fremen live on a plant with limited water resources, so they spend much of their energy preserving and conserving what little water there is. While we are not yet in Dune territory, the specter of dried up water resources that were once reliable combined with a warmer climate suggests that future wars for survival may involve control of remaining water resources. The world will survive without oil, but water is essential.

About the Author


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Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, a Senior Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.