Oil has always been thought of as the traditional cause of conflict in the Middle East past and present. Since the first Gulf oil well gushed in Bahrain in 1932, countries have squabbled over borders in the hope that ownership of a patch of desert or a sand bank might give them access to new riches. No longer. Now, most borders have been set, oil fields mapped and reserves accurately estimated – unlike the water resources, which are still often unknown. WATER is taking over from oil as the likeliest cause of conflict in the Middle East. – Lecture by Adel Darwish, 1994.
Back in the 1990’s I remember reading many dire warnings about a future in which competition over increasingly stretched natural resources would see countries around the world going to war over water scarce water supplies. With populations around the world growing, and climate change increasing temperatures and reducing rainfall in already arid regions, local and regional tensions over water supplies would increase in both number and urgency, eventually leading to outright ‘water wars’.
The conventional wisdom suggests that, despite increasing tensions and a number of diplomatic spats, these ‘water wars’ have not materialized, and do not look likely to any time soon.
But look beneath the surface and a different picture begins to emerge. Although there are, as yet, no examples in which two countries have gone to war specifically over water, the issue of drought and water supply can be seen as a significant and growing causal factor behind many armed conflicts – especially in the Middle East.
Over the coming years and decades this looks set to increase. The Middle East water wars may have already begun, but the conflicts of recent years may pale in comparison to the conflicts of the future.
Why Did The Arab Spring Happen When It Did?
There are many reasons why the ‘Arab Spring’ happened. Popular frustration and anger directed at oppressive dictatorships, and a longing for greater democracy and freedom is, of course, the main reason – and the reason generally given by the people who rose up against their governments themselves. But such concerns are not new – these countries have been dictatorships for decades at least, and some have always been so. So whilst the desire for freedom and greater representation can explain why people wanted the Arab Spring to happen, it cannot explain why the Arab Spring actually happened when it did.
One of the most persuasive explanations for the spark which ignited the tinderbox of Middle East unrest, kicking off the Arab Spring, was presented in a February 2013 report by the Center for American Progress entitled The Arab Spring and Climate Change.
This report describes the effects of climate change as “stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying cause that erupt into revolution.”
Troy Sternberg, a geographer at Oxford University, argues that a once in a century drought in China which sent wheat prices skyrocketing across the Middle East played a major role in igniting the Arab Spring. In many of the countries involved in this mass uprising wheat, which is used to make bread, makes up a large part of people’s diet.
For example, “Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 per cent of income is spent on food,”says Sternberg. Global food prices reached their peak in March 2011 – just after Mubarak was toppled from power in Egypt.
Sternberg notes that the world’s top nine wheat importers are all located in the Middle East, and that out of this nine “seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011.”…