Global Policy Forum

Avoiding War Over Natural Resources


By Tony Allan

Forum: Water and War
November 1, 1998

"Water is a major livelihood issue for poor communities; it is a major strategic issue for poor political economies."[1]

It is a universally held belief that surface water that crosses boundaries is prone to dispute. In the arid Middle East and North Africa, where water symbolizes communal security, the tendency is for water to be perceived as a prime factor in determining the course of regional international relations. Since about 90% of the usable water in the region crosses one or more international borders, such an assumption is understandable. Tony Allan shows that, while water is important in international relations, its role in bilateral and multilateral international relations is complex and never determining, because water issues are always linked with other factors.

"When nations negotiate, often the toughest bargaining is not between nations but within them. The reason is simple: international agreements, no matter how much in the national "interest", inevitably have differential effects on the factional concerns...experienced negotiators almost invariably insist that the more difficult part of their job consists not in dealing with the adversary across the table but in handling interest groups, bureaucrats and politicians at home." [2]

Individuals and communities can pick a fight over any issue, including tangibles like territory and resources - water among them. Disputes can also arise over what can be described as transgressions of national honour. The seizure, or attempted seizure, of territory or resources by one State from another occurs when power relations enable an acquisitive initiative to be first considered, then judged feasible and subsequently attempted. In 1990 just such a cycle culminated in armed conflict when Iraq occupied Kuwait in pursuit not of water but of oil. Sovereignty over oil resources is only rarely ambiguous. Only a tiny proportion of crude oil reservoirs are located directly beneath international borders. Kuwait's excessive pumping of the oilfield beneath the Iraq-Kuwait border was in this case cited as the reason for the invasion. In fact, the pumping of oil from a particular oilfield was much less important than the perceived irresponsibility of Kuwait in pumping and exporting oil at a rate which had the effect of softening the international price for producers with substantially greater needs for oil revenues than Kuwait. Iraq's economic security was severely affected by global oil prices.

Nations will go to war over natural resources. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the reactions of its neighbours and especially the responses of the United States and the other industrialized economies were historic in their confirmation of this contention. The response of the OECD [3] economies was swift, so threatened were their interests. They deployed their military might, or gave it their financial support, when there was a threat to the secure flow of cheap Middle East oil. The Iraqi invasion signalled either unacceptable regional instability or Iraq's equally unacceptable regional hegemony over the world's major oil reserves. The intervention was effective in terms of ejecting Iraq from Kuwait and ending its attempt to control the Gulf crude oil trade.

Water as an issue

In the Middle East and North Africa, water is of obvious importance to the individual economies of the region. However, it is of little significance on a global scale. It is not a surplus resource to be traded. It can be used in agricultural production to produce commodities which can be exported, but the comparative agricultural advantage of the region is no greater than many others, not least those on the neighbouring northern shore of the Mediterranean. Using water in industrial- and service-sector activities is an option - and one shown by Israel to have immense potential - but, again, it is not one that gives the region any intrinsic economic advantage. Water certainly does not attract the interest of the global community - especially not of the Northern economies, along with their transnational corporations - in the way that oil does. For these global players, water in the Middle East and North Africa is only interesting strategically insofar as disputes over scarce water would be an additional source of political instability in a region already worryingly destabilized by Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian and religious-secular conflicts.

Transboundary water

Water and oil are significantly different in another important way. There is little transboundary oil, but transboundary water forms the majority of water in a region which has little soil water. Sovereignty over oil resources is easily established, albeit through the rather recent acceptance by the Middle Eastern leaderships of the operational but troublesome nation state system, if not universally by the peoples of the region. It is commonplace for very large volumes of water to cross international borders. Over 90% of the conventionally calculated water resources of the region cross international borders as surface flows. If soil water is taken into account, the figure is still very high - over 60% - and would be very much higher were Turkey to be left out of the regional calculation. For the Egyptian economy, transboundary water is over 95% of its water budget. Sovereignty over water is not determined by customary or formal international laws, notwithstanding the May 1997 United Nations Convention on transboundary watercourses of the International Law Commission. [4]

The nightmare of the downstream riparian is that a neighbour upstream will unilaterally exert sovereignty over the flow by increasing its own consumption. Egypt is very anxious in this regard, although it has not suffered any diminution of flow except that which it agreed with its immediate neighbour, the Sudan, in the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. Syria and Iraq have actually endured a dramatic reduction of almost 50% in the average flow of the Euphrates since the 1970s. They are anticipating additional reductions in the flow of the Tigris. Israel, a downstream groundwater entity, signals an uncompromising stance on its continued supervision of the shared groundwater flows from the limestone massif of the West Bank which it has been exploiting heavily since the 1950s. [5]

Difficulties of defining sovereignty over surface water flows make international relations over the region's water resources very difficult to analyse. The ownership of a water resource enables water markets to be developed. To date, such markets only exist for domestic use and particularly for drinking water. Such trade usually involves the lifting of water from a groundwater resource of recognized quality for human use for which the water rights are individual and recognized. An individual or company signifies its "ownership" of the resource by charging a price for the water. Sometimes the supply is a communal surface flow, a river, for which the water provider makes no payment. The identification of sovereignty over water would massively improve the chances for stable and secure international relations over transboundary waters.

Agreements over water are beginning to be made (see Jordan-Israel Agreement of 1994 [6] and the PLO-Israel Interim Agreement of 1995 [7]). These agreements, though not the same as defining sovereignty over water, and certainly not "principled agreements" based on legal principles, nevertheless provide a sufficiently precise arrangement for naturally fluctuating water resources to be allocated and managed within separate territories to satisfy national honour and to enable the secure and sustainable growth of the respective economies. Operational arrangements for allocating water during periods of fluctuating availability are particularly important in providing the stable political economic circumstances for sustainable socio-economic development.

Global demand for virtual water

Since it is impossible precisely to define sovereignty over water, untidy and occasionally stressful water politics in the Middle East and North Africa are inevitable. They will remain untidy until all the economies of the region have achieved advanced levels of socio-economic development. In such diverse economies water resources are one of many minor factors of production rather than the determining major economic input. When water is a major factor of production in the economy, such as in agriculture, its role in the livelihoods of a majority is palpable and the significance of such water in terms of international relations makes water scarcity an easy focus for national and communal anxiety. In this region water is insufficient to meet regional food production needs, although the region is well enough endowed to provide water for industrial and domestic needs. Such a resource deficit can be politically stressful if it is detected by users through an evident reduction in availability.

The international trade in water-intensive imported commodities is so effective that the impact of the substantial water deficit is not registered by the 300 million people living there. It is not a political issue at the domestic level or the international level, except where governments choose to make it one. With political stress over water being so easily managed at the level of the whole economy, it should not be surprising that there has been so little armed conflict over water. More importantly, there has been none since the early 1960s. The region has been free of armed conflict over water for more than three decades. There is no evidence that the next half century will be any different. The only factors that could in future impede the economic solutions which would enable water deficits to be ameliorated are external to the region.

Understanding the factors affecting global demand for virtual water is the crucial issue for water-deficit economies. This global dimension of Middle Eastern and North African international relations is not given a high priority in policy-making agendas across the region.

Virtual water

Virtual water is the very substantial volume of water embedded in water-intensive commodities such as grain. About 1,000 tonnes of water are required to produce a tonne of wheat. When an economy imports a tonne of wheat it is in effect importing 1,000 tonnes of water. The Middle East and North Africa region was importing annually about 40 million tonnes of grain and flour by the end of the 1990s. About 40 billion tonnes of water would be required to produce this volume of grain. Such a volume reflects about 20% of the region's annual water use and is equivalent to the water used each year by Egypt in its agricultural sector. Engineers could not contemplate moving so much water, but those involved in the international grain trade take the challenge in their stride. There is a very clear "nexus" involving "water, food and trade" which is of major strategic significance to grain-importing economies in arid and semi-arid regions. Virtual water has, since the early 1970s, ensured the economic stability of this major arid region in the world. Future economic stability here will depend on its capacity to sustain the trade in virtual water.

A dangerous optimism

It is a paradox that the water pessimists are wrong but their pessimism is a very useful political tool which can help the innovator to shift the eternally interdependent belief systems of the public and their politicians. The water optimists are right but their optimism is dangerous because the notion enables politicians to treat water as a low policy priority, delay innovation and thereby please those who perceive that they are prospering under the old order. Pessimists also bring more sensational stories to the media. Optimists bring a version of unsensational good news. The good news is complicated and indigestible as well as unsensational.

[Notes 1. F.W. Mayer, "Managing domestic differences in international negotiations: the strategic use of internal side-payments", International Organization, Vol. 46.4, 1992, pp. 793-818. 2. Idem. 3. OECD: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 4. ILC 1997. 5. M. Haddad, E. Feitelson, Joint management of shared aquifers, Palestinian Consultancy Group and The Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1995. 6. J.A. Allan, "The Jordan Israel Peace Agreement - September 1994", Appendices 1 and 2, in J.A. Allan, Water, peace and the Middle East: negotiating resources in the Jordan Basin, London, Tauris Academic Studies, 1996, pp. 207-221. 7. J.A. Allan, "The Israel-PLO Interim Agreement - September 1995", Appendices 3 and 4, in J.A. Allan, Water, peace and the Middle East: negotiating resources in the Jordan Basin, London, Tauris Academic Studies, 1996, pp. 223-240.]

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