Global Policy Forum

The Power Politics of Water Struggles

Dr. Mark Zeitoun has developed a new framework for analyzing how power politics influence international water issues, significantly shifting the dominant discourse. Working in Gaza and the West Bank, he was forced to cope with Israeli rules impeding aid workers’ attempts to construct a basic sustainable water infrastructure for Palestinians. Under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians agreed to an inequitable distribution of the Jordan River’s water, and all water-related projects require Israeli political and military approval. According to Dr. Zeitoun, the Palestinians’ consent to this agreement demonstrates that hydro-hegemony can be attained by coercion rather than force.

By Rachel Nuwer

November 28, 2011

When you’re driving through a war zone, your instinct may be to roll up the car windows. Wrong move. A bullet is less likely to hit you than to strike the glass, which will shatter and probably cause injuries. It takes firsthand experience to learn these tricks of the trade, and for years, Mark Zeitoun has sought out such experience.

Yet he did not scout out war zones as a combatant or journalist; he was delivering water.

A leading thinker in the field of water issues, Dr. Zeitoun helped pioneer a way of analyzing international water tensions, departing from the idea that water struggles are characterized either by peaceful cooperation or armed conflict. He suggests that countries’ approaches can vary by many gradations in between.

Dr. Zeitoun’s philosophy on water politics, known as hydro-hegemony, “significantly influenced the way we look at hydropolitics across the world,” said Tony Allan, a water resource analyst at King’s College, London.

Today Dr. Zeitoun, 44, grapples with global water issues from his office at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. But his voyage to understanding has been a long one, taking him from his native Canada, Congo, Chad, the Palestinian territories and Iraq.

Growing up in Ottawa, he was never far from the water and spent his boyhood canoeing, fishing, and swimming in rivers. He studied civil engineering at McGill University in Montreal and took a job as a water engineer at waste and water treatment plants. Dissatisfied, he returned to McGill for a master’s degree in environmental engineering with the goal of focusing on issues like water pollution and shortages.

In 1999, his life took an interesting turn when he met Chris Giannou, a fellow Canadian with decades of experience as a war surgeon. Dr. Giannou told Dr. Zeitoun that water engineers were needed in conflict zones and encouraged him to join the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“I can only operate on one person at a time,” Dr. Giannou said in an interview. “But a water engineer can provide clean water for hundreds of thousands of people.” Galvanized by the arguments of the man who became his “hero,” Dr. Zeitoun embarked on his first mission to Congo-Brazzaville.

In his travels as a humanitarian aid worker, he learned how rapidly situations can shift and “how you can be completely fooled into a sense of security when you’re not at all secure.” He escaped from his home in the Congo just minutes before insurgents looted it, for example, and got into arguments with gun-toting 22-year-olds, many of whom were “stoned, bored or drunk.” And he learned to drive with the windows rolled down.

As time passed, Dr. Zeitoun said, he began to feel that he was applying Band-Aids to messes that “essentially greedy or ideologically driven young men were causing” rather than preventing those situations from developing in the first place. “Intellectually, and also from my heart, I was interested in looking at resolution of conflict rather than just treating the symptoms of conflict,” he said.

His philosophy of hydro-hegemony evolved as a way of understanding the power dynamics that govern the use of international rivers.

Working in Gaza and the West Bank in the early 2000s, for example, Dr. Zeitoun had to cope with Israeli rules that impeded aid workers’ efforts to build a basic water infrastructure for Palestinians. Academics far removed from the situation wrote that there was no water conflict between Palestine and Israel, he said, but he knew “just how bad it really was.”

Under the 1995 Oslo II agreement, he explained, the Palestinians had agreed to an inequitable distribution of the Jordan River’s water. Roughly 90 percent of the water supply was allotted to Israel and 10 percent to the Palestinians, he said, and the Israelis had veto power over even the simplest rainwater catchments projects in the territories. All water-related projects required technical, political and military approval by the Israelis.

Dr. Zeitoun writes that the Palestinians’ consent to inequitable use of the Jordan and transboundary aquifers shows that hydro-hegemony can be attained by coercion rather than force. The Oslo II agreement continues to restrict development, he says, and he advises Palestinian negotiators working on water sharing agreements with Israel

“Mark develops a very clear framework from which to view power,” said Naho Mirumachi, a social scientist specializing in water resource management at King’s College in London. She describes Dr. Zeitoun as “one of those rare people who know both the ‘hard sciences’ and the ‘soft sciences.’ ”

As a result of his work, Dr. Allen said, experts now analyze the balance of power at play in transboundary water issues in seeking an explanation for how a situation evolved.

Dr. Zeitoun said that while his ultimate goal was fair and sustainable water arrangements between countries, he had learned to savor minor progress — victories “so small that you can barely measure them.” He says he is inspired by events that chip away at the structures that reinforce inequalities, like the ouster of some long-ruling Middle Eastern leaders in uprisings last spring.

Simply to hear people speaking intelligently or compassionately on water issues is gratifying, he suggests. “You see it happening in bits and pieces every now and then,” he said, “and you’ve got to take comfort in that and get some hope from that.”


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