An Arab Spring with No Water: How Uprisings in the Middle East Can Be Linked to Resource Scarcity

Photo Credit: Middle East Eye

By: Farnaz Alimehri, Columnist

The Middle East is often mischaracterized as an arid, desertic region; however, for the past twenty years, this misrepresentation has slowly turned into a stark reality. Most countries in the region have been experiencing a massive drought that scientists say has been brought on by climate change. A study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found that the drought has been the worst the region has experienced for the past 900 years.[i] And now resource scarcity is adding another layer of complexity in a region where perplexing narratives and opaque motivations dominate conflict.

In Iraq, mismanagement and the dismantlement of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 resulted in lack of a central governing authority, leading to clashes amongst rural clans in which targeted assassinations of irrigation department officials occurred.[ii] Water continues to be pursued as a strategic military target. In 2014, Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute think tank in Qatar stated, “Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict.”[iii] Rebel forces continue to attack key water installations to fuel their assaults on certain Iraqi populations, like the Shia population in the south of Iraq.[iv]

In Syria, water scarcity in 2006 contributed to the looming civil war. Severe drought devastated many of the rural areas, causing farmers to migrate to cities in search of new opportunities. Instead, they were met with unemployment and poverty, further fueling the many grievances against the central government.[v] Water also plays a key role in the war today. Freshwater reserves in Lake Assad are dwindling, with some accusing Turkey of reducing the flow of water from the Euphrates River into the lake.[vi] Water has become especially important in the city of Aleppo, where rebels and the government are using water to achieve tactical goals. Rebel forces have been accused of targeting water supplies, causing more harm to internally displaced citizens.[vii] The regime has also been blamed for shutting down the water pumping station in Al-Khafsah, Aleppo on May 10, 2014. This water station controlled half the water supply to the city. Matthew Machowski, a Middle East security researcher at the UK Houses of Parliament and Queen Mary University of London, claimed, “It is unclear who was responsible; both the regime and opposition forces blame each other, but unsurprisingly in a city home to almost three million people the incident caused panic and chaos. Some people even resorted to drinking from puddles in the streets.”[viii] The city remains the main battleground for government and opposition forces, leaving many of the citizens at risk to becoming casualties of war, whether it occurs from bombings or resource scarcity.

The latest and arguably the most distressing example of a crisis fueled by resource scarcity is taking place in Yemen. Prior to the ongoing civil war, Yemen was already classified as one of the world’s most water-scarce countries.[ix] Five factors play a pivotal role in Yemen’s water crisis: high population growth, misguided agricultural development and policies, the use of water to grow qat (a flowering plant Yemenis like to chew, but its cultivation requires 40% of the country’s water supply), a lack of law enforcement to regulate water use, and a high vulnerability to climate change.[x] In 2009, Abdulrahman Al Eryani, Yemen’s Minister of Water and Environment, attributed the rise of militancy in the country to the scarcity of resources, stating, “[Conflicts] manifest themselves in very different ways: tribal conflict, sectarian conflicts, political conflicts…really they are all about sharing and participating in the resources of the country, either oil, water, and land.”[xi] Currently, most Yemenis rely solely on humanitarian aid to receive water. However, as violence escalates and air raids persist, humanitarian aid has become increasingly difficult to deliver. Water has now been shut off to most Yemeni homes, forcing civilians to leave their homes to gather well water, putting them at greater risk of being caught in the ongoing shelling.[xii]

Resource scarcity and mismanagement have fueled citizens’ frustrations and complaints against their central governments. Although it may not be the sole reason citizens are aggrieved, the lack of access to water continues to be manipulated by major players in these conflicts, exacerbating overwhelming humanitarian crises in many of these countries. Worse still, even when government authorities are well aware and willing to help, not much can be done when the government no longer retains control of certain territory. In times of civil conflict, law enforcement of water management no longer registers as a priority.

In order to solve the problem, universal recognition of resource scarcity in the Middle East is necessary. The ideal solution requires robust management of resources in these countries, particularly regulating access of freshwater reserves and monitoring the construction of wells in areas affected by drought. Other long-term solutions have been suggested, such as the creation of more desalination facilities, and possible water treaties amongst Middle Eastern countries that share water supplies. These measures would be in the interest of many governing powers, to ameliorate one major grievance, and reduce the likelihood of endemic conflict. For the immediate relief of the water crisis, however, ceasefires and safe zones should be honored so that aid can be delivered, and the humanitarian crises don’t continue to escalate. If resource scarcity is not acknowledged soon, the crisis in the Middle East will become more dangerous.

[i] Karle Hille, “NASA Finds Drought in Eastern Mediterranean Worst of the Past 900 Years,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, March 1, 2016.

[ii] Joshua Hammer, “Is a Lack of Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria?” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2013.

[iii] John Vidal, “Water Supply Key to Outcome of Conflict in Iraq and Syria, Experts Warn,” The Guardian, July 2, 2014.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joshua Hammer, “Is a Lack of Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria?” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2013.

[vi] John Vidal, “Water Supply Key to Outcome of Conflict in Iraq and Syria, Experts Warn,” The Guardian, July 2, 2014.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Will Rogers, “In Yemen, Water’s Role in the War on Terror,” New Security Beat, March 27, 2009.

[x] Nicole Glass, “The Water Crisis in Yemen: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions,” Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 2010), pp. 17-30.

[xi] Laura Kasinof, “Water Crisis at Heart of Yemen’s Conflicts,” ABC News, November 9, 2009.

[xii] Ali al-Mujahed and Hugh Naylor, “In Yemen’s grinding war, if the bombs don’t get you, the water shortages will,” The Washington Post, July 23, 2015.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.