Poverty, repression, decades of injustice and mass unemployment have all been cited as causes of the political convulsions in the Middle East and northern Africa these past weeks. However, a less recognized reason for the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and now Iran has been rising food prices, directly linked to a growing regional water crisis.
The diverse states that make up the Arab world, stretching from the Atlantic coast to Iraq, have some of the world’s greatest oil reserves, but this disguises the fact that they mostly occupy hyper-arid places. Rivers are few, water demand is increasing as populations grow, underground reserves are shrinking and nearly all depend on imported staple foods that are now trading at record prices.
For a region that expects populations to double to more than 600 million within 40 years and with climate change likely to raise temperatures, these structural problems are political dynamite and already destabilizing countries, say the World Bank, the UN and many independent studies.
In recent reports they separately warn that the riots and demonstrations after the three major food-price rises of the last five years in northern Africa and the Middle East might be just a taste of greater troubles to come unless countries start to share their natural resources, and reduce their profligate energy and water use.
“In the future the main geopolitical resource in the Middle East will be water rather than oil. The situation is alarming,” said Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey last week, as she launched a Swiss and Swedish government-funded report for the EU.
The report, Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water, examined long-term prospects for seven countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel. Five already suffer major structural shortages, it said, and the amount of water being taken from dwindling sources across the region cannot continue much longer.
“Unless there is a technological breakthrough or a miraculous discovery, the Middle East will not escape a serious [water] shortage,” said Sundeep Waslekar, a researcher from the Strategic Foresight Group, which wrote the report.
Autocratic, oil-rich rulers have been able to control their people by controling nature and have kept the lid on political turmoil at home by heavily subsidizing “virtual” or “embedded” water in the form of staple grains imported from the US and elsewhere.
However, existing political relationships are liable to break down when, as now, the price of food hits record levels and the demand for water and energy soars, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic Studies.
“Water is a fundamental part of the social contract in Middle Eastern countries. Along with subsidized food and fuel, -governments provide cheap or even free water to ensure the consent of the governed. But when subsidized commodities have been cut, instability has often followed,” he said.
“Water’s own role in prompting unrest has so far been relatively limited, but that is unlikely to hold. Future water scarcity will be much more permanent than past shortages and the techniques governments have used in responding to past disturbances may not be enough,” he said.
“The problem will only get worse. Arab countries depend on other countries for their food security — they’re as sensitive to floods in Australia and big freezes in Canada as on the yield in Algeria or Egypt itself,” political analyst and Middle East author Vicken Cheterian said.