3 December 1992
BY ADEL DARWISH
( His book water wars, Coming Conflicts in the Middle East, will be published in London by Gollancz Autumn 1993)
A lone figure dressed all in black, tall and proud-stepping materialises out of the mirage formed by the intense heat where the dry sky glare meets the hostile desert. As he slowly moves closer, his attitude become tense, and his eyes blaze with hatred as he reaches the well. There, a stranger plunging his head into the water as he slakes his thirst looks up in sudden terror. With a single stroke of his sword, the man in black strikes off the wet head of a man taking more than his due. "He was sullying my well," the executioner explains.
That scene is from the film of Lawrence of Arabia, was once told by the famous British officer, gave a graphic illustration of the harsh reality of the desert and a clear warning that water in the arid environment of the Middle East is a matter of life and death.
For centuries the history of the desert lands of the Middle East centred on the wells and watercourses. Early this century battles were, fought for control of water resources to determine the outcome of the First World War.
Eighty years on old adversaries are still fighting over scarce and fast diminishing water resources, though they are now provided with more destructive weapons, thanks to the riches provided by oil -- the resource to which the water is a key. He who controls water or its distribution can dominate the Middle East and all its riches.
The nation countries of the Middle East mainly depend on three great river systems the Nile, the Jordan and its tributaries and the Euphrates-Tigeres basin. There are no realistic prospects in increasing the volume of water flowing into the region's rivers.
All three cross borders and in some cases involve as high as nine sovereign states in the basin. ( see map & population table.)
Negotiating parties' base their arguments on a mixture of customary use, local and tradition laws and the established right of use over a period of time. Such mixture is often contradictory and in itself a cause of conflict as international law is not clear in this aspect.
Since 1940s World Bank made a negotiated agreement between riparian states a condition to finance a water schemes.
When a nation doesn't need the World Bank to finance a water scheme, there is no provision in international law to stop it imposing its will on weaker neighbours, uprooting ethnic minorities by force and inflecting far reaching and lasting devastating effect on wildlife and the environment.
Existing river sharing agreements are seen as un-just: upstream countries, like Turkey, believe that they should control the flow of the rivers, if they can get away with it. Downstream states, often militarily stronger have always challenged this assumption and bullied upstream neighbours especially when they assume they can get away with it, through military might, or through the relative weakening of the international position of their neighbours or a mixture of both.
This is a recipe for confrontation.
The attitude of Egypt and Israel is a case in point. When the Anglo-Egyptian condominium over Sudan ended in 1954, Cairo continued with its early 19th century conviction and policies of influencing political life in Sudan, through which the Nile flows.
In building Aswan High Dam, the Egyptian dictator colonel Nasser imposed his will on Sudan in 1959 agreement giving Egypt 84 cubic kilometre of water and Sudan 18 cubic kilometres, yet the Egyptian continue to `borrow' 60 percent of Sudan's water-, the lake the dam created covered priceless archaeological sites, destroyed valuable ecosystems and fishing grounds, eroded beaches and damaged nutrient and sediment balances and uprooted the Nubian nation in the 1960's from the land they inhabited for 10,000 years.
Stability in Sudan, says Cairo officials, is a matter of Egyptian national security. Khartoum fundamentalist rulers implement Islamic laws - or shari'aa - and incidentally stem from a word meaning the sharing of water-. In their radical literature, Muslim fundamentalists have recently called for applying Sahriaa to water giving Muslim priority when sharing rivers with non-Muslims. Another cause for the hawkish Egyptian military to intervene in Sudan, is increasingly seen as a pariah for its alliance with Iran and supporting Islamic fundamentalists terror groups whose attacks have had a devastating effect on Egypt's tourist trade.
Israel too is a formidable military power down stream from Syria, which is ruled by a dictator less, liked by the West. Both Egypt and Israel feel, if they are faced with a threat to their water resources, that they can get away with a surgical swift military operation to end such a challenge as they did in 1960s.
The Ba'ath dictatorship in Iraq is currently destroying the marshes and thousands of years way of life, and one of the main grievances of the Shia who are in constant war against the Iraqi regime in the southern marches. In 1980 the Shia were supported by Iran, that lead to exchange of hostilities along the borders culminating in a war that lasted eight years.
Turkey has an alarming attitude to its downstream neighbours Iraq and Syria, not to mention the effect of its water politics on its own Kurdish population.
History proves that it is only a matter of time before the aggrieved ethnic minorities take up arms to face such injustice in a classical guerrilla war that go on for years with even heavier price paid by the population, the wild life and the environment as well as dragging nations into cross border wars.
[[[WATER AND THE CURRENT PEACE ACCORDS]]]
The recent remarkable peace deals between Israelis, the Palestinian and Jordanians, are fast resolving issues that obscured rivalry over water resources for years exposing water as the essence of the conflict.
In a final settlement, Israel would have to give up the West Bank which gives it control of the southern portion of the Jordan; the Golan Heights which contains the headwaters of the Jordan and the strip of land along the southern Lebanese border where the Zahrani and Litani rivers flow.
Since the 1991 Madrid conference, there has been six rounds of multilateral talks on water resource, but, western diplomats report, they only discussed western aid and technology to develop projects for providing more water, but shared rivers remain a taboo subject.
Rivers are discussed in the bilateral talks, but without any progress.
Lebanon and Syria refuse to discuss surface water - River Jordan and its tributaries in Syrian and Lebanon, the Yarmuk and the Hasabani- until Israel declares its intention to return the Golan Heights to Syria. (see map)
The presence of some 100,000 Jewish settlers on the occupied West Bank is a thorny issue. Israeli Military give them 100 Million Cubic meters, while one million Palestinians living there are given 137 million cubic meters).
Generous compensation might persuade settlers to leave, but no electable Israeli government is expected to relinquish control of water supplies, unless alternative source is found by some miracle.
The Palestinians demand control most of the river Jordan along the West Bank self rule zone.
This is a sticking point not only in their negotiation with the Israelis, but also with the Jordanians, who want Israel to reduce its upstream water pumping. Part of the border dispute is a tiny triangle on the joint border with Syria and Israel because it is where the river crosses. Despite peace agreements, this entangled issue remains unsolvable for the foreseeable future.
Before the six-day war, Israel controlled about 6 Miles only of the Yarmuk river, now it has a de-facto control that stops Syria and Jordan from diverting the headwaters if they chose to.
During the peace negotiations with Syria in 1994 and the early part of 1995, the Israeli Military gave the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin two reasons against pulling out of the Golan heights: water security and the a intelligence gathering operation.
Hardliner Rafael Eitan, who was coalition partner with Rabin, went on record saying :`` It is hard to conceive, of any political solution consistent with Israel's survival that does not involve complete and continued Israeli control of the water system.''
Water was the hidden agenda for past conflicts not just between Israel and her neighbours, but also conflicts among Arabic speaking nations.
In the past Arab dictators stifled their own disputes and faced the Jewish state as a common enemy. Soon, that constraint is likely to disappear and all the long-suppressed enmities - including water sharing quarrels - will come into the open.
Alliances and enemies might change, but water will remain the substance of the conflict.
Hostile to the Jordan-Israel agreement, Syria in decade or so could face an alliance of Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel aimed at maximising their share of scarce water resources. Just as the old enemy Iraq, might side with Syria against Turkey to demand more water.
In the 1960s cross border raids on water schemes' machinery raved between Israel, Syria and Jordan culminating in the Six Day war in 1967.
First Israel began pumping water from Sea of Galilee into its national water carrier diverting 440 million cubic meters a year away from river Jordan. Backed by Colonel Nasser, Syria and Iraq responded in 1964 be setting to build two dams Macaroon and Al-Makhiyabat to deprive Israel of 550 million cubic meter per annum
Battles, artillery duels and Israeli air strikes deep into Syria destroyed the proposed dam site on the Yarmuk River.
``People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six-day war began,'' said General Ariel Sharon, later an Israeli defence minister, ``That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two- and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.''
As time passes nation's attitudes seem to get worse. Instead of gradually filling the vast lake in front of the new Ataturk Dam, Turkey in January 1990 stopped the flow of the Euphrates altogether. It was a tough message whose President Hafez al-Assad was aiding the Kurdish rebels in south-east Anatolia. This resulted in water shortage in Iraq, a bitter enemy of Syria. Old antagonisms were instantly forgotten; the Iraqi and Syrian media united in denouncing Turkey, and military leaders from both countries drew up plans for armed retaliation. The Turks shortened the stoppage by two weeks.
According to CIA report, Trouble between Turkey and Syria over water remains the likeliest prospect for a full-scale war in the region.
So far, Turkey has completed only about half of the Gap (Southeast Anatolia) project.. When the Gap is completed, the quantity and quality of water flow to Syria will be reduced by an estimated 40 percent of its 1980 flow.
President Suleyman Demirel summed up the intransigent attitude of the Turks: `Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers, any more than Ankara could claim their oil . . . We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's; the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share the oil resources, and they cannot say they share our water resources.'
Turkey's next project is to harness the Tigris with a direct effect on Iraq (about 90 per cent of the current flow), again forcing Syria and Iraq into alliance - though they almost went to war in 1975, when Syria built the Thawrah dam upstream.
Syria backs the Kurdish fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK, spreading devastation in Turkey with 5000 death so far, as the GAP project destroyed their homeland. President Assad will hold on to the Kurdish card to use in any future deal over water with Turkey. Furthermore, if he reaches a settlement with Israel, this dictator, who in 1981 ruthlessly flattened the centre of Hama killing 22,000 of his own people to put an end to a rebellion, would need a national unifying cause or an external enemy to replace Israel. A conflict with Turkey over Syria's share of water would justify a continuation of his autocratic style of government.
During his 1991 visit to the United Sates, the late Turkish leader Turgut Ozal asked President George Bush to let the US army 2nd corpse of Engineers be in charges of the security of the GAP project.
The likelihood scenario, according to a CIA report, that PKK fighters with Syrian logistic aid, would blow the Attaturk dam, provoking retaliation against their bases in Northern Syria triggering a war involving Iraq. And as the whole Western Alliance would be involved by a war between Turkey and Syria, it is no surprise that American and European planners have been working on contingency plans for such eventuality.
Water has already played a part in causing wars, altering policies and changing alliances.
Many of the nations sharing the use of those rivers have in the past resorted to force over issues less serious than shortage of water, the source of life.
Most alarming, and perhaps most telling,
was an off-the-record comment by a leading politician about his country's
water need. `` A time may well come,'' he said, `` we have to calculate
whether a small swift war might be economically more rewarding than putting
up with a drop in our water supplies.''
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