Water is likely to become the most critical determinant of state stability and geopolitical conflict in the Middle East. What makes water conflicts in the Middle East particularly flammable is that they sit atop a complex matrix of pre-existing ethnic grievances and inter-state disputes.
Over the last few weeks, Iran has been rocked yet again by anti-regime protests, this time over water scarcity. The center of the protests has been in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province, home to a large Arab minority that has long complained of second-class treatment from the government in Tehran. As usual, the regime has responded with heavy handed tactics, with at least eight people dead and scores more arrested.
Climate change is one factor behind the crisis. Iran is facing one of its driest summers in recorded history, with average temperatures at least two to three degrees centigrade above normal and precipitation reduced by around 85 percent. Yet climate change has only exacerbated an entirely man-made crisis brought on by years of rampant dam building, corruption, mismanagement and diversion of rivers.
Khuzestan is home to 80 percent of Iran’s oil and 60 percent of its gas deposits. The extraction of these resources has caused pollution. Yet ethnic Arabs have also warned of a conspiracy by the Persian-dominated government in Tehran of deliberately trying to drive off Arabs from fertile lands to open up more areas for oil and gas extraction. Successive governments in Tehran have also built ill-conceived dams and diverted once-plentiful freshwater from Khuzestan’s rivers to neighboring provinces.
The sensible thing for Tehran to do is to come up with a water-management policy and stop dam construction. Yet this will have profound implications for the country’s political economy. For many years, dam-building has been the exclusive preserve of companies linked to the country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has used lucrative state contracts as a source of pilfering and patronage.
Iran also subsidizes electricity and water for its population, which encourages wastage. Reducing these subsidies could further inflame tensions within the country. Instead, Tehran has reacted to its water crisis by shutting off water supplies to neighboring Iraq from the countries’ shared rivers. This has led to a water shortage in Iraq’s Sunni-majority Diyala province. This could inflame sectarian tensions in Iraq and provide fresh recruits to the still-active ISIS. A revived ISIS and sectarian conflict is the last thing Iraq needs, just as its approaches a semblance of political stability with general elections scheduled for October.
Yet, in the absence of a regional grand strategy for sharing rivers and managing dam construction, water is likely to become a zero-sum game. In some instances, one region’s development needs will mean less water for another. If Syria’s agricultural heartland in its northeast is reinvigorated, the country will need to extract more water from the Euphrates. This means less water for Iraq.
In other instances, countries will pursue a strategy of weaponizing water supplies to teach their perceived enemies a lesson. Indeed, Kurds in Syria’s Al-Hasakah province have accused Turkey and its proxies of deliberately cutting off water supplies to their region. Istanbul views the province’s governing Kurdish party as being closely allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Istanbul considers a terrorist outfit. Similarly, Turkey has shied away from concluding an agreement with Iraq over their shared rivers, stating that it exercises absolute sovereignty of rivers that flow through its territory.
States are also petrified of ending water subsidies to farmers in rural regions, lest they migrate toward the cities. Indeed, the precursor to the Syrian civil war, exacerbated no doubt by the Assad regime’s brutality, was the drought that occurred in rural areas between 2006 and 2009. This led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people to Syria’s cities, inflaming social tensions in the country and eventually leading to civil war in 2011.
The political economy of several other countries in the region is fairly similar. Countries like Jordan provide subsidized water to powerful tribes in the Jordan valley that are the bedrock of political support for the regime in Amman. Similarly, Egypt is wary of the potentially catastrophic consequences for its domestic political stability should water flow from the Nile be reduced on account of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. This has prompted Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, to warn that “all options are possible” should Ethiopia and Egypt fail to agree on the dam.
The fact that conflict over water barely features in Western analyses of the region’s geopolitical predicaments points to Western political elites’ myopic view of the Middle East. The region’s many conflicts are only looked at through the prism of religion and energy. These are of immense interest to the West, primarily due to the former’s links to global terrorism and the latter to the West’s energy security. Yet water scarcity and the resulting conflicts could produce a wave of refugees emerging from the region. This will lead to human suffering on an unimaginable scale, potentially leading to regional war, state collapse and destabilizing regions further afield, such as Europe and South Asia.
It is water, not oil or sectarian politics, that should occupy the minds of policymakers both in the Middle East and across the world.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.