Where Oil and Water Do Mix: Environmental Scarcity and Future Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa

Article excerpt

"Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water."

--Isamil Serageldin World Bank Vice President

In the eyes of a future observer, what will characterize the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa? Will the future mirror the past or, as suggested by the quote above, are significant changes on the horizon? In the past, struggles over territory, ideology, colonialism, nationalism, religion, and oil have defined the region. While it is clear that many of those sources of conflict remain salient today, future war in the Middle East and North Africa also will be increasingly influenced by economic and demographic trends that do not bode well for the region. By 2025, world population is projected to reach eight billion. (1) As a global figure, this number is troubling enough; however, over 90 percent of the projected growth will take place in developing countries in which the vast majority of the population is dependent on local renewable resources. For instance, World Bank estimates place the present annual growth rate in the Middle East and North Africa at 1.9 percent versus a worldwide average of 1.4 percent. (2) In most of these countries, these precious renewable resources are controlled by small segments of the domestic political elite, leaving less and less to the majority of the population. As a result, if present population and economic trends continue, we project that many future conflicts throughout the region will be directly linked to what academic researchers term "environmental scarcity" (3)--the scarcity of renewable resources such as arable land, forests, and fresh water.

The purpose of this article is twofold. In the first section, we conceptualize how environmental scarcity is linked to domestic political unrest and the subsequent crisis of domestic political legitimacy that may ultimately result in conflict. We review the academic literature which suggests that competition over water is the key environmental variable that will play an increasing role in future domestic challenges to governments throughout the region. We then describe how these crises of domestic political legitimacy may result in both intrastate and interstate conflict. Even though the Middle East can generally be characterized as an arid climate, two great river systems, the Nile and the Tigris/Euphrates, serve to anchor the major population centers in the region. Conflict over the water of the Nile may someday come to pass between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia; while Turkey, Syria, and Iraq all are located along the Tigris/Euphrates watershed and compete for its resources. Further conflict over water may embroil Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians.

Despite many existing predictions of war over water, we investigate the intriguing question: How have governments in the Middle East thus far avoided conflict over dwindling water supplies? In the second section of the article, we discuss the concept of "virtual water" and use this concept to illustrate the important linkages between water usage and the global economy, showing how existing tangible water shortages have been ameliorated by a combination of economic factors, which mayor may not be sustainable into the future.

Environmental Scarcity and Conflict: An Overview

Mostafa Dolatyar and Tim Gray identify water resources as "the principal challenge for humanity from the early days of civilization." (4) The 1998 United Nations Development Report estimates that almost a third of the 4.4 billion people currently living in the developing world have no access to clean water. The report goes on to note that the world's population tripled in the 20th century, resulting in a corresponding sixfold increase in the use of water resources. Moreover, infrastructure problems related to water supply abound in much of the developing world; the United Nations estimates that between 30 and 50 percent of the water presently diverted for irrigation purposes is lost through leaking pipes alone. …