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Middle East: Thirsting for conflict

Ismail Seageldin, vice-president of the World Bank, made a disturbing prediction in 1995: "Many of the wars this century were about oil, but the wars of the next century will be about water." It was a comment that was to find many echoes at a meeting of UN hydrologists and meteorologists, convened by UNESCO in London back in November.

According to scientists, 7 percent of the world's people do not have enough water to survive. With the world's population set to rise by the current population of India every ten years, the global population will be in excess of 10 billion and 70 percent will be expected to have an insufficient supply of water.

With similar facts in front of them, the London meeting agreed to a decade-long campaign to highlight the case for urgent action. UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) has already started the ball rolling and committed itself to making water disputes a priority, currently mediating in disputes in the Zambezi river basin and in the stand-off between Peru and Bolivia over access to Lake Titicaca.

From Africa, which has 19 of the 25 countries with the greatest number of people lacking access to clean water, to Central Asia, where 5 countries contest the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, conflict could indeed break out at any moment, and ironically over the world's most abundant resource.

There is so much water that, shared out, each person could have 100 billion litres. Of course, 97 percent of this is sea water, and of the remainder only 0.8 percent is accessible. Still, taking into account that a person's annual requirement is one million litres, there is still enough. The point is that it is not evenly distributed throughout the world and some countries control much greater resources than others. If we add to this the fact that three-quarters goes on growing food, and that a lot is lost through drainage, poorly constructed channels and evaporation, then we really understand UNEP spokesman Klaus Topfer when he declares that the "potential for water disputes is great and the issue needs urgent political action" (Guardian, 2 November 1998).

Egypt anticipates that its population will double to 110 million within 35 years. Even now it is faced with a water shortage and has for some time imported "virtual water"-grain and other foodstuffs which removes the necessity to use water for home-grown food. Egypt finds itself in the unique position of being totally dependent on the Nile, a river whose flow and tributaries are controlled by 8 other countries.

Already, Egypt has rattled its sabre at Ethiopia, which controls 80 percent of the supply and which has embarked upon a series of dams and irrigation schemes along the Blue Nile and, which if extended, would also interfere with Sudan's supply.

With Egypt looking to irrigate reclaimed desert along its northern coast and needing to increase its share of Nile water by 15 billion cubic metres per year, and with a further 8 countries seeking to increase their share, it takes no great leap in the imagination to see how water is increasingly dominating Egypt's foreign policy and why Egypt sees the taking of more water by its neighbours as an act of war.

At the other end of the scale, Turkey possesses an abundance of water and has primary control over the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates-rivers that both Syria and Iraq are heavily dependent on.

In 1984, Turkey began the South Eastern Antollia Project at a cost of £20 billion-a mammoth effort to construct 22 dams, 19 hydro-electric plants and thousands of miles of irrigation channels.

As Turkey directs more and more water for its own use, Syria and Iraq feel that should they upset their northern neighbour, water could be used as a weapon, and thus are anxious not to upset the controller of their water supply. Turkey has already used its control of Syria's water to great effect, forcing Syria to withdraw its support for the Turkish Guerrilla movement, the PKK. And it's a fair bet that Turkey's political might will be felt further in the region when the 1984-begun project nears its completion in 2005.

Forty percent of Israel's water depends on territory occupied in 1967 and still not handed back. Studies of hydrologists' maps further reveal a pattern of settlement construction in the "occupied territories" along the ridges of aquifers suggesting a wider Israeli game plan to control an increasing share of the region's water.

Interestingly, at a time when Israel is losing interest in Gaza, it can be found that Gaza's groundwater is sinking by 8 inches per year. Just as it's a fact that Israel controls 80 percent of the Palestinian water supply, so too do we find 26 percent of Palestinians with no access to clean water while the average Israeli consumes three-and-a-half times as much water as those Palestinians fortunate to have access.

Meanwhile, Israel's continuing control of the Golan Heights and south eastern Lebanon enables it to guard a series of pumps and pipelines which moves the Jordan's water throughout Israel and as far north as the Negev desert.

Israel's case is echoed the world over. In the former Soviet Union, while the Aral sea continues to shrink because of HEP plants and irrigation, five countries are becoming increasingly dependent on its diminishing waters.

Sensing trouble ahead, the UN adopted a convention on international waters in 1997-basically a framework for sharing rivers and lakes. Before it can become operational it requires 35 signatories. So far only 11 have signed-such is the reluctance of governments to sign such a valuable resource away.

In an age when we have the scientific and technological know how to enable us to solve almost all our problems, it is indeed an indictment on capitalism that so many humans, living on a planet, seven eighths of which is covered in water, have so little access to it. With the ever-present drive to cut costs and make profits, it is little wonder that better irrigation and improved channels are as rare as desalination plants and reservoirs?