Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Arab Water Problems

Many analysts cite water shortages as a reason for the instability in Yemen, and I've also seen it come up in discussions of insecurity in Iraq's southern Euphrates valley. In her 2007 book Water Sheikhs and Dam Builders, Francesca de Chatel thematically recounts her travels to learn about water in the Arab Mediterranean countries by interviewing farmers, urban consumers of water, engineers, government officials, and others.

While "water wars" are often used as a hook to draw attention to the problems of water scarcity in the Middle East, de Chatel portrays expert opinion as denying that as a serious possibility. The reason is simply that ways to gain more water peacefully, such as by building desalination plants, are much cheaper than the cost of warfare. I found myself thinking that such an analysis probably holds true for states, but is much less true for local groups in weak or collapsed states. For this reason, discussions of the likelihood of "water wars" may turn on how one defines an individual "war."

I think de Chatel is definitely right, however, when she says that an emphasis on the potential for conflict distracts from the more immediate concerns of managing the scarcity. I was struck by her account of how peoples in the region simply failed to perceive the reality of water scarcity, much less to act on it. Another part of this equation is the way governments treat water scarcity problems as almost exclusively one of supply rather than looking at ways to reduce demand. They then try to solve these supply problems by sometimes harebrained engineering schemes with no real consideration given to the long-term consequences.

De Chatel's book is a great introduction to water in the Middle East, giving a careful, very readable account of water symbolism in regional cultures and highlights of water management before discussing the modern issues. In a region for which accessible studies of water issues are almost as scarce as water itself, it is a welcome contribution.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home