While often over-looked, the quality and quantity of water in the Middle East is playing an ever-increasing role in shaping the politics of the region, writes Richard Spencer


Have water wars claimed their first high-profile political scalp? That is certainly one way of looking at the downfall of Haider al Abadi, prime minister of Iraq until this month. It does not fall within the usual perspectives journalists and analysts apply to Iraqi politics, which tend to concentrate on the interplay of sectarianism, ethnicity, and the competition for influence between Iran and the United States. However, consider this: despite only coming third in May’s general election, Abadi had reasonable hopes of bagging another term until residents of the southern city of Basra started turning up at hospitals, first in their hundreds, then their thousands, and then tens of thousands, poisoned by the water coming out of their taps. Embarrassingly, a visiting football team was struck down, and even, most recently, the EU ambassador. Protests turned into riots when police opened fire. Among the casualties, burned to blackened hulks, were the Iranian consulate, the governorate building, and the headquarters of most of the major political and militia factions in the city. Ten young men were killed. The final casualty was Abadi himself who, after the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani suggested that Iraq’s internal decay had gone on long enough and it was time for a change, fell on his sword and announced he would stand down.

“The protests were aimed at government incompetence and corruption, which is not only real but entirely visible in Basra”

The protests were aimed at government incompetence and corruption, which is not only real but entirely visible in Basra, a city which sits on a sea of oil but whose suburbs are little more than slums and whose famous canals are silted up with refuse and sewage. However, the water problem is not unique to Basra’s taps. The Basra protests were a mirror of similar riots earlier in the long Gulf summer, 45 kilometers down the road in the southern Iranian cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr on the other side of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where residents likewise woke up one day and found little more than brown sludge in their pipes.

For historians and, in general, all those nostalgic about the legacy of the past in the Middle East there is something extraordinary about this, and not just because of the enormous oil wealth involved: Abadan was the Middle East’s first oil city, and is still home to Iran’s major oil refinery, while Basra’s Rumaila oil field is the third biggest in the world. No, Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, is the home of western civilization for a reason, which is the abundance of the Tigris and the Euphrates, as they meander through the desertifying landscape to the Gulf. Environmentalists have been warning for years that this abundance was being abused, and this year they were finally proved right.

The creation – and failure – of some 600 dams in the region, coupled with political paralysis in Iraq has stopped the flow of water in southern Iraq (Richard Spencer)

The litany of problems need be rehearsed briefly if only to counter the simplistic idea that global warming is to blame, though the summers are indeed getting hotter. The two gravest problems are over-extraction of groundwater and over-damming of rivers. Both go back to the 1960s, and a regional – worldwide, in fact – tendency by governments over-fond of central control and central planning to offer up grandiose promises that they could bring quick wealth to economically backward areas, including agricultural ones.

Up-river from Iraq in the Euphrates basin, the Syrian regimes, and particularly that of Hafez al Assad in the 1970s, provide a classic case study of the former. Those interested in the details can turn to the writings of the journalist Francesca de Chatel and a research team led by Jan Selby of Sussex University, which published an extensive study last year. In short, though, Assad senior set ambitious targets for agricultural development, particularly for the bread-basket of eastern Syria, which were achieved by subsidizing fuel in such a way that farmers could cheaply pump groundwater from ever-deeper wells. In some places, the water table is now 100 meters lower than it was. In effect, the whole area has dried out, as observers of images of refugees streaming out of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the past few years of fighting in the Syrian war can see for themselves.

At the same time, all the countries on the rivers set about ambitious dam-building programs: Iran built or tried to build – some failed – 600 dams alone, mostly on tributaries of the Tigris, before and particularly during the last 40 years of the Islamic Republic. Experts, of which Iran has many, have been warning of the consequences for years. Some are now ministers, some are in exile, some, like Kaveh Madani, have been both: a reader at Imperial College London, he was enticed back to serve his country as a deputy environment minister, but had to flee in February after being accused of spying. He had warned Tehran that it was “water bankrupt”, he told me recently – like Charles Dickens’ Micawber and his pounds, shillings and pence, it simply “spent” more water than it had. The dams stopped the flow of water, caused saltwater to back up from the sea, and achieved less storage than hoped, thanks to the inevitable evaporation of the concentrated mass in the newly formed lakes.

Those dams, of course, also stopped water reaching the Tigris in Iraq, which became even more of a problem when Turkey began filling its own giant Ilisu Dam on the upper Tigris in March. The effect was immediate: within weeks, residents of Baghdad were able to wade across the river for the first time in recorded history.

“It is true that Middle East countries have proved incapable, in water as in so much else, of finding ways of co-operating to solve this shared problem”

All this makes it seem as if none of Iraq’s problems are its own fault. It is true that Middle East countries have proved incapable, in water as in so much else, of finding ways of co-operating to solve this shared problem. However, it is also the case that other water-poor countries, notably in the Gulf itself, have managed to use their oil wealth to ensure regular supplies to the tap, if only by extensive use of desalination, which brings its own environmental problems.

Frozen by its continual political stasis, immersed in the fight against terrorism, but above all mired in corruption whose scale is enormous, Iraq failed to respond. Belatedly, it has tried to impose limits on its own agriculture, in June announcing drastic cuts to the acreage that can be devoted to the production of rice and maize, two heavy consumers of water. However, with no real government, and not much history of enforcement, the limits were widely ignored, a prominent environmentalist told me on a trip to Basra last month. While I was there, I visited the famous marshes north of the city, reduced to a fraction by Saddam Hussein’s atrocities: he deliberately starved them of water to punish Shia rebels hiding in them. The marshes had been beginning to recover, but are now shrinking again, the buffalo farmed there dying of thirst as the remaining water salts up. The farmers, like the government, are reduced to praying for the winter rains: yet it is a foolish person who relies on the heavens rather than the rivers in Mesopotamia.

Water buffaloes are the most productive animal in Iraq, yet new diseases caused by water pollution threaten the livestock (Richard Spencer)

The conventional analysis of Iraqi politics is not wrong, of course. The Americans and the Iranians are conspiring to have their own way, post the election. Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, has been circulating around the factional leaders in a frenzy in an attempt to save Abadi, while Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s al Quds Brigade, has been less publicly seeing the same people and others, to boost al Binaa, the alliance of Shia parties more favorably inclined to Tehran, headed by Hadi al Ameri, leader of both the paramilitary Badr Corps and the Fateh political bloc. Winning support of the Sunni parties and, this year especially, the Kurds, still nursing a grievance over the sabotage of their independence referendum last year, remains crucial.

Yet whatever the propaganda emerging from all sides, it is clear that no-one expected the Basra riots, and they had a profound effect on what followed. For once, the demands of ordinary people for ordinary things, electricity, water, and jobs, were playing a role in government formation. The pro-Iranian factions blamed the Americans for the riots: Iranian media outlets speculated wildly about the US conspiracy to end the power of Iran’s favored Shia militias. Yet, so it turned out, the riots put paid to the hopes of America’s favored candidate, so cui bono? Meanwhile, the burning down of pro-Iranian militia headquarters in the city so close to the Iranian border – and to Khorramshahr and Abadan – undoubtedly sent a frisson of fear through the regime in Tehran, struggling with protests of its own. The protesters were sticking two fingers up – one for each of the interfering powers.

And this is how water will impact on politics in the future of the Middle East: nothing is ever either/or, and water will not replace other factors driving its conflicts. It will, however, be an additional factor, one which only greater political leadership and competence can stop turning into a genuine driving force in popular dissatisfaction. Make no mistake, that dissatisfaction is real. As the uncle of one of the young men killed in the riots told me, he had not voted in either of the last two elections. He used to curse Saddam, he said, but now he prayed for his soul. That is something neither Iran nor the US likes to hear.

Water shortages have led to violent protests in southern Iraq, where many rely on the marshes for their livelihoods (Richard Spencer)

Richard Spencer is the Middle East correspondent for The Times of London