The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy
by tony allan
London, I. B. Tauris, 2001. 382 pages
Hardback: £39.50. Paperback: £16.99
Unlike many of the books written about the acute water shortage, or water stress, in the Middle East, Tony Allan’s is a significant study that deserves to influence the ongoing debate about water management and politics in the region for years to come.
The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy consists of eight chapters. In the first two, the author describes the regional hydropolitical background and explains his interdisciplinary conceptual approach to the issue. Chapters three to five cover economic and environmental perspectives, and chapters six and seven deal with international law and regional and international relations.
The key chapter is the last, chapter eight, which examines the future of water management in the Middle East. Allan notes that “outsiders shamelessly argue for economic and environmental principles without an idea of how the political process of implementing them could be achieved by unwilling governments and water users” (p. 334). This insightful criticism is true of much of the work on water management in the Middle East and beyond. Allan’s book tries to remedy the deficiency.
A debate has been raging between academics as to the likely geopolitical and economic consequences of acute water stress. The optimists are those who have an economic worldview and believe that the marketplace acts to preserve and find alternatives for dwindling resources. For example, scarcity boosts the market price of a resource, which in turn induces consumers to use it efficiently. When the market price reaches “unbearable” levels, people look for alternative resources or substitutes for the one that is running out. Water, however, has no substitutes. Optimists therefore believe that a high price for water will propel technological solutions to deal with cases of severe scarcity. Desalination plants and the moving of water by pipeline and tanker from water-rich to water-poor states are just two of the technological solutions proposed.
By contrast, pessimists, who consider themselves “realists”, view the water issue in terms of ecological effects and international relations. For them, war and instability are the likely consequences of severe and protracted water stress. The pessimistic view is shared by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the director-general of the UN Environment Programme, Klaus Toepfer, former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and some Egyptian parliamentarians and Israeli officials. They have all expressed their belief that water stress is likely to lead to war between riparian states.
While most water conflicts will have peaceful resolutions, pessimists believe that some, owing to a set of tangled motivating factors, will deteriorate into violent confrontation. One example is Syria’s proxy war (using Kurdish guerrillas) against Turkey to press Ankara to negotiate a water allocation agreement regarding the Euphrates. Another is the first Palestinian intifada, which erupted in 1987 and was triggered in part by Palestinians’ feelings of hydro-oppression by Israel, which siphons off the lion’s share of fresh water for Jewish citizens living in settlements that are often within sight of impoverished Palestinian villages and refugee camps.
Views in this ongoing optimist–pessimist debate are not likely to converge any time soon. Early in his book, Allen identifies himself as an optimist, but one who recognises that the adjustments necessary to alleviate and manage water stress will take time to implement. He is rightly intolerant of the vagueness, indecisiveness and inability or unwillingness of the region’s politicians to take difficult but necessary policy decisions regarding their countries’ limited water supplies. But his optimism is based on his belief in a water–food–trade nexus in which the global trading system acts as a redistributor of water from water-rich to water-poor countries. One of the key contributions of his book is to frame the water scarcity debate not in narrow regional terms but in a global resource context. Because foodstuffs and grains embody a certain level of moisture or require a certain volume of water to produce, Allan argues that importing these goods is like importing virtual water.
Allen takes issue with water-stressed countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which commonly subsidise water for irrigation (the largest consumer of water) or do not charge its full cost. He resents this on economic and environmental grounds, maintaining that it is wiser in the long run to wean farmers from water-intensive crops such as citrus, rice and cotton and to cultivate environmentally sensible, rain-fed crops such as wheat, lentils and barley. The region is full of poor countries which can ill afford to subsidise irrigated water. One country which has slowly been moving away from water-intensive crops is Israel. However, as Allan points out, Israel has the highest per capita income in the region, and less than five per cent of its labour force is employed in agriculture. It is therefore better positioned than many neighbouring states to absorb the costs and rural dislocation caused by changes in water use.
Allan also places effective and necessary emphasis on water located in the earth’s soil horizons. Soil contains a certain level of moisture which supports the growth of crops. This is different from the aquifer water usually found at lower levels in the ground. Soil water has a direct effect on food output, a factor often overlooked by environmentalists and water managers who discuss water stress in the Middle East. Taking soil water into account alters our understanding of water availability and hence of the world’s potential food production.
Culture is emerging as an important, long-neglected dimension of water management. Allan’s discussion of the Islamic perspective on water reflects his awareness that religion could play a significant role in water management in the largely Muslim Middle East. However, his analysis of this theme is at times cursory. For example, he states that Islam considers water a free good. Unmentioned, however, is the fact that the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia have settled the issue of charging for freshwater. They decreed that water cannot be charged for at source, in its natural state, but that the cost of delivering that water to homes, farms and industries can be charged for. Allan’s uncertainty about whether charges “for water in channels will become commonplace” (p. 113) is the more puzzling because consumers are charged for water in most Muslim countries, certainly in those that have a comprehensive water-delivery infrastructure and strong central government.
Allan states that the overwhelming majority of people living in Turkey, as well as in the Arab countries and Iran, are Muslims and are “imbued with precepts of Islam” (p. 174). This skirts the fact that for over fifty years Turkish governments have been diligent and militant in trying to suppress Islamic tendencies among their citizenry. One wonders how “imbued” Turks are with Islam and how much it influences their outlook on environmental and water issues.
The book is filled with numerous tables and charts that usefully summarise issues and debates, or help show the linkages between geopolitical, economic and social variables. These diagrams and the maps are eminently helpful, making the book “student friendly” and recommendable for senior undergraduate and graduate courses on the political economy and geography of water in the Middle East. Additional merits are the extensive bibliography and excellent index. A minor quibble is that the bolding so many words and the frequent changes of font sizes, often without self-evident or compelling reasons, may prove distracting to the reader.
Although I differ from Allan on the future response of nation states to water stress, believing that scarcity-induced conflict is more likely than he maintains, his encyclopaedic survey—the culmination of two decades’ research—must be hailed as a major contribution to our understanding in this area.