The issue of water or the lack thereof is an urgent one for many countries in the Middle East. Water-fueled conflicts paint a dark picture of a future without adequate freshwater supplies.
Israel’s voracious consumption and lack of environmental responsibility has turned its water problem into a crisis. To continue its settlement expansion, Israel needs new sources of water, by any means necessary.
For decades, Israel has seen permanent occupation of South Lebanon and continued access to Lebanon’s Litani River as the answer to some of its water problems.
The 170-kilometer-long Litani River, with its 2, 290 square kilometer basin, is located entirely within the borders of Lebanon. The river’s proximity to Israel, a scant four kilometers, makes it very tempting for Israel to exploit.
I document in Tragedy in South Lebanon that in a 1920 letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Chaim Weizmann then head of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) argued that Lebanon was “well watered” and that the river was “valueless to the territory north of Israel’s proposed frontiers. It can be used more beneficially in the country further south.” Weizmann concluded that the WZO considered the Litani valley “for a distance of twenty-five miles above the bend of the river essential to the future of the Jewish national home.” The British and French mandate powers disregarded this recommendation and retained the Litani basin entirely in Lebanon.
Historically, any analysis of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has focused on religious differences. This is a shallow veneer covering a deeper conflict for a more basic resource. In the June 1967 war, the water issue was among major Israeli concerns in launching a preemptive attack. With careful pre-war planning, Israeli tanks and troops stationed across the proposed war route effectively completed Israel’s encirclement of the headwaters of the Upper Jordan which included the West Bank. Its seizure of Syria’s Golan Heights assured Israeli protection for the Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) pumping works while the take-over of Gaza also gave Israel plentiful water supplies. These territories have proven very problematic for Israel but the precious water it afforded them has far outweighed the diplomatic cost of its nearly fifty years of occupation.
The water sources captured in 1967 were estimated to last Israel only into the 1980s. Israel hoped to meet its additional water needs when it invaded South Lebanon in 1978, in 1982 and 2006. Their official excuse was to create a “security zone” to better protect its northern border.
A growing water crisis has helped spark wars in Syria and Yemen. As far back as 2009 Yemen officials were warning U.S. officials that their country was slipping into chaos as a result of water scarcity. Less than two years later, rural tribesmen fought their way into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and seized two buildings: the headquarters of the ruling General People’s Congress and the main office of the water utility. The president was forced to resign and a new government was formed but water issues continued to amplify long-simmering tensions which eventually led to a full-fledged civil war.
It was Muammar Gaddafi’s dream to provide fresh water for all Libyans and to make Libya self-sufficient in food production. In 1953 his search for new oil fields in the deserts of southern Libya led to the discovery of not just significant oil reserves but also of vast quantities of fresh water trapped in the underlying strata. Of the four ancient water aquifers that were discovered each had estimated capacities ranging from 4,800 to 20,000 cubic kilometers. Most of this water was collected around 14,000 years ago though some pockets are believed to be only 7,000 years old.
In July 2011, NATO not only bombed the Great Man-Made River water supply pipeline near Brega, but also destroyed the factory that produced the pipes to repair it, claiming that it was used as a “military storage facility” and that “rockets were launched from there.”
Fresh clean water is essential to all life forms. Without it we simply cannot function. Currently 40% of the world’s population has little to no access to clean water and that figure is actually expected to jump to 50% by 2025. There is little doubt then that the wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water.