Speaking of Water

by George R. Trumbull IV
published in MER254

“Life After People,” the History Channel’s plangently alarmist imagined documentary series on the vestiges of civilization after an unspecified catastrophe, forecasts an end for Dubai’s infamous Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,625 feet. The desert location of Dubai, coupled with the persistent engineering challenges of building there, proves the undoing of Burj Khalifa in the History Channel’s scenario: Desiccation of cables, pulleys and other such quotidian technologies causes the failure of the tower’s automated window-washing equipment, which, in the imagination of cable television, swings free, damaging the building and plunging to the ground below.

The metaphor in the History Channel’s vision for Burj Khalifa, once a symbol of Gulf wealth and economic mastery, and now of overreach and architectural hubris, comes from the plunging to earth of Dubai World, the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund, amid the global recession beginning in late 2008. Dubai’s debt crisis was both of its own making and a result of general financial drought, the drying-up of wells of cash and income in a fundamentally altered world landscape. Nevertheless, the global financial media told their audiences that Dubai could tap another source of wealth, another well, through its connections to oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the federal seat of the United Arab Emirates.

The History Channel series does not explicitly link the fanciful, imagined failure of Dubai to the financial, immediate one. But, back in the real world, the blithe reassurances of Dubai’s recovery reflected an assumed tie between oil and water: Oil wealth can compensate for the hubris of building a self-cleaning “superscraper” in one of the driest regions on earth. At a deeper level, water poverty and oil wealth are assumed to be divorced, incompatible, yet nevertheless locked in to a peculiar relationship in which abundance of one resource can make up for profligacy with the other. The assumption is ill founded. At some point, the oil or the water will run out.

The definition of entire states, and indeed entire regions, as “oil economies” implies that hydrocarbon exports alone keep the economies afloat. But the oil industry -- its machinery, laborers and managers -- relies as much upon the steady supply of water as global industry, commerce and consumers do upon oil. Building on Miriam Lowy’s 1993 Water and Power, scholars, public intellectuals and media commentators have developed a large body of literature on water scarcity in the Middle East. These texts largely center on flowing water, namely the Jordan, Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and other rivers, to the exclusion of oil economies. To understand oil economics or water scarcity, one has to know that the two are closely intertwined, yet the resource debates about the Middle East and North Africa seem designed to prevent such awareness.

Virtual Water

The term “virtual water” has risen to prominence as a way of referring to the hidden water cost of food and other goods. Growing food obviously requires continual streams of water, an investment many Middle Eastern and North African countries are unwilling or unable to make. Most oil-producing countries, not at all irrationally, simply import tons of food -- thus sparing themselves the need to invest their own water in feeding the population. Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, to a lesser extent, other states have relied on income from the petrochemical industry to outsource the production of food to places with more water in lieu of expensive and environmentally dangerous desalinization or irrigation projects.

Virtual water, however, does not mean that oil economies are any less dependent on water. Rather, virtual water poses a conceptual challenge for rethinking the so-called oil states of the Middle East. The wealth of these states can be easily measured in oil prices, commodity markets and investment flows, or on a smaller scale, through projects such as Burj Khalifa or Dubai’s equally infamous palm tree-shaped islands. But economists and political scientists, and still less journalists and governments, have not adequately accounted for virtual water. The structures of the virtual water economy are well known; trade statistics easily trace the basic market dynamics of who supplies food to whom. Nevertheless, the oil economy and the world of virtual water remain largely divorced in scholarly and technocratic studies. “Oil economies” are understood in terms of their petrochemical, industrial production, and not in terms of their less visible, but no less important, water and food consumption. Reliance on virtual water, purchased through petrochemical revenues, does not mean that oil economies are not also water economies; it means that water economies with access to significant funds have the power to determine the use of natural resources outside the geographic boundaries of the state.

Press reports have focused on the purchase by petrochemical powers of agricultural lands abroad, particularly in Africa. Many have correctly remarked that such investments show that, as in the classic imperial age, state authority is not limited to particular territories. But there is more to the story than that. In sinking so many petrodollars into African lands, the “oil states” are effectively concealing their participation in an economic system of water rent, disguising their dependence on African “virtual water” with their nominal source of independence -- their fabulous oil wealth. Meanwhile, neither these states nor other observers have taken much note of these land purchases’ potential for introducing new forms of economic domination and instability.

Power Politics

“Water,” goes the bromide, “is the new oil.” The apparent equivalence of the two resources -- both are relatively scarce -- masks a curious misunderstanding of their relationship. The analogy ignores structural inequalities. For now, after all, the “old oil” aids greatly in finding and purchasing the new. As long as the global industrial and consumer economy remains dependent on oil, “oil economies” will continue to accommodate their own water demands through recourse to the energy demands of others. Wealthy countries can more easily afford to buy water, virtually or literally, than to go to war over it.

Ismail Serageldin, erstwhile chair of the Global Water Partnership and vice president of the World Bank for environmental sustainability, has contended that “for a lot of people, access to water is going to be as important as the access to oil is in more advanced economies.” [1] Serageldin in essence divides the world into two moieties, an “advanced” petrochemical half, and a less economically sophisticated, drought-stricken, water-centered half. No “advanced economies” depend on oil so greatly as do the oil-producing states of the Middle East. But redefining the Persian Gulf states as participants in a complex economy of virtual water quickly reveals the centrality of water not only to less “advanced” economies, but also to the producers of oil themselves. Acquisitive, wealthy and in dire need of food imports, oil producers represent, too, virtual water consumers and, as seen in their land purchases in Uganda, Tanzania and elsewhere, sometimes their role as consumers takes precedence. There may never be an Organization of Virtual Water Importing Countries, but environmental activists and Middle Eastern policymakers can no longer afford to avoid economic systems -- even “virtual” ones -- intimately linked yet in no way subordinate to the petrochemical economy.

The politics of water, however, has demonstrated a tenacious tendency to devolve into simplistic opposing camps that largely decline to reframe fundamental questions of success and failure. Optimistic portrayals put great hope in the technological resolution of environmental problems, while pessimists, particularly in relation to water in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of the global south, not ungleefully depict a world of water wars and desert wastes. Jan Selby identifies three discourses regarding water, each of which claims specific outcomes: the ecological (water wars), technical (the emergence of new mechanical solutions) and political (the allocation of water to some and not others). [2] “The final constraint for states,” Selby argues, “is not the natural availability of their water resources, but their political-economic capacity to reuse, recycle, import, desalinate…their ability to marshal water resources across time and space.” [3] This constraint, however, may not differ functionally from physical water scarcity: If Sudan, for instance, cannot provide water to its citizens because the canals have silted up, the Sudanese people will experience the shortage as if it were a drought.

Nor will states necessarily be able (or willing) to “marshal water resources” equally across space. In short, the pessimists may be right, but for the wrong reasons. Water wars in the Middle East may emerge not out of large-scale conflicts between nations, but organized actions by majorities or elites within nations to take the water of minorities or the marginalized. Discourses on water scarcity have focused almost exclusively on scarcity as a natural phenomenon threatening to sow international discord, rather than as an engineered weapon utilized in destabilized states as part of wars of dispossession. Here again Sudan may prove a grim augury. Ethno-religious conflict, untapped oil reserves, plentiful but coveted water, readily available weapons, neighbors posed to intervene -- the elements of an internecine “resource war” are all in place.

Indeed, the mere threat of dispossession may prove enough to alter political landscapes in profound ways, even internationally. In politically charged environments, water reflects the preoccupations and anxieties of adversaries. No site better exemplifies this tendency than southern Lebanon’s Litani River. Running through eastern Lebanon until a turn, in the south, toward the sea, the Litani’s lower course has come under Israeli domination at various points in Israel’s intervention in southern Lebanon, most recently until 2000. The Litani River’s water could prove highly useful to those living in the Jordan River catchment, and diverting its water would not prove difficult. Moreover, Israel has not concealed its awareness of the potential utility of Lebanese water sources. [4] At least as of 2000, however, no substantial Israeli diversions from the Litani River had actually occurred. From the perspective of environmental science, the actual quantification of water flow in the Litani matters greatly, as it no doubt does to those who depend on it in their daily lives. Politically, however, the actual existence or non-existence of Litani River diversion proves of little import. “The meager evidence against the theory [of Israeli use of the Litani] is less than convincing to a justifiably skeptical public in Lebanon.” [5] Residents of southern Lebanon, with good historical reason, question Israeli interests in their homeland. The actual use of water matters less than its potential use, which stokes popular anxiety about future interventions that would steal their livelihoods and drinking water.

A Human Right?

Such concerns have catalyzed new conceptions of how to address water legally. Some writers have claimed access to water as a human right, while others have simply opened a debate about whether it is a human right or just a necessity of life -- and what the difference means. [6] But such writings miss the point. The mere discursive reformulation of access to clean or even sufficient water as a human right promises no alteration in water policy anywhere. States violate human rights all the time, and the international legal mechanisms to enforce adherence remain, by design and collective will, impotent. In particular, transnational or ecologically defined human rights issues have suffered from the subordination of human rights to national sovereignty even in the discourse of human rights defenders. It is true that many states, including some in the Middle East, are wary of human rights strictures on the grounds that they are “imposed” by the UN or powerful countries sheltering under the UN’s fig leaf. But there is almost never any consequence for ignoring human rights demands. So to state, as one scholar does, that “the concern of some of the countries that are not in favor of promulgating the concept that water is a human right stem[s] from the fact that they are unsure of the legal implications if they approve the overall philosophy” is to ignore the actual ramifications of human rights discourse for authoritarian states. [7] What legal penalty would a state incur for failing to cast water as a human right in national legislation? Absolutely none. Proponents of the human rights understanding of water access rejoin, correctly, that it is nonetheless important to speak of rights so that people are not left out of the discussion.

Though this stripped-down goal seems modest, it too carries with it a very real menace. Casting water as a human right courts the danger of cynical transmogrification of the language of human rights into a language of entitlement. Humans have a right to how much water? For what purposes? The human rights discourse also seems vulnerable to cooptation in security terms; a state might claim that an entire nation’s human rights are compromised by “inadequate” access to water. It is not difficult to imagine Israel, for example, casting the Litani River or, should a Palestinian state come into being, West Bank aquifers, in such terms. Egypt might do the same with the waters of the Nile. One state claiming waters as a “human right” might camouflage the deprivation of another state’s people or a stateless people. Lacking both a mechanism of enforcement and a coherent definition and providing a convenient excuse for dispossession, discourses of water as a human right represent, at best, persiflage and, at worst, function as yet another site for the violent intervention of states.

Indeed, authoritarian states have a vested interest in expropriating the water of marginalized groups. Palestinians do not benefit from the same water-centered agricultural policies as kibbutzes. More broadly, casting water as a human right will not provide clean water to refugees, internally displaced persons, nomads or any subgroup that questions hegemonic narratives of the nation, because states have little to gain in return. Legislating a new human right will not guarantee, or even encourage, that states will respect that right, extend it equally to all residents or refrain from using it as leverage. This is not to argue that no one should call attention to the resource deprivation of vulnerable populations. In the Middle East, however, with its distant and recent past of interventions represented in humanitarian terms, the introduction of new and “universal,” but poorly defined, human rights has consequences that extend beyond the realm of discourse. Is it the use of water, or the consumption of water, that forms the locus of such a “human right”?

From the Ground Up

Water also has a cultural and symbolic importance. Any attempt at building consensus around water use or “rights” will have to come to terms with local communities’ attachments to space, including the water sources that they may hold dear. Mandana Limbert’s ethnography of water use in a community in Oman indicates that most people view water first as a domestic issue, one close to home, and only secondarily as a global problem mediated through the state. Pipes and delivery systems paid for by oil wealth exist alongside nostalgia for old ways of retrieving water. One informant of Limbert’s drew water from state-dug wells to irrigate his crops and tend his draft animals, but played for her a recording of the noises of the old water system in the car on the way back from the new installations. [8] If those seeking to redefine access to water as a human right do not address the symbolic, individual and small-scale interactions that determine use of water, the decision-makers they advise will, so to speak, miss the boat. Decisions about water must proceed from the ground up.

But not too far up. Burj Khalifa is still standing tall, offering unobstructed and spectacular views of city, desert and ocean, though it has proven a hard sell to prospective inhabitants. Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth did, in the end, contribute to the amelioration of Dubai’s debt crisis. Even the riches of Abu Dhabi, however, may not prove enough to replenish the water supplies, virtual or otherwise, of the United Arab Emirates as a whole. Even if “peak oil” theories are premature, even if the world economy unexpectedly weans itself off of fossil fuels, interactions between the oil economy and the water economy in the Middle East and North Africa will surely become more, not less, vexed. The first step toward accounting for the environmental and economic costs of this oil-water complex lies in making transparent their connections. Discourses of “oil states” conceal their primary dependence on water, most of it imported in some guise or another. Burj Khalifa’s window-washing machines have not yet plummeted to the ground, and oil money has staved off that particular collapse, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, as Jim Krane, an Associated Press reporter who covered the tower’s construction, noted on CNN, “It’s a really bad idea…. Every time the toilet is flushed they’ve got to pump water half a mile into the sky.”


[1] “Water Wars? A Talk with Ismail Serageldin,” World Policy Journal (Winter 2009–2010), p. 25.
[2] Jan Selby, Water, Power and Politics in the Middle East: The Other Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003), p. 21.
[3] Ibid., p. 62.
[4] Hussein A. Amery, “A Popular Theory of Water Diversion from Lebanon: Toward Public Participation for Peace,” in Hussein A. Amery and Aaron T. Wolf, eds., Water in the Middle East: A Geography of Peace (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000), p. 143.
[5] Ibid., p. 123 (italics in the original).
[6] See, broadly, A. K. Biswas, Eglal Rached and Cecilia Tortajada, eds., Water as a Human Right for the Middle East and North Africa (London: Routledge, 2008).
[7] A. K. Biswas, “Water as a Human Right in the MENA Region: Challenges and Opportunities,” in Biswas et al, p. 8.
[8] Mandana E. Limbert, “The Sense of Water in an Omani Town,” Social Text 19/3 (Fall 2001).

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