Guest post by Pink Panther

Mention conflict in the Middle East or North Africa and the almost inevitable response from the Left is that it’s the fault of Israel or the United States and it’s all about oil. Undoubtedly the world’s solo superpower and its Zionist client state have a long list of crimes to be held to account for. It is also true that oil is a vital resource that corporations and governments have long fought and schemed to get. The problem is not that this narrative is totally wrong, more that it overlooks another important resource and other agents in the region.

Long before black gold became the essential life blood of the modern world the Middle East has been a conflict zone. Aside from being on the crossroads of trade between Africa, Asia and Europe it also has a very limited amount of arable land and water. In North Africa and the Middle East, control of the few major rivers including the Euphrates, Jordan, Niger, Nile and Tigris rivers has been the key source of conflict in the area. Whoever controls these rivers controls the region.

When thinking of climate change, it is important to consider how it impacts on conflicts in places like the Middle East and North Africa. Even a relatively small change in climate, such as rainfall patterns, can have devastating results in these territories. Many of the trading routes and much of the region’s water and food comes from a network of oasis dotted across the Sahara and from rivers like the Niger, the Nile and the Gambia. The failure of the seasonal rains or a change in rainfall patterns not only results in famine but destroys the livelihoods of millions of people as livestock and crops die and arable land disappears. When people lose everything they will move to other areas where arable land and both food and water are available. This puts greater pressure upon the often limited resources of other communities. This invariably leads to conflict.

In the Middle East and North Africa there has been decades of illegal fishing. The use of the major rivers in North Africa as dumping grounds for everything from human and animal waste to oil waste has created such heavy pollution that many fish species and the animals and birds that rely on them to survive, have died. This has destroyed the livelihoods of the farmers and fishermen who live along these rivers. The pollution of the Niger River, in particular, by Western owned oil companies has fuelled the conflict in Nigeria and the hatred of the Islamic State-aligned Boko Harem.

In Egypt a substantial proportion of its civil unrest has been driven by farmers whose lands along the Nile River were destroyed by the construction of large dams from the 1960s onwards. These dams were intended both as symbols of national development and to prevent seasonal flooding. What was not realised at the time was that the floodwaters also carried large amounts of sediment that was essential for providing nutrients for the soils along the shores of the Nile. For the land to become productive expensive fertilisers were used. This impoverished a lot of farming families who were forced to move to slums in Cairo and Alexandria. It was from among these people that Muslim Brotherhood first gained a lot of supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood is less about fundamentalism and more about claiming to give a voice to people impoverished by large scale public work projects that were short-sighted and motivated by undelivered promises of prosperity. It is now acknowledged by some that damming the Nile has created a major environmental disaster in Egypt and driven political unrest.

Much of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has evolved from the clash between Jews and Arabs that arose from broken and contradictory promises to both groups by France and Britain during World War One. One of the leading causes of the Arab-Israeli conflicts was – and still is – the Jordan River, the main source of fresh water in the area. Between the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967 the source of the Jordan River – the Sea of Galilee – and its headwaters were controlled by Israel. The Israeli state was able to effectively bully Palestinian refugees on the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and the Jordanian government by threatening to cut or restrict water supplies.

After the West Bank was occupied in June 1967 the Israeli government and ultra-Zionists have kept the Palestinians impoverished by controlling access to water from the Jordan River. By ensuring Palestinians have severely restricted access to water they cannot grow the range of crops or maintain the amount of livestock needed to feed their people. It also makes for great propaganda to show arid Palestinian land compared to luscious Israeli land to “prove” the barbarism and backwardness of the Palestinians. This is a key element of anti-Palestinian propaganda targeted at right-wing Israelis and the very powerful pro-Zionist lobby groups in the United States.

Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics would make no sense if the motive was oil or mineral resources. Lebanon has neither but it has two things that the Syrians have a shortage of: water and arable land. Lebanon is essentially Syria’s bread basket. The key reason why the Syrian government and Hezbollah have such a cozy relationship is because Hezbollah controls the all-important Bekaa Valley. This supplies a lot of the food and water for Damascus and the surrounding area. A pro-Syrian government in Beirut will keep Syria fed and watered. The Israeli state knows this and this consideration often spurs Israeli military actions in southern Lebanon.

Even in the conflict in northern Iraq, particularly in Saddam Hussein’s war against the Kurds and the current war against the Islamic State, the primary considerations have little to do with oil. It’s much more to do with water. Northern Iraq is well known for its oil, especially around Kirkuk and Mosul. Less well highlighted is that it’s also here and southeastern Turkey that are the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The Iraqis, Islamic State and the Kurds know that whoever controls northern Iraq controls one of the largest areas of fresh water in the Middle East.

The slogan “No Blood for Oil” may have had merit in the 1990-1 Gulf War but has less validity today. In recent months the price of oil has plummeted despite the conflict in northern Iraq, Libya and Syria. Part of the reason is growing awareness of the negative impact of oil on the environment. It is also because the biggest importers of Middle Eastern oil – Japan, China and the United States – have began to look closer to home for their oil needs. This is because there is a growing weariness regarding the stability of the countries where they get their oil from. The insecurity of both oil supply and distribution in the Middle East and North Africa influences policy makers in Tokyo, Beijing and Washington DC. In addition, there is the growing use of oil revenues in countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya to fund terrorist organisations and radical Islamic clerics and mosques in France, Germany and elsewhere.

To a significant degree the ethnic, political and religious conflict in the Middle East and North Africa has been fought over who controls water supplies. That is, the oases, the rivers and fresh water lakes. That is because whoever controls these things also controls who gets the precious little arable lands, what livestock can be raised, what crops can be grown and who eats what. Food shortages caused by dwindling water supplies contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt. As mentioned, conflict over water and how it is distributed has been a leading cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tension over the state of water supplies and their impact on agriculture has created conflict in Niger,Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan.

To claim events in the Middle East are just to do with oil because its black gold to the developed world, is to ignore the fact that for masses of ordinary people in the Middle East and North Africa the real gold is often water. There is a reason why water is mentioned so much in the Qur’an, the Torah and the Bible. All three of these major holy books originated in an area where water was – and still is – a precious resource that dominates decision-making, wealth distribution and politics. If we are to develop a more effective analysis of what underpins geo-politics in these areas of the globe and how the average person is effected, we need to factor in this reality…water is power, water is life.