The cause of Middle East unrest is ostensibly political, but lack of water has a part to play, writes Peter Jones
Analysis of Syria’s appalling conflict and Egypt’s dreadful unrest concentrates on political factors – the desperation of a Syrian despot waging war on his own people in order to cling to power and Egypt’s religious/political divide which has poisoned the country’s fledgling democracy.
But what if there is a much more fundamental cause, one that won’t be fixed by getting rid of dictators and political settlements?
That cause could well be water, or rather the lack of it, worsened by climate change and global economic forces.
This, initially at least, sounds a rather far-fetched thesis. But it becomes much less so when you learn that in the month before Mohammed Morsi was ousted from the Egyptian presidency, he was talking about war against Ethiopia over water as, indeed, were a number of other Egyptian politicians. Such a war, regardless of who runs Egypt, looks pretty unlikely, if only because it could not be afforded.
But the talk is symptomatic of a crisis that has been slowly building over the past decade.
Hosni Mubarak was able to stay in dictatorial power for 30 years until he was deposed in 2011 not just because he had the backing of a powerful military and secret police. He also bribed the people with cheap fuel and food.
He paid for these subsidies (in 2010, $15 billion [£963.6bn]was spent on reducing the price of fuel, and $3bn on cutting food costs) from what the government earned from oil exports and taxes. In a country where about 40 per cent of its 85 million people earn less than $2 (£1.28) a day, these subsidies were highly important.
But two things upset the applecart. First, over the last ten years, Egypt’s oil production has fallen by about a quarter, while its oil consumption has risen to the point where it is now a net oil importer. This has cut the government’s earnings and its ability to subsidise fuel prices just at a time when global oil prices have risen sharply. So the government has had no option but to let fuel prices rise.
Second, Egypt’s rapidly growing population, up by about a fifth in the last decade, needs to be fed. The number of mouths to feed has long outstripped the country’s food production, making it dependent on world markets.
But these markets have been disrupted by droughts in North America, Russia and China, depressing crop yields. This caused global food prices to double in 2008, leading to food riots in Egypt, which Mubarak was able to suppress. World prices dipped in 2009 and 2010, but then surpassed 2008 levels in 2011. By then, Mubarak had nothing in the piggybank to appease the discontent, which combined with the Arab Spring political uprising against oppression to become unstoppable.
Morsi came into office promising to deal with these economic problems. He did nothing, indeed it is hard to see what he could have done. But having failed to deliver on his promise, the civil unrest returned. Some 22 million Egyptians are credibly believed to have signed a petition calling for his removal, far more than the 13 million who voted for him.
It is a pretty astounding reversal in a country where at least 80 per cent of the population are Muslim and he was not just the country’s first democratically-elected president, but also a Muslim president with a popular movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, behind him.
But expensive fuel and food are not the worst of Egypt’s problems. Water is. Some 95 per cent of Egypt’s water comes from the River Nile. A fifth of the river’s flow comes steadily from what we call the White Nile rising in the east African highlands of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo. The rest, including the great annual floods, comes from the Blue Nile, originating in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Droughts now periodically afflicting the entire region, cutting the Nile’s flows, render much of Egypt’s Nile flood-dependent farmland impossible to irrigate.
As about two-fifths of Egypt’s population depend on crop production for what yields, even in a good year, pretty miserable incomes, the problem is obvious and is yet another factor in the unrest which toppled Messrs Mubarak and Morsi.
Astonishingly, because of colonial-era treaties written by Britain, only Egypt and Sudan have had rights to abstract Nile water for irrigation and consumption. The upper Nile basin countries historically have had to ask permission of Egypt to take any Nile water flowing through their countries. Not surprisingly, they all think this is an absurd affront.
In 2011, Ethiopia started building what is called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, intended as a 6,000 megawatt hydro-electric project which, because of its location, is unusable for irrigation purposes and thus, says Ethiopia, won’t affect Nile flows in Egypt.
Egypt disagrees, arguing that during the three to five years it will take to fill the reservoir after completion in 2017, Nile flows will be cut by 20 per cent with disastrous consequences, not just for its farmers and food production, but also for its industry and people.
In June, Morsi gathered leading politicians to discuss this. Rather astoundingly, they forgot they were on live television and went on to discuss possible military action against the Ethiopian dam.
A few days later, Morsi was cheered to the echo by a crowd when he told them “all options are open” and that “if [the Nile] loses one drop, our blood is the alternative”.
Minus the dam, the same story of declining oil production, rising food and fuel prices, and drought can be told of Syria in the few years before the uprising against President Assad began.
Both Egypt and Syria are also amongst the 15 most water-poor countries in the world. Most of the rest are in the Middle East and North Africa, including Tunisia and Libya where the Arab Spring began.
Indeed, it is an arguable thesis that while the uprisings in the region were ostensibly political in nature, the more fundamental causes were oil and water shortages allied to fuel and food price rises.
But if the economic problems were to disappear, the water problem will remain and, with rising population numbers, will get worse. People can live with high-priced food and fuel, but they cannot survive without water.
Could we be seeing in the convulsions afflicting the Arab world the first ripples presaging a wave of water wars?