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Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Protesters display a huge Iraqi flag during a demonstration in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, on 13 August 2015. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

Iraq Conflict Alert

A wave of protests has brought Iraq to the edge of yet more serious conflict. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has introduced sweeping reforms to halt the deterioration but in a manner that may make things worse. An important course correction is needed if he is to survive politically and Iraq is to avoid what could become in effect a military takeover.

The country has seen protests over the systemic inadequacy of service delivery before, but this crisis lays bare two overriding problems: massive, deeply entrenched corruption and growing militarism heightened by the war against the Islamic State (IS). The power grid’s failure during extreme summer heat was the trigger that turned general discontent into anger about governance and the political class. An ineffectual effort to overcome the crisis and start addressing fundamental problems could turn that anger into fury, precipitating a breakdown of the post-2003 order.

The protests tie into an intra-elite power struggle that opposes the prime minister, a year in office, to Iran-backed Shiite militia commanders whose credibility has been burnished by the war against IS and who seek to capitalise on popular disenchantment to assert control.

In tackling simultaneously the two most pressing problems, Abadi appears to have the support of the marjaiya, the Shiite religious leadership. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s 7 August call on him to institute overdue reforms amounts to an instruction and political cover. But the street’s explosive, anti-establishment mood could easily benefit Shiite militias claiming to be a radical alternative – even if several commanders are former officials with an abysmal government record.

Abadi is fighting a difficult two-front battle: against a political class whose failings brought the crisis but with which he is associated and whose support he can assume only if his reforms promise to change little; and against adroit, emerging challengers whose ambitions are backed by considerable resources and recently acquired legitimacy. The way he introduces change is critical.

The Shiite political leadership saw its legitimacy plunge over the past year, as it proved impotent against IS’s takeover of Sunni-populated areas. Those standing up to the threat were Shiite militias organised under the “popular mobilisation” umbrella to defend Baghdad and Shiite holy sites. Their success in partially pushing back IS resonated with unemployed young Shiites, who could measure that against the shortcomings of politicians locked within the Green Zone. Devoid of conventional prospects and in many cases even basic education, many joined the militias as the only way to have an income. Many are now in the forefront of the demonstrations.

The past year’s events opened a rift among Shiite forces. Militias with strong Iranian ties, such as the Badr Brigade, the League of the Sons of the Righteous and (Iraqi) Hizbollah, benefited the most, owing to a plentiful supply of weapons and military advice. Their commanders, especially Badr’s Hadi al-Ameri and the League’s Qais al-Khazali, became military heroes, their portraits prominent in Baghdad’s central districts, while commentators in social media began referring to leading politicians, including Abadi, derogatorily as inbitahi (“inert”). Some senior members (including Abadi’s predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki) of established parties – al-Daawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Moqtada al-Sadr’s al-Ahrar list – aligned with the militias to recover credibility.

Already in July, Khazali called for replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one that would empower Iran-friendly figures, such as President Fuad Masoum and Maliki (now vice president), at the expense of the prime minister and legislature.

In Basra, the League used protests against electricity shortages and criticism of local officials to delegitimise provincial institutions, providing impetus for the protests to spread throughout the south and into Baghdad and threaten the political and religious establishment. Sistani extended his support to Abadi and called on him for major reforms in an attempt to change the course of events. This compelled even militia commanders and their allies to declare support for the reform program but also put it on Abadi to get results.

The absence of a clear plan is glaring, but other deficiencies could also scuttle the reform. Abadi has reduced his government’s size by scrapping some ministries, merging others and cancelling multiple deputy prime minister and vice president posts; he has also reduced ministry advisers and ministers’ bodyguards and created committees to select candidates for senior positions on merit and review officials’ salaries and benefits.

The package appears to tackle corruption and senior appointments based on party affiliation or ethnic/sectarian grounds. Yet, implementation repeats old unhelpful patterns. Abadi announced reforms frenetically to show real change, but they lacked a framework, criteria for decisions, a timeframe, and implementing agencies and procedures. With so much unclear, the public sector’s mid and upper ranks, where nepotism is most deeply rooted, have started to shift loyalty toward the militias to save their jobs.

Another troubling aspect is the decision to shun consultations with political blocs that are mistrustful and reluctant to surrender important positions both nationally and provincially. This risks alienating the support he needs to make substantive cuts. In the provinces, reforms have affected only the appendages of the petty-patronage network, mid-level local officials. In Baghdad, apart from the cancellation of the vice president and deputy prime minister posts, reform has been limited to statements and nominal threats about dismissal of controversial figures and representatives of minority groups whose departure would buy time. Disconnect with the political blocs prevents substantial achievement.

Abadi also risks his endeavour by putting it on shaky constitutional ground. Rushing to regain the street’s favour, he launched it partly outside the constitution, cancelling the vice presidents’ posts, for example, without legal power to do so. This sets a precedent that could be overturned by the Supreme Court and exploited by political rivals to remove him.

Abadi has raised expectations of a deeply impatient public. Failure to meet them would play into militia commanders’ hands. They and their allies do not want to openly defy Sistani, but if street dissatisfaction peaks again, they will be ready to sow chaos, especially in southern provinces where frustration grows daily. Militia members in the protests could spark clashes with police or popular mobilisation branches affiliated with other Shiite groups lacking equal Iranian support, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades. If popular anger explodes, those on the militias’ side could denounce existing institutions as obsolete and, on the pretext of reestablishing order, use military superiority to impose their rule.

Abadi needs to display consummate political skill. Rather than unilaterally rushing through dramatic changes that challenge the legal order, he should work with his political partners to put forward a clear, realistic plan that reinforces that order, using Sistani’s support to manage expectations and mitigate the street’s impatience. In particular, he should build on unprecedented, but temporary parliament and council of ministers support to introduce a new, non-sectarian brand of politics and governance with the following elements:

  • A concerted effort with parliament to pass or revise implementing legislation for key constitutional articles, whose absence or inadequacy has blocked a workable government system for a decade. It should prioritise reversing party control of state institutions and reviving parliament’s role in national and provincial affairs. This requires a political parties law regulating activities, duties and funding; revision of the provincial powers law to define relations between central and provincial governments and give parliament more oversight of provincial officials; a law delineating the role of the security forces, including police and army, and addressing militias’ status; and regulating employment procedures in all ministries to ensure fair, non-partisan competition.
     
  • Close cooperation with his political partners to effect the cancellation of senior government posts without a major backlash. Particularly the Shiite political blocs need to calculate that compromise on senior posts is the ticket to longevity and influence. Recognising the difficulty in removing his own and allied parties’ corrupt officials, Abadi should instead set the tone for governance going forward, making clear corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated from anyone, and instructing police and judiciary to act against offenders regardless of political affiliation.
     
  • Use of external support to gain time needed for results. Years of state dysfunction cannot be surmounted in a few weeks or months. Abadi already has help from an actor (Sistani) who could persuade protesters to be patient. Western governments, particularly the U.S., should openly declare support of a prime minister they helped install and of the reform effort, so as to preserve and strengthen the political process and institutions they have invested in. Abadi should reach out to Iran, which has an interest in protecting Iraqi territorial integrity that is under threat from militias Tehran empowers but whose actions foster centrifugal forces, in effect partition.
     
  • The Baghdad political elite can save itself only if it changes its ways meaningfully. This requires rooting out the corruption that has kept many in power regardless of competence, and reinforcing the many institutions that have become empty shells.

If the current reforms prove little more than window-dressing, they will mean the end of the political life of the prime minister and large portions of the political class. In their place, militia commanders would ride popular anger and military supremacy to power. There are many precedents in Iraq’s history. It was, after all, only a year ago that IS used Sunni anger and a lightening military strike to impose repressive rule in large parts of the country.

Baghdad/Brussels

The Royal Engineers Boat Group, a British military unit, patrols the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq in October 2006. FLICKR/David Axe

Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa

In a keynote speech for the World Water Week in Stockholm on 28 August 2016, our MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann assesses the role of water in Middle East conflicts – even, potentially, when used in the cultivation of Yemen’s beloved stimulant, qat.

I want to thank the organisers – AGWA, the Rockefeller Foundation, SIWI and UNESCO-IHP – for inviting me to speak here today, and in particular Anders Jägerskog of SIDA at the Swedish Embassy in Amman for his support.

I head the Middle East & North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. In that capacity I have asked myself at times: Why haven’t we worked on water and conflict in the region I cover? Aren’t there plenty of reasons to do so? Indeed, conflict over water was practically invented in the Middle East. I’m going to do something now that I don’t often do: I’m going to quote from the Bible. It’s Sunday, after all.

This is from Genesis:

“Isaac’s servants also dug in the Gerar Valley and discovered a well of fresh water. But then the shepherds from Gerar came and claimed the spring. ‘This is our water’, they said, and they argued over it with Isaac’s herdsmen. So Isaac named the well Esek (which means ‘argument’). Isaac’s men then dug another well, but again there was a dispute over it. So Isaac named it Sitnah (which means ‘hostility’). Abandoning that one, Isaac moved on and dug another well. This time there was no dispute over it, so Isaac named the place Rehoboth (which means ‘open space’), for he said, ‘At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land’”.

Well, dream on, I say! There appear to be no open spaces left in the Middle East, and “argument” and “hostility” have become the name of the game.

Instead of a sermon, though, I’m going to say a few things about how water relates to the potential for conflict. As an organisation, we have focused on the drivers of, and actors in, “hot” conflict, of which we have plenty in the region right now: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, always Palestine/Israel, and others. This distracts from the important underlying, longer-term issues that require attention, such as pressures on water resources. One can find examples of disputes over water triggering a “hot” war, but not many, at least not in recent times. The obvious one that comes to mind is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the fight over access to the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway that is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they flow toward the …eh… Persian Gulf? Arab Gulf? You see, there is another problem right there. Let’s just say “the Gulf,” and agree that we all know what we’re talking about.

But other than that war (about which more in a minute), I can’t cite any recent examples. Yet once we take a closer look at the water question, we find interesting things. There is a very good piece in a recent issue of Middle East Report that discusses developments in a place called Wadi Barada in Syria and how these relate to the 2011 popular uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad. It turns out that the fact that the river that runs through Wadi Barada dried up in the mid-1990s was a key contributing factor to why that area of the country joined the uprising. It’s clear from this example that any student or activist interested in the relationship between water and conflict would do well to pay close attention to developments such as these well before they lead to violent conflict. More about Wadi Barada in a moment.

What I have learned from my little research before this conference is that, broadly speaking, there are three categories of water and conflict: conflicts over access to water, conflicts over the allocation of water, and the use of water as a weapon in conflict. I will give examples of each, but let me first give some general characteristics about these three categories: (1) issues of access, allocation, and use as weapon can occur in internal and in cross-border situations (the term “transboundary” can denote both internal and cross-border); (2) they can be a cause, a contributing factor, or a pretext for armed conflict; and (3) they can be aggravated by weak governance resulting in poor water management. The question of state policy is important in all cases.

First, access. Conflicts over access usually concern a body of water or a water basin, and are made worse if they have a transboundary dimension. Let’s take another look at the example of the Shatt al-Arab. Access to this waterway has long been a matter of dispute between Iran and Iraq. To Iraq, the river provides critical access to the Gulf; it’s almost existential. To Iran, which has a long coast line on the Gulf, the matter is different, but because it has cities with major oil facilities on the Shatt it needs the river for transportation. Iraq had exclusive access to the Shatt in the early 1970s when Iran, for a number of reasons – of which access to the Shatt was one – began supporting Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in order to press the Iraqi government to make concessions. Which it did: in 1975 the Shah and Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement, in which they undertook to share the Shatt by dividing it along the thalweg, the line connecting the river’s lowest points.

In 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran by crossing the Shatt into Khuzestan. Saddam wanted to take advantage of post-revolution disarray in Tehran to deal the regime a setback or even bring it to collapse. The issue of the Shatt was merely one of a number of grievances Iraq had vis-à-vis Iran, but Saddam mentioned it as the primary casus belli. It was clearly a pretext for the invasion, not the main reason. (During the war, the Shatt was unnavigable; afterward it was again shared, if uneasily, between the two protagonists.)

So the Iran-Iraq war example offers the following: a conflict at least partly over access to a vital waterway; a combination of cause, contributing factor, and pretext, but arguably mainly the latter; a transboundary/international conflict; and instead of weak governance the actions of two autocratic governments that had little political will and limited capacity to establish mechanisms for resolving disputes.

Second, allocation. Here I go back to the example of the Wadi Barada, which is located between Damascus and the border with Lebanon. Because of the exponential growth of the capital in recent decades, including in the direction of Lebanon in the form of large housing estates for army officers and Alawite and Druze elites, water was diverted from the spring that fed the river flowing through the Wadi Barada in order to provide drinking water for the expanding population, and by the mid-1990s the river had dried up. Perhaps no surprise, therefore, that when protests broke out in southern Syria in the spring of 2011, the people of Wadi Barada quickly joined in, giving voice to their own specific grievances. Their main demands on the government were: (1) restore the river; (2) give access to clean drinking water; and (3) provide fair compensation for the agricultural lands expropriated in the 1970s and 1980s.

The plight of these locals was the direct result of state policies: discriminatory water allocation by an autocratic state and land expropriation, without redress (in the absence of an independent judiciary). After government negotiators met with representatives of the area, they made certain promises, but then nothing happened, the protests continued, and soon government forces came to suppress them. The result was an active and violent revolt, in tune with what was going on elsewhere in Syria, but in the case of Wadi Barada specifically because of what had happened earlier with the land expropriations and water diversion. Discriminatory water allocation therefore was an important contributing factor to the uprising in that part of Syria.

Third, as weapon. I’m not about to throw this bottle of water at you, but … the threat to unleash water collected behind a dam on a city can be quite powerful. The Iraqi regime feared Iran might be planning something along these lines when the latter invaded northern Iraq in the last year of the war, in 1988, aiming for the Darbandikhan dam that sits on the Diyala river; opening it could have flooded Baghdad downstream. Likewise, the Mosul dam became a strategic asset in 2014 after the Islamic State overran Iraqi government positions and captured Mosul and surroundings in June 2014. The risk of waters being unleashed and submerging Mosul threatened to turn a river into a weapon of war. (There has also been a risk of the dam’s collapse as a result of structural faults and lack of maintenance.)

So what is to be done? It is clear that those involved in conflict prevention need to take a closer look at the predictors of deadly conflict when it concerns water disputes:

Firstly, look more closely at disputes over access to water, water allocation, and the potential use of water as a weapon, and assess how they are being managed, by what mechanisms, by what degree of governance, what the recourse is, and so on.

Secondly, analyse the strength and adaptability of institutions and processes of transboundary water management and dispute resolution between riparian governments: how robust are these? Could they break down? How and when?

Thirdly, in times of conflict and crisis: Determine how to achieve water management despite such adverse conditions, and include it as an essential element of a peace settlement and post-conflict peace building.

That’s the agenda we face. Now I’ll end with a short anecdote. Some years ago, I was in Sanaa, and one of the meetings we had was with the minister of water, a very smart and engaging man, who for an hour related to us the difficulties of stamping out the culture of qat chewing, with qat being the kind of rather useless agricultural product whose cultivation was nevertheless consuming inordinate amounts of water. It was getting to be close to 2pm, however, and so rather late in the ministry’s working day, and the minister made it clear that the meeting was over, and it was time for him to hasten home … and preside over his afternoon qat chew.

Cultural habits are deeply ingrained. The misallocation of water for qat production in Yemen is going to run up against more pressing needs for water, and will trigger conflict sooner or later. The current war is not over water, but when it is ended – and let’s hope that moment will come soon – it will be incumbent on policymakers to tackle the knotty qat question, lest Yemen find itself in a Wadi Barada-type of situation sometime down the line.

Thank you.