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Mideast Wars Over Water Coming, UN Warns

by Mithre J. Sandrasagra

The Politics of Water
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- Deadly conflicts could erupt around the globe, and especially in the Middle East, over access to water if people are not careful with the precious resource, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned.

"In this new century, water, its sanitation, and its equitable distribution pose great social challenges for our world," Annan said March 22 on the occasion of World Water Day 2001.

The difficulties in achieving full access to safe water and adequate sanitation are compounded by increasing competition for scarce water resources in most countries of the region, according to the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), based in Beirut, Lebanon.

"There are many countries that are today in distress when it comes to water...drinking water is going to be a serious problem," Annan stressed.

More than one billion people lack access to a safe water supply, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report released today.

Forty percent of the human race, some 2.4 billion people, lack adequate sanitation and 3.4 million die every year of water-related diseases, said the WHO report entitled "Water for Health: Taking Charge."

Polluted water affects the health of 1.2 billion people yearly, and contributes to the deaths of 15 million children under age five, Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) said.

Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, kill another 1.5 to 2.7 million people per year, with inadequate water management a key cause of such diseases, said UNEP's Global Environment Outlook Report 2000.

"These disease outbreaks create widening circles of misery, illness and death with dire economic and social impacts for the people concerned," Toepfer emphasized.

Annan emphasized that those most affected by water shortages rank among the poorest in the world -- as well as the least healthy. "In fact, the absence of a safe water supply contributes to an estimated 80 percent of disease and death in the developing world," Annan stressed.

"History provides grim reminders that failure to manage our water resources properly has caused the end of civilizations," Toepfer said, pointing to the fall of the Mesopotamian civilization in what is now Iraq and Iran and the Aksum empire in what is modern Ethiopia.

"If we solve every other problem in the Middle East but do not satisfactorily solve the water problem, our region will explode," the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a water engineer, once said.

Indeed Israeli officials recently raised the specter of a "water war" with Lebanon as Lebanese villages prepare to pump water from the Hasbani River which flows through both countries.

"Nobody heard me say wars break out over water, but factually that is correct," Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's hardline minister for infrastructure, told The Financial Times, hinting at the prospect of military action if Lebanon began pumping Hasbani water.

Syria and Iraq embrace the cause of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan in the bloody rebellion he set in motion against Turkish rule as a way of applying pressure on Turkey to release more water into the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which are held back by a series of dams in Turkey's southeastern provinces.

Ocalan was given money, arms and political cover though both Syria and Iraq have fiercely repressed their own Kurdish populations.

Stressing that water is a "major security issue," ESCWA emphasized that "water scarcity continues to be and will remain through the near future a leading concern for all water consuming sectors."

Seven of the 13 ESCWA member states are among the world's poorest countries in water, with per capita water shares of less than 500 cubic meters per year.

According to ESCWA, though progress has been made in urban areas, rural communities are still inadequately served, in terms of both quantity and quality of drinking water as well as sanitation facilities.

In some ESCWA countries -- including Iraq and Syria -- less than 50 percent of the rural population has safe drinking water and less than 20 percent have adequate sanitation.

"Countries that control water are likely to be the big winners of the future," former Senator Paul Simon wrote in a new book entitled "Tapped Out," which examines global water problems. "The world's population will double in the next 40 to 90 years, Simon said, "our water supply, however, is constant."

ESCWA reiterating the UN Secretary-General's Millennium Report urged member states today to renew their commitments to reduce by half, between now and 2015, the proportion of people who lack sustainable access to adequate sources of affordable and safe water.

"Safe, clean water for drinking and sanitation is simply the fundamental condition for bettering the human lot," Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization pointed out.

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Albion Monitor April 9, 2001 (

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