Where There's Water, There's Fire

Brian Hicks

Updated August 8, 2006

The last time I headed to the Middle East during the summer, my ever-cautious mother asked me if I packed my raincoat. "No," I answered, "It doesn’t rain there in summertime." No one knows this better than the residents of southern Lebanon, whose precious Litani River is about to resume its longtime role as a territorial boundary and resource rope in a regional tug-o-war.

Oil, of course, is the liquid supply on most people’s minds these days. It has a price, it is available in a fixed amount that can only be drawn from certain locales, and it is the most important element in the rise of national power since World War II.

But you can’t drink oil. Water will get you through the desert after your Abrams tank or Land Rover breaks down. As long as you can find it, that is.

This March, the fourth World Water Forum convened in Mexico City. World leaders used the event to discuss the needs and abilities of states and populations to keep their throats moist with clean, plentiful H2O. However, the mood was bleak.

Since the first forum ended in 1999, the Japanese representative said that there had been little real progress made. The United Nations Environment Agency forecasts that 3 billion people will be short of water within fifty years, and 1 billion people already are.

But in the context of regional skirmishes, collaboration often falls by the wayside as lubrication becomes a casus belli (grounds for war). In the conflict between Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups in the Indian Ocean nation of Sri Lanka, some 425 people have been killed in direct fighting over control of the Maavilaru waterway. Recently, the Tamil Tiger militia dammed Maavilaru water as a way of breaking down residents of the government-allied area around Trincomalee.

On Tuesday, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) did reopen the sluice gates of the Maavilaru canal, but as the area is heavily mined it will be difficult for villagers to gain direct access to slake their thirst.

Litani Again

In 1978, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Litani, named after the only river whose length runs entirely within Lebanese borders. That invasion successfully removed Palestine Liberation Organization forces from the area, while using the Litani as the line of demarcation until Israeli withdrawal in 2000.

Tuesday saw the Israeli military establishment’s announcement that ground operations in Lebanon would be expanded some 20 kilometers into Lebanon, where the Litani will again serve as the northern end of a "buffer zone" to be held by the IDF and until a UN peacekeeping force is deployed there.

Many in the Arab world, however, know the significance and paucity of water in the region, and suspect Israel of using the Litani not as an operational boundary but rather as a resource drain on a weakened post-war Lebanon.

The rhetoric surrounding rivers in Lebanon and around the world is quite strong. Following the 2000 Israeli withdrawal, Lebanon resumed control of the Hasbani River, whose tributary the Wazzani combines with it to provide 20-25% of the water that flows into the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake).

In 2002, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pointed to Lebanon’s resumption of pumping from the Hasbani not as Lebanese proper use but as "diversion" from Israeli supply, also calling that action a casus belli. The Lebanese official in charge of the project opined to the contrary, "This is the first step towards liberating our water, a symbol of sovereignty and simple rights."

So just as people can be a cause for liberation, so can water.

We must wait and see if the final settlement on Lebanese territory will include Israeli access to Litani liquid. Combined with Israeli control of the high ground of the Golan Heights, conquered from Syria in 1967’s Six-Day War and now providing 1/3 of Israel’s water, any decision to assign flowing streams to one belligerent party or the other is likely to result in further tension and warfare as scarcity of supply worsens.

As with world hydrocarbon supply, we must be careful not to let our water focus fixate solely on the Middle East. Water is an issue everywhere it flows, especially where the thirst is great.

And no place is thirstier than China.

Hey, you’re not gonna use that, are you?

The recent completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway will allow greater than ever movement of people and goods between far-western China and the more heavily populated coastal East. The watershed around massive cities like Beijing and Shanghai is dwindling as the population explodes into comsumptive lifestyles.

And western cities like Xining, Qinghai Province, where I spent a month last summer, are booming with even less water at their disposal.

We know about China’s appetite for steel, copper, oil, and all things industrial. But with western-style toilets (as opposed to still-common waterless outhouses) in all of these new buildings, secure and sanitized water supply is a hot-button issue.

According to Chinese officials, Tibet’s water is "under-used." So, about four billion cubic meters of water will be transferred from that area each year. This is approximately equivalent to California’s primary water transfer plan. But it doesn’t end there – within decades, the diversion infrastructure will move 17 billion cubic meters annually.

As governments use sluices to shuffle and move water uphill, they will face an uphill political battle as well. The globalized economy has made many things cheaper and more accessible, but in many cases it has failed to equalize access to the most precious stuff of life.

As the century progresses, we may well see a commoditization of water, turning it into a priced item just like oil. Then we’ll really see what a water war looks like.

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