The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] In Iraq, Water and Oil Do Mix

May 16, 2003
Water Woes
In Iraq, Water and Oil Do Mix

Conspicuously missing from the ubiquitous Iraq war critique was the subtle agenda of water rights 
in the parched Middle East region. Of all the reasons for invading Iraq, securing water rights was 
never mentioned because it implicates too many countries with volatile connections to Iraq, like 
Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Israel. Protest signs read, "No Blood For Oil," as American corporations 
salivated in line for the opportunity to win contracts to rebuild the ravaged infrastructure. Why 
did no antiwar protesters carry signs saying, "No War for Water"? They should have.

The current litany of reasons for invading or threatening to invade countries pertains to 
terrorism, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and undemocratic, fundamentalist regimes. 
These reasons are particularized and specific, and keep the world guessing where the United States 
will launch its next attack. With an explicit agenda for controlling water in the Middle East, 
however, the roadmap for regime change and regional control would become transparent and 

A land of displaced people and destroyed ecosystems, the once thriving marshland area of southern 
Iraq was home to hundreds of thousands of marsh Arabs who had sustained a 5,000 year-old culture 
until the ancient life-giving waters were drained and dammed by the recently-toppled Saddam Hussein 
government as well as by other riparian states. Truly Saddam created a catastrophic situation by 
redirecting the water and razing marsh Arab villages. Yet aside from the apparent ecological and 
humanitarian crisis pertaining to the area, why is the project of rehydrating the marshlands so 
urgently important for American interests?

A World Bank webcast in May 2001 quotes Jean-Louis Sarbib, Vice President of the World Bank's 
Middle East and North Africa Region, as saying that the CIA had identified water as one of the key 
issues of the 21st century. Water is a pressing issue in the Middle East which, like the sparse 
underground aquifers, stays beneath the surface. With 45 million people in the Middle East not 
having access to drinking water and 80 million not having access to sanitation, Sarbib's commentary 
is an understatement.

Jeffrey Rothfeder, author of explained in an article to the Boston Globe in January 2002 that "a 
freshwater crisis has already begun that threatens to leave much of the world dry in the next 
twenty years. One-third of the world's population is starved for water. In Israel, extraction has 
surpassed replacement by 2.5 billion meters in the last 25 years. There are 250 million new cases 
of water-related diseases annually, chiefly cholera and dysentery, and ten million deaths. What's 
more, vital regions are destabilized as contending countries dispute who controls limited water 

Rothfeder, quoting another World Bank official, former Vice President Ismail Serageldin, reminded 
readers that "the next world war will be over water."

Undercurrent of Water Politics

The dialogue about access to clean water is commonplace in peace talks throughout the Middle East, 
but Western diplomats rarely broach the topic. An anonymous U.S. State Department official quoted 
in National Geographic said, "people outside the region tend not to hear about the issue (of 
water). It just doesn't make the news." By design, not by accident, this issue is obscured from 
Western eyes because the propaganda machinery from Washington, DC has not allowed it. Although 
water is at the top of the list in negotiations between Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Palestine 
and Iraq,

Only the region's countries, the riparian states of Syria, Turkey and Iraq themselves have directly 
conferred on the issue of sharing the water of the Tigris and Euphrates. The United States cannot 
dictate water usage as a formal part of its foreign policy, or even legitimate the crisis 
surrounding clean water, in part because of its wholly unsustainable practices, and in part because 
a straightforward concession on the issue of dwindling water supplies would mean an complete 
overhaul of global diplomatic relations with a new emphasis on aquatic vulnerability.

Published after the 9-11 terrorist attacks but prior to the recent war on Iraq, Peaceful Uses of 
International Rivers: The Euphrates and Tigris Dispute written by water rights expert Hilal Elver 
outlines the hydrohistory of the Fertile Crescent as well as the present challenges to settling the 
disputes between countries vying for water access in the 21st century. She notes that the "last 
trilateral meeting of the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi technical committee was concluded in Damascus 
in 1996" with Iraq still under the United Nations-imposed sanctions regime which severely hindered 
international diplomatic relations. With the United States effectively in control of Iraqi politics 
and lobbying for the removal of the sanctions, presumably negotiations between the three nations 
will resume with respect to shared water issues.

According to Thomas Naff, a professor of Middle East History at Pennsylvania State University, the 
Tigris and Euphrates rivers which provide Iraq with nearly 100% of its water "depend essentially on 
agreements with Turkey" where both rivers originate. Turkey disagrees over quotas to meet Syria and 
Iraq's minimum requirements for what would be the natural flow of the water and what would provide 
their people with adequate access to those resources, claiming that Syria and Iraq take more than 
their allotted amount of water from the rivers as compared to how much each country contributes to 
the rivers' flows.

Thus Turkey began constructing a major series of dams to control the waters of the Tigris and 
Euphrates and flex their regional muscle. The Southeast Anatolia Project consists of 15 dams, 14 
hydroelectric stations and 19 irrigation projects. Maybe to prove its capacity for controlling 
Syria's and Iraq's access to the life-sustaining waters of the two rivers or maybe just to fill the 
largest of the Project's dams, Turkey cut off the water flow for 29 days in 1990. The point of 
potable prowess was well taken, and Iraq and Syria effectively tabled their mutual disagreements 
and colluded in 1998 to resist the construction of the Southeast Anatolia Project in Turkey. In the 
close quarters of Middle East politics, shared water resources often make for temperamental 

Closely tied to the disputes surrounding Iraq and Syria's water supply is the proximity to Israel. 
Syria faces water difficulties on its southwestern border as well in the water-rich area of the 
Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. The Golan Heights has important water resources that, 
according to Professor Emeritus Dan Zaslavsky at Bar-Ilan University, if handed back over to Syria 
would mean that Israel loses nearly one-third of its fresh water.

On May 7, 2003 Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Bouthaina Shabaan of Syria to reaffirm the 
United States' commitment to returning the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, as a key 
step in the peace process between Syria and Israel.

Should the U.S. broker a peace plan that guaranteed the Golan to Syria, Israel would have to find a 
replacement source for its lost resources. Stephen Pelletiere, a former CIA analyst, wrote in the 
New York Times that Turkey had envisioned building a Peace Pipeline carrying water that would 
extend to the southern Gulf States, and as he sees it, "by extension to Israel." He continued by 
saying that "no progress has been made on this, largely because of Iraqi intransigence. With Iraq 
in American hands, of course, all that could change."

The assumptions about pan-Arab unity seem to dissolve when talking about the scarce commodity of 
water, especially when the two of the countries commanding control over the resources are also 
recipients of large amounts of financial and military aid from the United States: Turkey and 
Israel. This cosmetic overture to feign regional fairness and non-partiality toward Israel in 
returning the Golan Heights to Syria does not mask the fact that the United States has strategic 
goals to control water and oil supplies in the Middle East. The continued destruction of 
Palestinian homes and agribusiness by Israeli settlers is second only to continued U.S. aggression 
toward Iraqis via sanctions and wars, inciting and exacerbating global disgust at perceived 
American imperialism and anti-Arab, anti-Islamic policies. These sentiments contribute to the 
ongoing worldwide terrorist threats, which in turn propels the United States foreign policy to 
search and destroy any would-be terrorists and lending encouragement for further invasions in 
"uncooperative" countries like those listed as the Axis of Evil.

The Dammed Water Problem

While the regional water issues have been obscured, to some extent the poor condition of water in 
Iraq is no new news.

Professor Thomas Nagy of George Washington University unloaded a massive compilation of U.S. 
Government documents from 1990-1991 that showed in no uncertain terms the malevolent intent to 
target sites of vital civilian importance in the first Gulf War. In an expose entitled "The Secret 
Behind the Sanctions" Nagy cites macabre foreknowledge of the effects of bombing water purification 
and sewage treatment facilities which provide clean water to the Iraqi people. Moreover, these 
documents detail how the economic sanctions, imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, would 
crescendo the effects of the bombings by banning items like water chlorinators and spare parts to 
rebuild the obliterated infrastructure, claiming that they could serve "dual use" purposes in 
making weapons of mass destruction.

The result has been pandemic waterborne illnesses that have targeted the most vulnerable people in 
Iraqi society the children. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 children under age 5 have died 
every month as a result of preventable illnesses such as cholera and dysentery. Because electrical 
facilities were also targeted in the first Gulf War, vaccinations needing refrigeration (which 
requires electricity or functioning generators) spoiled, and several generations of children in 
Iraq have not been inoculated for illnesses which had been completely controlled under the 
socialist, secular Iraqi government which once provided its citizens with comprehensive, free 
medical care.

It is safe to address topics like waterways contaminated by sewage in Iraq because most of the 
dialogue on impure water centers on the immorality of targeting civilian infrastructure. It is 
dangerous to talk about the scarcity of water in the region because less dialogue covers the most 
pressing issue: regional instability intensifying as a result of growing population rates and 
diminishing water supplies. The United States is testing the waters of hydropolitics by starting to 
acknowledge the shortage of water in the marshlands of Iraq. Missing from the critique of U.S. 
foreign policy in the region is a dialogue on regional and global sustainability, to the advantage 
of American interests.

In justifying the recent invasion, we heard history about Saddam gassing his own people, the Kurds, 
developing and hiding weapons of mass destruction, displacing the marsh Arabs and ruining their 
land, and leading a torturous repressive regime that deprived Iraqi people from democracy and 
self-governance and led them to the deplorable conditions they now live in.

The U.S. Department of State lists an interview with Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-born engineer and 
environmental activist, who explained that the Iraqi government diverted water by building canals 
and dams for many reasons. One was to catch soldiers fleeing the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980's, 
and another was to punish the Shi'a people who, doing as the United States had told them to do at 
the end of the first Gulf War, led an uprising against the central Iraqi government and were 
abandoned by the U.S. military and forcefully put down by Saddam's military.

Alwash describes three different systems that Saddam's regime used for redirecting the water away 
from the marshlands, claiming that even in the early 1990's when dams in Turkey and Syria were 
built to harness hydroelectric energy and retain water for their countries' usage, the marshlands 
of Iraq were vibrant and thriving. He maintains that it was exclusively the malicious dehydration 
campaign led by Saddam which ruined the marshlands and displaced or killed between 100,000 and 
500,000 Marsh Arabs, draining 60% of the marshes between 1990-1994.

Interestingly enough, draining the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers what the 
United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) calls "one of the world's greatest environmental 
disasters" was done under the auspices of the sanctions and the watchful eye of the southern 
No-Fly-Zone, patrolled by Great Britain, the United States and, for some time, France. The 
No-Fly-Zones were established in 1992 to protect the Kurdish people in the north and the Shi'a 
people in the south from Saddam's regime. These minority groups have received targeted repression 
and mistreatment, and the No-Fly-Zones were supposed to inhibit Saddam's power to further oppress 

"We watched it happen," said Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne at a forum on the marshlands 
at the Brookings Institution on May 7. "We had the power, the knowledge and the responsibility and 
we did nothing." Undoubtedly, the long arms of Baghdad were able to reach to the southern 
marshlands despite the sanctions and the No-Fly-Zones, and wreak havoc on the indigenous people as 
well as the landscape.

For the past twelve years while Iraqis were unable to import pencils because they contained 
graphite, blood bags because they contained anti-coagulants and cleaning supplies, because the 
Sanctions Committee 661 asserted that some parts could be used in making weapons of mass 
destruction, the government of Iraq was able to bring in materials and massive equipment to 
construct dams which rerouted the marshland waters and wrought misery on the Madan.

Inundated by Foreign Interests

One of the many claims of barbarism on the part of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist regime is 
displacing hundreds of thousands of Madan, or Marsh Arabs, and draining the legendary swamps where 
millennia-old culture had been practiced and preserved. In post-war Iraq, the United States has 
assumed the responsibility of restoring these marshlands. The United States Agency for 
International Development (USAID) has been a vocal proponent of bringing water to the arid 
landscape, addressing the humanitarian needs of the remaining Marsh Arabs, and fixing the 
ecological crisis which, according to the UNEP, has vanished about 90% of the 20,000 square 
kilometers of Iraq's marshlands.

While addressing the marshland concerns attempts to smooth over twelve-year-old political rifts 
between the American administrators now governing Iraq and the displaced Madan people, it seems 
somewhat odd that such a relatively isolated minority of the Iraqi population would receive such 
attention and consideration so immediately after the war, especially since the Madan are Shi'a, a 
population that has largely rejected the occupying American forces and has rejoiced at the return 
of Islamic leaders from exile to Iraq.

And yet, American interests are moving forward swiftly.

Bechtel, an American firm with a controversial history of water privatization, who won the largest 
contract from USAID to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, is set to be a major player in the process 
with a contract worth $680 million. Bechtel's history speaks for itself.

Blue Gold, a book exposing global control of water by private corporations, listed Bechtel in the 
second tier of ten powerful companies who profit from water privatization. According to Corpwatch, 
two years ago current USAID administrator Andrew Natsios was working for Bechtel as the chairman of 
the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, a massive transportation project in Boston whose cost has 
inflated exponentially in the billions of dollars. While providing political disclaimers on its 
website as a result of investigative reporting centering on the close relationship between 
government and private business, Bechtel certainly will benefit from its positioning as the sole 
contractor for municipal water and sanitation services as well as irrigation systems in Iraq.

Vandana Shiva also implicates Bechtel in attempting to control not only the process of rebuilding 
Iraq's infrastructure, but also control over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers themselves. Bechtel 
has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Bolivia for their plan to privatize the water there, which 
would drastically rise the cost of clean water for the poorest people in the country. To control 
the water in the Middle East, Bechtel and its fiscal sponsors, the United States government, would 
have to pursue both Syria and Turkey, either militarily or diplomatically. Syria has already felt 
pressure from the United States over issues of harboring Iraqi exiles on the U.S.'s "most wanted" 
list, as well as over issues of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

It is not stretch of the imagination that a company like Bechtel with a history of privatization 
would have its sights set on water in the Middle East, starting with their lucrative deal in Iraq. 
However, the United States is not positioned to enter a new phase of global geopolitics where 
water, a limited vital resource that every human needs, is the hottest commodity and where American 
corporations like Bechtel have not already capitalized on the opportunity to obtain exclusive 
vending rights.

Devoting attention to restoring the marshes clearly serves U.S. businesses and corporations who 
have control over which areas of the marshes get restored, and which ones get tapped for their rich 
oil resources. Control of the marshlands by the U.S.-led interim government and by the American 
corporations who have won reconstruction contracts is crucial in deciding where new oil speculation 
will take place. If only a percentage 25% according to experts on a Brookings Institution panel on 
marshland reconstruction can be restored, then it would behoove those working on issues of oil and 
water not to rehydrate areas where such oil speculation will likely take place.

Water is vital to the production of oil as well; one barrel of water is required to produce one 
barrel of oil. Bechtel and Halliburton, who received a U.S. Army contract to rebuild the damaged 
oil industry which will likely reach $600 million, are the two most strategically-positioned 
corporations to control both the water and oil industries in Iraq.

Yet this ruse of generous reconstruction and concern seems both an unlikely and peculiar response 
after a less-than-philanthropic U.S.-led invasion of the sovereign nation of Iraq. Supporters and 
opponents of the war alike could hardly miss its transparency. Whether the reasoning was because of 
oil, liberating the Iraqi people, ferreting out weapons of mass destruction or exerting regional 
influence, few pretenses were made to distance the war profiteers from the battlefield in the war's 

The actions of agencies like USAID, which has pledged more than a billion dollars to facilitate 
rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq which the U.S. military and policymakers had a large hand in 
destroying, are far from altruistic. The problem of the Marsh Arabs was not invented overnight at 
the end of the recent war, but rather has developed in plain view of the whole world via satellite 
images and documented in-country reports of displacement and abuse. Moreover, the marshlands are 
not Iraq's sole antiquity. Museums, regions and sites of archaeological importance were destroyed, 
bombed and looted not only during this last war, but also continuously since the first Gulf War. 
Will we be paying to rebuild those as well?

According to Peter Galbraith, a professor at the Naval War College, three weeks of ransacking 
post-war Baghdad left nearly every ministry in shambles, including the Irrigation Ministry, except 
for the Oil Ministry that was guarded by U.S. troops. The people of Iraq are becoming rapidly 
disenchanted with a prolonged U.S. presence in their country as their former disempowerment under 
Saddam is translated into present disempowerment under the Americans.

According to those working closely with the project to rehydrate the marshlands, in the newly 
"liberated" Iraq the silenced voices of the oppressed peoples can now be heard and addressed, the 
stories of destruction can be told and the much-needed healing of humans and terrain can take 
place. Whether this will actually happen is another story. At the Brookings Institution forum on 
the marshlands, no native Iraqis were represented, and the larger question arising in the post-war 
reconstruction of Iraq is what tangible legitimacy is given to voicing the will of the people by 
putting representative Iraqis in power.

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Perhaps the issue of water is left unspoken on the global level because the transnational 
corporations supported by powerful Western governments contribute largely to water pollution and 
privatization and do not want to draw attention to this fact lest they be forced to clean up their 
acts and sacrifice profits. Certainly higher standards and levels of accountability would be 
imposed on industries relying on expendable water resources if the true shortage of water were 
openly acknowledged.

Perhaps it is because the leaders, politicians and diplomats who negotiate issues like this do not 
want to cause mass hysteria in the region, or in the United States or Western world, by directly 
addressing the problem of diminishing water supplies. Instead they prefer to keep it their little 
secret, hidden from public view and accountability, prolonging the inevitable panic and hording 
that will ensue when people's needs will outweigh the planet's capacity for providing potable water.

Perhaps water issues in Iraq and in the Middle East in general do not make the news so as not to 
legitimize the environmental movement's claims that water is a precious and ever-diminishing 
resource that requires drastic reprioritizing on a personal, national and global level. Sustainable 
practices of water conservation are given cursory attention worldwide and are not yet being 
implemented on a credible, meaningful scale.

Population growth expectations for the Middle East provide a staggering predicament. According to 
Michael Klare, author of Resource Wars, the regional population was near 500 million in 1998, and 
that figure is expected to double by the year 2050. There will be no peace in the Middle East 
without addressing issues of sustainability and access to water. The microcosm of war in the Middle 
East is a staggering prediction of a potential widespread global crisis if countries do not learn 
to conserve and cooperate.

Or perhaps it is because resources are not allocated fairly in the region, and acknowledging 
massive humanitarian crises means that the whistle-blowers are accountable to fixing the problem. 
Israelis and Palestinians already compete for limited water resources, with Palestine getting short 
shrift and less water. As noted in Resource Wars, Jewish settlers already get five to eight times 
more water per capita than Palestinians.

Addressing problems of war, famine, the environment, human rights, democracy and sustainability has 
traditionally been compartmentalized work with little overlap and interdependent relevance. The 
situation of the marsh Arabs integrates the urgency of ending wars, providing for humanitarian 
crises and looking ahead into the future at the necessity of sharing natural resources equitably. 
In the near future, wars may be fought not over intangible ideologies like communism, terrorism or 
religion, but rather fought overtly about access to clean water. It will soon be much more 
difficult for governments to euphemize about their intent to wage war.

The policy of rehydrating the marshlands of Iraq is significant in that it marks American 
interests' recognition of water scarcity in the Middle East. It also means that following the blue 
lines on the map charts a precarious course toward war or peace, depending on the management of 
water resources.

Leah C. Wells serves as the Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation 
( She has visited Iraq three times with Nobel Peace Prize-nominated 
organization Voices in the Wilderness ( and may be contacted at

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]