The Arab Drought: Is Water the New Oil?

By: Taylor Horn

The two-year long conflict in Syria, with the recent agreements on chemical weapons, seems to have largely shifted out of the public’s eye and mind. We have taken President Bashar Al-Assad at his word, at least for the time being, that he will allow the disarmament of his regime by international monitors. With the justification for a US strike gone, the world seems content to largely disregard the ongoing conflict. However, perhaps this lull in the immediate Syrian threat should allow us to consider a different dimension of the conflict, one with far-reaching implications.

CREDIT: AP | SOURCE: The Washington Post

I’m not talking about the declarations of international hawks like John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and even Secretary John Kerry, that this conflict will destabilize the region or affect our standing with Iran. Rather the Syrian conflict introduces us to the possibility of a new cause of war.

In 2002, Michael Klare’s book Resource Wars argued, “in the early decades of the new millennium, wars will be fought not over ideology but over access to dwindling supplies of precious natural commodities.” At the time, this assertion was clearly over petroleum; the US stood ready to invade Iraq, with Halliburton and Exxon following close behind. However, the idea seems to get more and more prescient by the day, and we are forced to consider the possibility of another commodity being a main cause of global conflict: water.

As mentioned above, Syria is an important example. The country has been under a crippling ten-year drought, a drought so severe it has destroyed the livelihoods of more than 50% of the nation’s farmers. Deraa, the origin of the Syrian uprising, became the largest recipient of migrants as subsistence farmers abandoned their farms, coming to cities looking for work. There is no better fuel for a revolution throughout history than a large number of unemployed men on the streets. Add to this the spark: around 2007, being granted a permit to drill a well for water in Syria became predicated on sectarian membership, namely membership in the President’s Alawite tribe. Alawites, to remind readers, are a Shia minority in the majority Sunni Syria, but have historically been the dominating group in the Army, and currently control the regime.

The improper and illegal drilling of wells depleted water supplies even further, and the policy tightened even more. Finally, when a group of youths drilled a well illegally and were arrested by the Mukhabarat (secret police) there was an outbreak of protests in the city of Deraa. These protests were met violently, and they soon spread north to Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. All names we are now familiar with, though the initial crucible has been largely forgotten.

To suggest a unitary causal model for such a complex conflict would be, of course, fallacious; a multi-faceted, age-old sectarian struggle is to blame. Yet this environment was inflamed by a denial of basic human needs as a result of bad policy and climate change. The world has seen this before, and it will definitely see it again. The idea of “water politics” in this region is not as unfamiliar as it is to some more lush nations; the 1967 Six Days War was in part a result of the Jordan Headwaters Diversion Project, where Syria and Jordan agreed on a plan to siphon water away from Israel. Israel retaliated by siphoning the Sea of Galilee, which it shares with Jordan. More recently, the conflict has come between Jordan and Syria, as Jordan controls the headwaters of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, as well as the influential Diseh aquifer. The already heavily guarded border between Jordan and Syria now includes water monitoring stations.

Outside of the region, water resources have played a role in many less internationally known conflicts. Shortages in northern Mali led to an alliance between Islamist militants and struggling farmers in the formation of Boko Haram. The Janjaweed militia in the Sudan have diverted, stolen, and poisoned water resources in their offensives in the parched Darfur region. Northern India is losing water faster than any other region on the planet, and though the conflict has not come yet, the Maoist tendencies and militias in some of its outlying provinces suggest the possibility for these problems to come to a head.

More and more agreement is being reached on the subject, but climate change in the US is still a polarizing issue. It may seem to an American that climate change simply means the snow doesn’t fall as high as it used to, or the summer highs are a little higher each year. Yet it is important to realize that climate change worldwide will inevitable affect issues of human rights and equality. When we consider action on climate change, the lives at risk are not just those having to move for flooding or hurricanes, but also thousands or millions of lives potentially consumed by conflicts arising from water. As water scarcity increases, water will become tied to the geopolitical calculus of not just impoverished nations, but major world superpowers. Hopefully we can pursue these interests in a responsible way, but it is unlikely we will live much longer without seeing a proliferation in water wars. In climbing the list of unitary strategic goals of countries around the world, we may very well see water resources become the world’s new oil.



Taylor Horn is a first-year MSPPM student concentrating on international and security policy. He is currently an analyst in a startup focused on water issues and infrastructure. Prior to this Taylor has worked in international mediation, on political campaigns, and in academic research. He received a bachelor’s degree from Bard College at Simon’s Rock double majoring in Political Science and Theater.




  1. political campaigns, and in academic research. He received a bachelor’s

  2. political campaigns, and in academic research. He received a bachel

  3. campaigns, and in academic research. He received a bachel


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