Hydro-jihad: water conflict and the class struggle - Melancholic Troglodytes

Three Gorges Dam, China

The Iraq War underlined the significance of three main commodities in the Middle East, namely: labour power, oil and water. This text investigates the role of water in relation to the class struggle.

"To the man who refuses his surplus water, Allah will say: 'Today, I refuse thee my favor, just as thou refused the surplus of something that thou hadst not made thyself."

(Caponera 1954; quoted from Muhammad Ibn Isma'il, al-Bukhari, Les Traditions Islamique, Vol. II, p. 108)

The Iraq War underlined the significance of three main commodities in the Middle East, namely: labour power, oil and water. This text investigates the role of water in relation to the class struggle.

The Early Domestication of Water

The earliest examples of water worship date from the period 6000-4000 BC. The druids offered the water goddess libations in the vain hope of arresting the Roman advance. In Wales, water was drunk from human skulls in order to acquire the desirable qualities of the skull's original owner. Persians personified the water as Apas and prayed to them in order to rejuvenate the life-force the goddesses had invested in nature. The invention of qanats (sloped water canals), sometime between the tenth and eighth centuries BC in Persia, witnessed the birth of a hereditary class of professionals responsible for excavating and maintaining them. The Achaemenid Shahs "actively encouraged the construction of qanats by granting the profits for five generations to the people who dug them" (Dale R. Lightfoot). At least five of the Mithraic (Persian 'mystico-pagan' religion imported into the 'West' during Roman times) temples discovered in Britain were all built close to streams or over springs. Around 500 BC, the Chinese became the first to understand the 'water cycle' (sea evaporation to cloud formation to surface water). It was also the Chinese who set up the first flood-warning system in 1574 on the Yellow River, using "horseback riders who traveled faster than the water" (Gioda).

Some societies were so dependent on water, that the determinist historian Wittfogel coined the term 'water civilizations' to describe them. Egypt, Assyria and the kingdom of Saba' are clear examples. The latter's fall was symbolized by the destruction of the only dam around Ma'rib (approx. 300 AD). Some Old Testament scholars are of the firm opinion that "King David was able to take Jerusalem by using the city's underground conduits, which supplied water from the spring of Gihon"(Gioda).

"After the fall of Rome (410 AD) and then Constantinople (1453 AD), the Arabs and the Persians pursued and refined the tradition of fountains, water sports and hot baths" (Gioda). Persian qanats were brought to Spain by Muslim conquerors during the 8th century. In turn, the Spanish conquerors took their qanat engineering skills to the Canary Islands, Peru, Chile and Mexico. This enabled them to incorporate most of the land under their influence into wheat farms and cattle ranches. At the beginning of the 7th century AD Pope Gregory acknowledged the obduracy of paganism by recommending their temples be converted to Christian use, instead of the previous policy of ruination. The well water was adopted for the Christian rites of baptism and hand-washing. The transition became allegorized in the stories of saints battling with giants, monsters and demons.

Da Vinci and Machiavelli were very clear about the importance of water. In a failed plot they tried to divert the course of the Arno River away from Florence's enemy, Pisa, and to the sea through a series of navigable canals that would immensely benefit Florentine commerce and security (Adam Garfinkle).

By the time of the Reformation (16th century), the Church was strong enough to try strong-arm tactics once more. Some well chapels were demolished, pilgrimages prohibited and offenders chastised. The 'lower' classes attracted to holy wells turned the ritual into Bacchus orgies, not unlike original football festivals. The spa culture was a bourgeois response to plebian carnivalesque. "But it was not until the eighteenth and, even more so, the nineteenth century, with the rediscovery of the body and the health cult, that the popularity of spas reached its height" (Gioda).

Gradually the magical holy wells transmuted into devotionless 'wishing wells', and by the late 19th century, 'cursing wells' played an important role in identifying criminals.

Commodification of water

Water enjoys an unrivalled position in nature's domain, precisely because "it symbolizes the whole of potentiality; it is fons et origo, the source of all possible existence" (Mircea Eliade). So much so that even "under Roman law flowing water was considered to be public property, which meant that rivers and their branches could not be commercialized. The political and military power of the feudal system was limited by rural communities for which water, by virtue of being continually renewed, was a public property and could not be appropriated by feudal rights" (Gioda).

Under capital, life becomes survival, and water, a vital regulator of political economy. "Enclosures", as some autonomist Marxists have correctly observed, "are not a one time process exhausted at the dawn of capitalism. They are a regular return on the path of accumulation and a structural component of the class struggle" (Midnight Notes). Water deposits determine the boundaries of enclosures, separating thirsty proletarians from podgy masters. The resultant phony water shortage becomes harnessed to a siege mentality- an essential strategy for smothering dissent.

Water economists have employed Sraffa's distinction between 'basic' versus 'non-basic' commodities lately. Basic commodities enter into the production of all commodities, while non-basics do not. Energy commodities (water included) are basic commodities. In certain transitional periods, it is claimed, only with price changes of the energy commodities can the average real wage be reduced. The new fangled concept of 'virtual water' (J. A. Allan) is one such attempt to increase the exchange value of water. It refers to the water embedded in water-intensive commodities such as cereals. It is argued that the economies that import cereals are getting a subsidized bargain and should be grateful for this 'western' generosity.

Higher industries suck up the surplus value produced at the bottom of the system through this price structure, and in the process dictate the rhythm and extent of lower forms of surplus value extraction. The Israeli hi-tech industry not only guarantees Israel's military pre-eminence over her neighbors, but just as crucially it catalyses agriculture's passage from absolute to relative surplus value extraction for Jewish farmers, through constant technological upgrading. Arab farmers, by contrast, are forced to rely on the less productive methods of extending the working day, and working harder in order to compensate for their lack of technology. The military and economic superiority of the state of Israel can also be harnessed to 'retard' rival states at the level of the formal domination of capital. As we try to demonstrate later, the control of water supplies becomes a vital method of ensuring this superiority.

Marx correctly observed that, "it is not the absolute fertility of the soil, but its degree of differentiation, the variety of its natural products, which forms the natural basis for the social division of labour." He also noted that in ancient societies such as Egypt, Lombardy, Holland, India, and Persia, "artificial canals do not only supply the soil with the water indispensable to it, but also carry down mineral fertilizers from the hills, in the shape of sediments. The secret of the flourishing state of industry in Spain and Sicily under the rule of the Arabs lay in their irrigation works." Significantly, in the Middle East, the problem is not only the total volume of water but the high evaporation rate, which 'devalues' water as commodity.

Commodification as policing

Capital commodifies water by making use-value into exchange-value. Obviously, "something cannot be a commodity unless someone lacks it." Commodification is practiced whether shortage is caused 'naturally' or artificially. The U.N. sponsored Rio earth summit of 1992, where hydro-economists agreed to treat water as a commodity, capable of being traded, was a formal recognition of this phenomenon.

The commodification of water, the alienation of peasants from land (through territorial acquisition of, say, fellaheen Arabs by Israel or the general capitalist invasion of the countryside by the metropole), and the sedentarization of nomadic population (as seen in Jordan and Iran) must, therefore, be viewed as strategic elements of the same violation. The current attempt by Israel to ethnically cleanse the Negev desert from Bedouin Arabs in preparation for the next wave of Jewish settlers is part of this 'civilizing' strategy. In 1963 Moshe Dayan was quite explicit on this: "We should transform the bedouin into an urban proletariat. This will be a radical move, which means that the bedouin would not live on this land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. The children would go to school with their hair properly combed" (Chris Mc Greal). To pressure the bedouin off the land, water (as well as electricity, roads and welfare programmes) are withheld from them.

The data collected about aquifers and water distribution is treated as state secrets, giving more 'advanced' countries such as Israel and Turkey a scientific advantage over their neighbors. The inapplicability of international water laws to arid countries also works to the advantage of the militarily superior powers as it allows them to use water as a bargaining chip. In fact, some believe the 'international community' does not want international water law at the present time (Tony Allan).

Commodified water becomes an agent of policing hierarchies: national as well as social. "One of the material foundations of the power of the state over the small and unconnected producing organisms of India", writes Marx, "was the regulation of the water supply. Its Mohammedan rulers understood this better than their English successors. It is sufficient to recall the famine of 1866, which cost the lives of more than a million Hindus in the district of Orissa, in the Bengal Presidency".

Water conflicts within Middle East/N Africa region

There are five major disputes over water in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: control of the Karun or Shatt-al-Arab River (Iran and Iraq); Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (Turkey, Syria, and Iraq); the Jordan River (Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine); the coastal and mountain aquifers (Israel and Palestine); and the Nile River (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan). Let us look more closely at some of these points of tension.


Technologically superior countries and those perched upstream hold a decided advantage over technologically backward and water-hungry downstream neighbors. For instance, Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights extended her water reserves to the Banias tributary, and since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel has maintained effective control over the Hasbani tributary. In so doing Israel has fulfilled Chaim Weizmann's dream of extending her northern border to the Litani river. Some analysts believe "water itself has been a relatively minor factor in most Israeli land acquisition, but the result of the acquisition of land has been to exacerbate the gap between Palestinian and Israeli water use" (James Hudson). However, no one can deny the existence of 'water piracy.' Israel restricts the expansion of Palestinian water use in order to recharge upland aquifers, which feed wells on Israel's coastal plain (James Hudson). It has been estimated that "Palestinians have access only to about 18 percent of the ground water which is generated on their territories" (James Hudson).

During the siege of Beirut (1982) a small Israeli engineering unit "turned the wheel that closed the valve controlling the supply to west Beirut; then they removed the wheel and took it with them." The PLO resistance faltered soon after.

Lebanon is also subjected to Syrian 'Water Imperialism.' The 1991 treaty of friendship between the two countries includes a "secret clause ensuring that Syrian forces would guard and if necessary defend the source of river Yarmouk, which rises in Lebanon before flowing into Syria." To underscore the point, it should be remembered how the Israel-Syria talks became stalled, at least in part, over the question of Syrian access to the eastern shore of Lake Tiberius. And how Israel's decision to back out of its water obligations under various agreements to Jordan and Palestine has led to one crisis after another (Jad Isaac).


At Camp David in 1978, Sadat offered to divert 1 per cent of the Nile's flow to irrigate the Negev Dessert of Israel, in return for Arab land. Mukhaberat (the Egyptian Intelligence Services) leaked the details, in an attempt to bring down Sadat. Although the coup failed, the ensuing anti-Sadat media campaign created a hostile climate, culminating in his assassination in 1981 by the Jihad group. Israel's construction of new dams in Ethiopia, which would inevitably diminish Nile's volume, is economic blackmail in all but name. What Israel and Syria do to Lebanon and Jordan through their military superiority, Turkey (an upstream riparian) does to Syria and Iraq, by virtue of geographic ascendancy. Sudan and Ethiopia will begin demanding more water from the Nile to meet growing developmental needs. Egypt's position will become increasingly tenuous.

The nationalist /supra-nationalist tensions intrinsic to capitalism, find an echo in the two strategies proposed for water management: the integrationist faction (as represented for instance by the World Bank), who following Churchill's original concept, seek to create hydro-political units in the Middle East; and the separatist wing who are happy exploiting the dynamics of present boundaries. Both wings of the ruling class are, however, united on the use of water as a weapon in the class struggle.


The Saddam River (a 565 Km waterway between Baghdad and Basra) is ostensibly designed to reclaim polluted land, but more significantly the project aims to dislodge the Marsh Arabs, dissidents and deserters who fled there after the abortive uprising of 1991. This is a dual political and 'civilizing' project which aims to annihilate a way of life and turn self-sufficient marginals into wage-slaves. The Israeli state has been employing a similar strategy for uprooting Arabs from their lands, since at least 1951. A related ploy is to increase the salinity of downstream water to such an extent that irrigation becomes impossible. Surplus peasants are forced to leave the land and migrate. Whilst Israel has deployed such tactics with subtlety against Palestinians, the Iraqi orgy of destruction during their retreat from Kuwait included a 'scourge water' policy, when desalination plants were damaged beyond repair. Bordiga once pointed out with regard to the floods at Po valley: "Capital has become incapable of the social function of transmitting the labour of past generations to the future ones ... It does not want maintenance contracts, but huge building deals; to enable this, huge natural cataclysms are insufficient - capital creates human ones with ineluctable necessity, and makes post-war reconstruction 'the business deal of the century.'" Although Bordiga's comment should not over-generalized, it does seem to be an accurate description of 'western' capital's current jockeying for a post-Saddam 'reconstruction' scenario.


The Turkish bourgeoisie is using its dam and irrigation schemes to terraform its vast eastern territory from low-yield small land-holdings to an army of wage slaves for agri-business. This is not unique to Turkey as dam building is also used in India to clear valleys where peasant struggle is high. However, Turkey's $32 billion programme includes the building of 19 hydroelectric power plants and 22 dams along the Euphrates, the Tigris and other rivers in the impoverished southeast Anatolia region. The project is expected to reduce the flow of the Euphrates by 30-50 percent within the next fifty years as well as increasing the amount of salt, pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants entering the river. The Ataturk Dam alone meant 155 villages were submerged, the power base of Kurdish rebels wiped out overnight. The 'Kurds' will then be cordoned off in reservations, in a policy reminiscent of the US treatment of native Indian tribes in previous centuries. Those 'Kurds' who decide to collaborate with the central government will be 'integrated', the rest will remain 'differentiated'. Significantly, the Turkish ruling class has decided to take on and subdue the Syrian and Iraqi states one at a time. First, the Euphrates will be blocked bringing the Syrians to their knees, and, once they have agreed to the price increases, the Tigris will be targeted in order to win further concessions from the Iraqis. The water crisis has helped accelerate a rapprochement between Iraq and Syria, which have been bitter rivals for decades (Ed Blanche). Interestingly, Turkey already ships water to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and now it is negotiating to sell water to Israel.


Israel's economic and technological superiority shapes water shortage in Palestine. Israel has achieved a position where 97 per cent of its GDP is generated from activities, which only use five per cent of its water (Tony Allan).

At the same time as becoming water sufficient, Israel suppresses Palestinian development of water collection as a matter of strategic policy. Since 1967 Israel has allowed Palestinians to drill only 13 wells in the West Bank. Even then Israel insists that Palestinians use only the Israeli drilling company, Mekorot, which can charge whatever it wants and schedule the work at its whim (Jane Adas). Control of water is an indirect method of limiting Palestinian population growth and development. Whereas Israel has the technological capacity to treat and reuse waste water, Palestinian farmers cannot afford the procedure. The same is true of desalination plants that are beyond the means of Palestinians. Moreover, when Ariel Sharon was minister of infrastructure, he insisted that all waste water, treated or not, had to go to Israel (Jane Adas). Another favourite tactic of the Israeli state is to negotiate separately with its Arab neighbours over water distribution when the issues are clearly interdependent.

Attempts by racist revisionist historians (Patrick Clawson) in recent years notwithstanding, we could concur with orthodox historians that water was one of the underlying causes of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as well as a rallying cry for the Intifada. After all, some 40 percent of Israel's water is obtained from aquifers beneath the West Bank and Gaza (Christian Drake). Jewish settlements consume 90-120 cubic meters per capita, whereas for Arab settlements the consumption is only 25-35 cubic meters per capita.

Since Israel is now economically capable of cutting water allocations to agriculture, it will probably initiate 'water for peace' negotiations in the future. In fact, some experts claim Israel can easily use 400 million cubic meters per year less than the two billion per year it now demands (Tony Allan). The reasons seem to be political and tied into giving Israel a stronger hand in the 'Peace Process'.


As post-boom governments of the region (with the exception of Israel and Turkey) fail to turn their population increase into capitalist advantage (as earlier capitalist powers such as USA and Britain managed so admirably in the 19th century), the commodification of water will exacerbate regional socio-economic variations. Tourism, instead of aiding in 'development', may be used as an excuse to cement existing superiority. After all, with tourism comes a concern with the quality of water, toxic chemicals and air pollutants. Already industries related to environmental technology (especially US-based ones) are invading the region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, US companies hold a 60 per cent market share and in Egypt (the largest single Middle East market for environmental technologies) they hold a 45 percent share (Josh Martin). Whilst individual companies may only be after profit, 'western' (and Japanese) governments will use this lever to exert socio-political pressure. Will we in the future witness the construction and maintenance of water-wasteful tourist attractions such as golf courses in the Middle East as proletarians are increasingly denied basic needs?

'Western' capitalists are using water to reverse decades of 'dependency' they claim to have endured at the hands of oil-producing Middle Eastern countries. For instance 'western' experts are encouraging "the reallocation of water from comparatively low-value use, such, as agriculture, to essential domestic use and higher-value, industrial uses" (Christian Drake). However, such a policy creates increased reliance upon food importation. Another ploy is to engineer a technical division of labour by discouraging the irrigation of 'water-consumptive' crops such as cotton, rice and sugarcane. Reactionaries such as Patrick Clawson are pursuing the concept of 'virtual water' (i.e. water that is embedded in water-intensive commodities such as wheat). Once the policy has been accepted by MENA (Middle Eastern & North African) countries, the 'subsidized' virtual water will be commodified. Furthermore, the US policy seems to be aimed at maintaining the regional hegemony of friendly states at each river basin. Thus Turkey is given the green light to control the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Egypt takes care of the Nile basin and Israel rules supreme over the Jordan-Yarmuk waters.

Capitalist 'modernisation' is also responsible for draining much of the area's water. For instance, "the qanats in the oases of central Arabia appear to have died, probably after the 1930s when pumps installed by US agricultural missions and Aramco began withdrawing large quantities of water in these areas" (Dale R. Lightfoot). Capitalist corporations are expanding their water operations into new fields. "In India", for example, "whole river systems, such as the River Bhavani in Tamil Nadu state, have been sold to Coca-Cola even as the state is suffering the worst drought in living memory" (Maude Barlow). The bottled water industry is growing at an annual rate of 20% and super-tankers and giant sealed water bags are being constructed to transport vast amounts of water to paying customers (Maude Barlow).

And yet capital's apparent supremacy conceals fissures of vulnerability. As surplus value from sectors with a low organic composition of capital become congealed in sectors with a high organic composition, the smallest monkey wrench can wreak havoc. Machines and information industry are deployed to counter the falling rate of profit, but bourgeois success proves partial and short-term. This lack of control represents itself in ideological attempts to bring order to chaos. Yet both structuralism and post-structuralism have failed to impose bourgeois hegemony on the proletariat.

Water disputes are becoming evermore entangled. Riots over water shortage have been reported in Iran. This whilst 300 were drowned from flooding in another part of the country. In South African townships, "entire communities react to the arrival of new water meters by revolting, smashing the meters and chasing away the installers" (Naomi Klein). Desertification is becoming increasingly severe in parts of Western Europe and the USA. Portugal and Spain fight over water, as do Argentina and Brazil. We live in a capitalist world where "every eight seconds a child dies of water-born disease. By 2025 ... two-third of the world's people will not have enough water for the basics of life" (Maude Barlow). Structuralism and post-structuralism are manifestations of bourgeois fear, doomed attempts to control the uncontrollable.


'Impending' Gulf War II Series, Leaflet Three, 8.03.2003

Address for correspondence: Melancholic Troglodytes, c/o 56a Infoshop, 56 Crampton Street, Walworth, London SE17 3AE, United Kingdom.

Email: meltrogs1 (at) hotmail.com

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May 20 2006 23:08


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