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Agriculture accounts for about 70 per cent of the world's water consumption. Andrew Henderson/The National
Agriculture accounts for about 70 per cent of the world's water consumption. Andrew Henderson/The National

This is an important topic so do not go watering it down

Everybody is talking about food security these days, but very few are talking about water security, so it's good that the UAE is taking an interest in it.

This week Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, the director general of the UAE's National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority, told Reuters: "Wars can erupt because of water." He is right.

But water has provoked fewer wars than you might think. Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt, warned in the 1980s that the next war would be over water, and the then King of Jordan said he would not go to war with Israel unless water was involved. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former secretary general of the UN, chipped in, agreeing that the next war in the Middle East would be about water. Except it wasn't. The next war, and the one after that, was sparked by many things, but oil certainly played a bigger factor than water.

More often than not, water has led to co-operation rather than fighting. In fact there is only one war that can be definitely linked to water in the history of mankind. There have been more wars over simple old salt. While there have been many water-related skirmishes in history, the first and last reported water war took place in Sumeria - now Iraq - more than 3,000 years ago. There have been as many wars over football, as when El Salvador and Honduras fought it out in 1969, partly because of the result of a World Cup qualifying match.

Very little is known about the water war in Sumeria. Sumeria is part of what was dubbed the "fertile crescent" by James Henry Breasted, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago. If you look at the area on a map, it looks like a boomerang, with one tip extended down the Nile River, the elbow extending up towards the Jordan River, with the right hand tip at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates River, where it empties into the Arabian Gulf.

Western civilisation began here and the ancients called this area Mesopotamia, literally "the land between the rivers". In the book of Genesis, the Tigris River is one of the four rivers that flow out of the Garden of Eden. But gradually the Fertile Crescent became sterile. A build-up of salt reduced productivity. But before it silted up the inhabitants were ready to fight over access to its water.

The World Bank's water expert David Grey regards the suggestion that nations won't fight about water in the future as "absurd". Besides, he asks, how do we know what causes a war?

We do know that food - or the lack of it - can be a revolutionary spark. What happened in Tunisia is perhaps just a modern version of what happened in France in the 1790s. Marie Antoinette's wry observation that the masses should eat cake if they had no bread reminds us that rising food prices and shortages caused the downfall of the Bourbons, just as it helped unseat Tunisia's president.

Food security is all about having enough food at the right price, but Mr al Rumaithi and his colleagues are being very smart in looking beyond the immediate future. He also told Reuters the UAE should use less of its water resources for agriculture. Around the world agriculture is the biggest consumer of water, accounting for some 70 per cent, with industry second. Private use is much smaller, however many baths you might take or how many times you wash your Land Cruiser.

"Water security is more difficult than food security," says Mr Grey. "What is enough? What is an acceptable level of risk? What about drought, desertification and flood? Whenever we see variations of water supply we see poverty. Poverty is directly linked to variable rainfall."

Everybody is talking about food security these days, but very few are talking about water security, so it's good that the UAE is taking an interest in it. Saudi Arabia said a couple of years ago it planned to reduce its agricultural business, which relies on massive quantities of desalinated water, and import food instead. The UAE is investing in farmland around the world.

Even the private sector is finally showing an interest in water. Philippe Becker, the managing director of Wasserstein, says his company is looking at ways of making money out of the business of water, particularly in areas such as pumps and filters.

In Bahrain this week I met Felipe Lembcke, a chemical engineer who has a company called Molecular Filtration. He has produced a filter that can separate the "organics" out of water, the bacteria and chemicals, thus making desalination easier and without the need to use further chemicals. He told me his filter could also separate water and oil, which will doubtless have considerable applications in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Water may be less incendiary than oil, but it is reassuring to see that it is finally getting the attention it deserves. As the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales is reputed to have said: "Everything is water".

 

rwright@thenational.ae

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