Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Tanks-for-Water, economics and the future (part I)

It's been reported recently that a treaty has been signed by Israel and Turkey providing for the shipment of fresh water from Turkey to Israel, in huge ships, in return for military stores, especially Merkava tanks. LinkThis is just as depressing as it sounds, because it shows that one of the fashionable intellectual worries of the last 20 or so years is finally to be activated into power reality. That's the one about "if you think we fight over oil, just wait until we fight over water" in the Middle East. Now, I've been hearing pundits grand about this for so long that it became one of those problems that seemed to have disappeared through over-funkiness, like Antarctic resources or giant volcanoes. But now, it seems that this one is going to burst.

Some background - back in the 1970s, a group of economists at Tel Aviv University began to concern themselves with water as a resource. (As usual in economics, this shows the way the science tends to follow the problems of the day - Keynesianism was founded on depression, Monetarism on inflation, and water economics on Israeli agriculture.) They were rather surprised to discover that some of the countries they studied could not possibly find enough water to supply what they must use every year. It was like bees not theoretically being able to fly, and the economists realised they had broken into a seam of knowledge. They formulated the idea of "virtual water" - that is to say, the countries in question solved their water problem by importing crops and goods that were water-intensive even if they seemed cheaper to produce locally. For every ton of wheat they bought elsewhere, they effectively shaved the water bill by several hundred gallons. The economists proposed a re-orientation of Israeli farming, concentrating on growing crops that were cheap in terms of water and trading the surplus for virtual-water imports. It was simply an application of David Ricardo's Theory of Comparative Advantage - not only do countries trade, but they specialise on their best trading products. As is usual with rational ideas, though, politics didn't like it. They were fiercely attacked and some of them left the country, although the government (as always) later had to accept their ideas. The problem was that agriculture has a special status for Israel, which goes all the way back to the founding of Zionism - the chalutzim were always meant to return to eternal values through honest labour on the land, building the independence of the future state from the true foundation of the simple life. That was why local Zionist branches throughout Austria-Hungary and Russia held training courses in farming for young Jews. For the Labour Zionists, self-sufficient communities of farmers were their own road to Socialism - expressed as the kibbutz movement this became one of the pillars of the Jewish state, and remains at the emotional core of Labour just as places like Barnsley and South Shields are for most members of the British Labour party. For the Right, possession of land meant permanence and power, and a step on the way to possessing the whole of Eretz Israel. The settlers are almost a political mirror image of the kibbutzniks. You can't be a real Labour Zionist if you don't at least wish you were a kibbutznik. You can't be a real Likud hawk if you don't at least wish you were a settler. Economic rationality (and I don't mean what the Australians call "economic rationalism" - it ain't rational) never survives political unreason. That is the meaning of this proposal, with its vast initial sunk costs of building or procuring ships (Will they be VLWCs - Very Large Water Carriers - as opposed to VLCCs?), port facilities and integration into the Turkish and Israeli water supply, its gouging unit prices (far higher even than desalination - desalination costs 50-56 US cents a cubic metre, import $1:Haaretz report), and the dull truth that even under perfect conditions it will supply only 3% of Israel's water - it has the grandiosity that bears witness to political madness, like the huge economic-ecological engineering schemes of the Soviet Union or the marble stadiums of mad military tyrants.

The wider results are menacing - the plan will pour weapons into Turkey, strengthening the army and the army party in politics and giving them even greater interests in bossing the eastern mountains and dragooning the Kurds. It will fire the first shots in making water an open, rather than hypothetical, object of politics. It will forge further links between the Israeli Military Industries, the army, and water-wasting interests - a water-military-industrial iron triangle could anchor the far Right in power. A more depressing development could hardly be imagined. And what better target could a terrorist dream of than a half million ton tankerful of drinking water from Turkey to Israel? (Note: Palestinian towns get on average 60 units of water a day, compared with a minimum of 300 in Israel.) The propaganda message would be something like "Rich states ganging up to keep others thirsty/Evil apostate traitors/Zionist Entity/Western technology". Just what Osama likes really. And what will Syria do in terms of building up its navy? There's a nice new arms race.

The final message? The water problem will be solved - one way or another. That's a fact, because people must eat and drink. It might be solved by the strong grabbing from the weak, each trying to stake out a little pond of their own. And that will mean, as their "turbulent frontier" problem drags them further on, war. Perhaps they will kill each other until there is plenty of water to go around. There is an alternative, though. That will be part 2.

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