By Garikai Chengu – The Herald
It is becoming increasingly accepted that water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations. Western military intervention in Iraq, Libya and imminently Syria is driven as much by a thirst to profit from water as it is by a desire to pilfer oil, trade arms and gain lucrative no-bid reconstruction contracts. The military invasions are ostensibly aimed at liberation.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond recently let the cat out of the bag by officially confirming that Britain will make returns of £200 billion from reconstruction contracts in Libya, all from a mere £300 million investment. According to the US based Centre for Public Integrity, western nations stand to make up to US$1trillion from privatizing, harnessing, purifying and distributing water in a region where water often sells for far more than oil.
Although over two thirds of our planet is water, we face an acute water shortage. This scarcity flies in the face of our natural assumptions. Roughly 70 percent of our world is water but the problem is that 97 percent of that is salt water. Great for fish, not so good for humans. Of the world’s fresh water, only 1 percent is available for drinking, with the remaining 2 percent trapped in glaciers and ice.
Put differently: if all the water on earth were represented by an 11 litre jug, the freshwater would fill a single cup and all we can access would be the last drop.
Increasingly, for water to be useful, it needs to be mined, processed, packaged, moved and delivered. Just like gold, coal, gas or oil. However, unlike oil, there are no substitutes, alternatives or stopgaps for water.
Nature has decreed that the supply of water is fixed. All the while, demand rises inexorably as the world’s population increases and enriches itself. Climate change, population growth, pollution, urbanisation and the rapid development of manufacturing industries are relentlessly combining such that demand will outstrip supply by 40 per cent by 2030.
Several months prior to the invasion of Iraq, the CIA raised the spectre of hydrological warfare “in which rivers, lakes and aquifers become national security assets to be fought over, or controlled” through proxy armies and client states.
On April 17, 2003, in Iraq, the American company Bechtel received a no-bid reconstruction contract from the US Agency for International Development. The initial contract was for US$680 million over 18 months. It now stands at over US$100 billion, making it the largest Iraq reconstruction contract.
The most lucrative Iraq reconstruction contract was not to repair oil infrastructure, build schools and hospitals or repair bombarded infrastructure. It was to source, process and distribute water.
The secretive, opaque and no-bid nature of the water contract award process is made even worse by one incredible fact. Bechtel has botched many of its previous projects. In California, Bechtel installed one of the nuclear power plant reactors backwards. In Boston, what promised to be a US$2,5 billion job for an infamous tunnel became the most expensive in US history costing US$14,6 billion. The tunnel project was plagued by charges of poor execution, corruption, criminal arrests and even four deaths.
In Bolivia, Bechtel’s record is one of privatising water, jacking up prices by 35 percent; thereby causing riots in which several people died; getting kicked out and then suing the Government for cancelling the contract. Since the turn of the century, Iraq was the first casualty of hydro-imperialism and Colonel Gaddafi’s assassination marks the second. At this very moment, Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship is being dismantled and replaced by a corporate dictatorship.
At the forefront of this new order are France’s global mega-water companies Suez, Ondeo and Saur, who control almost half of the world’s water market. These multinationals are rushing to privatise water, already a US$400 billion global business. They now stand to rake in billions of dollars from the eighth wonder of the world the – the Great Man-made River scheme (GMMR).
This scheme was the brainchild of Colonel Gaddafi and was set to turn Libya – a nation that is 95 percent desert – into a food self-sufficient arable oasis. The GMMR is a US$25 billion Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which is an immensely vast underground sea of fresh water. It has a complex 4 000km long water pipeline buried beneath the desert that could transport two million cubic metres of water a day.
Gaddafi had intended the scheme to be designed by Libyans, constructed by Libyans, for the benefit of the Libyan population. Now it will almost certainly be redesigned by Frenchmen and women at inflated costs, constructed by French contractors, largely for the benefit of French shareholders. Libyan taxpayers will be stuck with the bill and higher water bills.
For western leaders, the corporations that fund their political campaigns and the Jewish lobby that is the backbone of corporate America, intervention in Syria however is not exclusively about profit. It is about something far more important – Israel.
Israeli leaders assert that Mr Assad poses an existential threat to Israel on two fronts. For a start, Syria backs insurgents and radicals in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and foments Iran’s belligerence. More importantly, Mr Assad poses a bigger threat to Israel’s existence on the issue of water.
l Garikayi Chengu is a research scholar at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.