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  • Melancholic Troglodytes غارنشینان مالیخولیایی

“HYDRO-JIHAD: Water Conflict and the Class Struggle”

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

“HYDRO-JIHAD: Water Conflict and the Class Struggle” was originally written by our comrades The Melancholic Troglodytes in 2003 as an extended leaflet which is why it does not cite full references. We asked them to add a sub-section on water disputes between Iran and its neighbours to make the text more relevant to our readership. Our thanks to them for making the changes.

Wars in the ‘Middle East’ continue to underline the significance of four key commodities: labour power, oil/gas, minerals and water. This text investigates the role of water in relation to the class struggle.

It demonstrates how water became first domesticated, then commodified and finally a tool for repression and control. We do not need the forewarning of hydrologists to know that water will increasingly emerge as a contributing factor in armed conflict between nation-states under capitalism, and perhaps even between rural and urban regions of the same country. This latest version focuses on six areas of dispute in the Middle East but some of the conclusions could be generalised more widely.

HYDRO-JIHAD: Water Conflict and the Class Struggle

The Early Domestication of Water

There is a close connection between the domestication of wild water and water worship. 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. In ancient Greek and Rome worlds, some used wells as secretive venues for magical rituals aimed at cursing at enemies who had done them wrong. Groundwater was believed to be a conduit to the streams of the underworld and “capable of directing the curses to the gods of the underworld” (Jutta Stroszeck).

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 kings “actively encouraged the construction of qanats by granting the profits for five generations to the people who dug them” (Dale R. Lightfoot). Some of the pre-Islamic rain-making ceremonies developed in Iran, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula over the centuries are remarkably reminiscent of the village ritual enacted in The Wicker Man (Dir. Robin Hardy, 1973; also see Ilhan Basgöz). Some of the Mithraic (Persian ‘mystico-pagan’ religion imported into the ‘West’ during Roman times) temples discovered in Britain were built close to streams or over springs. The very earliest Hindu, Egyptian and Roman legal codes were based on the assumption that a leader would protect water supplies in return for people’s obedience (Alexander Bell). Around 500 BC, the Chinese became the first to understand the ‘water cycle’ (sea evaporation ---> cloud formation ---> 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 travelled faster than the water” (Alain Gioda).

Some societies were so dependent on water, that the determinist historian Wittfogel coined the term ‘hydraulic civilizations’ to describe them. Accordingly, "Wittfogel believed that wherever irrigation required substantial and centralized control, government representatives monopolized political power and dominated the economy, resulting in an absolutist managerial state" (Encyclopaedia Britannica). 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” (Alain Gioda). After the fall of Rome (410 AD) and then Constantinople (1453 AD), the Arabs and the Persians refined the tradition of fountains, water sports and hot baths. Persian qanats were brought to Spain by Muslim conquerors during the 8th century AD. 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.

The pink areas in this map denote ancient civilizations from about 3,000 BC to 0AD (

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, the city-state of Pisa, and to the sea through a series of navigable canals that would immensely benefit Florentine commerce and security (Adam Garfinkle).

Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli (

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. 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’. The ‘wet Northern’ countries of Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands spend a great deal of energy and resources on improving rivers and draining land during the early phase of their industrial and agricultural development in the 18th and 19th centuries (Alexander Bell). Their water-richness allowed them the luxury of planning ahead, whilst ‘water-thirsty’ countries were too busy surviving to forge a strategy for development.

What is vital to appreciate here is this: for centuries the domestication of water went hand in hand with its statification and also with its veneration. Sometimes this was due to a push from below when, for instance, peasant and plebeian groupings would demand better water supplies and sanitation and the state would be required to step in. In these cases, the improvements were not usually associated with alienation. However, at other times the domestication of water was a prelude for the disciplining of the lower classes. These attacks were perceived by people as ‘unnatural’ and catalysed the process of alienation from Nature. With the advent of generalised commodity production and exchange under capitalism, the process of transforming inanimate objects into ‘things’ with magical qualities separate from humans, was intensified. Commodity fetishism took centre stage.

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 onetime 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 (Heinz D. Kurz and Neri Salvadori). Basic commodities enter the production of all commodities as means of production, while non-basics do not (or do so in a limited way). 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 newfangled concept of ‘virtual water’ (John Anthony Allan) is one such attempt to increase the profitability 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 neighbours, 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 limited technology. The military and economic superiority of the state of Israel can also be harnessed to constrain 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 a 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. Today a particularly pernicious alliance between World Bank bureaucrats and some sections of the environmentalist movement is calling for the stricter commodification of water as the only way of preventing “wastage.”

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 edge over their neighbours. 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 analysts 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 at least six major flashpoints 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); the Nile River (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan); and finally, the Iranian plateau and neighbouring disputes with Russia and Afghanistan. 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 neighbours. 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. 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.” This left the PLO in a much weakened position. 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 [Arab] and Israeli water use” (James Hudson). In any case, we agree with Warner’s general axiom that, “upstreamers use water to get more power, downstreamers use power to get more water” (J. Warner).

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).


Herodotus, who visited Egypt about 450-440 BCE wrote, “The Nile is the Gift of Osiris, but Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Almost 97 percent of all the water drawn in Egypt (whether for agriculture or municipal and domestic consumption) is from the Nile (Ismail Serageldin), a river whose flow and tributaries are controlled by 8 other countries. At Camp David in 1978, Anwar Sadat offered to divert 1 per cent of “Osiris’s gift” to irrigate the Negev Dessert of Israel, in return for Arab land. Some sections of the Egyptian ruling class were content with this arrangement but 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 Islamic Jihad group.

Israel’s construction of new dams in Ethiopia, which would inevitably diminish the 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. As Sudan and Ethiopia begin demanding more water from the Nile to meet growing developmental needs, Egypt’s water-scarcity becomes increasingly precarious.

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. One innovative bourgeois attempt for addressing shortage in arid regions has been to purchase land for agriculture in water-rich countries and then export the product to themselves (Ismail Serageldin). Saudi Arabia, for instance, now owns upwards of one million hectares of land in countries ranging from Tanzania to Indonesia as part of such a scheme.


In 2009 the Iraqi bourgeoisie threatened to block all agreement with Turkey unless “their country is given a more equitable share of the available water supply,” a shrewder reaction compared to Saddam era “diplomacy” when Iraq threatened to bomb the Atatürk Dam (Joost Jongerden). Farmers in Iraq’s south face particular difficulties in growing their products, driving many to immigrate to urban areas.

In a parallel internal manoeuvre, the Saddam River (a 565 Km waterway between Baghdad and Basra) is ostensibly designed to reclaim polluted land, but more significantly the project aimed 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.

The Euphrates-Tigris Basin

Amadeo 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 be over-generalized, it does seem to be an accurate description of so much of the ‘reconstruction’ projects being pursued in the Middle East today.


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. A parallel aim is to turn “mountain Turks” (an offensive official description of Kurds) into loyal Turks. This is not unique to Turkey as dam building is also used in India to clear valleys where peasant struggle is high.

The Turkish scheme is a long standing multi-level enterprise which began in 1975 and is known by the acronym GAP (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, Southern Anatolia Project). So far it has led to large landowners solidifying their holdings vis-à-vis poor farmers and an assault on Kurdish culture resulting in evermore alienation from central government.

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. GAP 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 Atatürk Dam alone meant 155 villages were submerged, the power base of Kurdish rebels wiped out overnight. “Mountain Turks” will then be cordoned off in reservations, in a policy reminiscent of the US treatment of native Indian tribes in previous centuries. Those who decide to collaborate with the central government will be ‘integrated,’ the rest will remain ‘differentiated.’ It is noteworthy that some dams are built neither for hydroelectric power nor for irrigation purposes but as a physical barrier against insurgent activity. The eleven proposed dams in the Hakkari and Sirnak provinces along the border with Iraq and Iran come under this category (Josst Jongerden).

In another ambitious move, the Turkish ruling class has decided to take on and subdue the Syrian and Iraqi states’ water policies one at a time. First, the Euphrates will be blocked bringing the Syrians to their knees (as well as forcing them to curtail PKK activities), and, once they have agreed to the price increases, the Tigris will be targeted in order to win similar concessions from the Iraqis. Turkey’s infrastructural work in the river basin of the Euphrates and Tigris has resulted in Iraq’s spring water reserves to fall from 40 billion cubic meters to 11 billion (Joost Jongerden). In a blatant attempt to bully their southern neighbours the former Turkish president Turgut Özal once said, “We don’t tell Arabs what to do with their oil, so we don’t accept any suggestion from them about what to do with our water” (Joost Jongerden).

The water crisis has helped accelerate a rapprochement between Iraq and Syria, which have been bitter rivals for decades (Ed Blanche). A NATO conflict scenario envisages Syria and Iraq execute a joint invasion of Turkey over water (Joost Jongerden). Interestingly, Turkey already ships water to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and now it is negotiating to sell water to Israel. Rainfall in the entire Cyprus island has fallen by 15% since the 1970s and “a land once marked with rivers and lakes now has only artificial reservoirs, and many of these are half full” (Alexander Bell). In the absence of a proletarian solution, the interconnectedness of these problems tends to reinforce artificial national boundaries instead of putting them under erasure.

Atatürk - Euphrates dam for electricity and irrigation


A quote from Chaim Weizman, the first President of Israel, will serve to contextualise the roots of the problem, “The whole economic future of Palestine is dependent upon its water supply … [which] must mainly be derived from the slopes of Mount Heron, from the headwaters of the Jordan and from the Litani River in Lebanon.” The British or French Mandates conveniently neglected the presence of Arabs in the land and granted the Jewish people control over the natural resources in the area (Jad Isaac and Leonardo Hosh). Today Israel’s economic and technological superiority shapes water shortage in Palestine and Jordan. 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. Initially this suppression used mostly imperial and coercive strategies but now it tends to utilise more hegemonic strategies (where compliance by Palestinians is viewed as common sense and the only viable option), with imperial coercion used only as a backup measure (the distinction between ‘imperial’ and ‘hegemonic’ is borrowed from Zeitoun and Warner).

To illustrate, let us note that during the 1948 war this translated into the physical destruction of the Rutenberg electricity generating plant in “an attempt to avoid exclusive Arab control over the use of the River Jordan and Yarmouk rivers” (Jad Isaac and Leonardo Hosh). Gradually the techniques of domination became more refined. 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). Over the years, therefore, there has been a shift from direct or ‘imperial’ domination of Palestinian water resources to a more subtle or ‘hegemonic’ form of control after the 1995 Oslo Accords (Mark Zeitoun).

The latest round of ‘peace’ negotiations mediated by Obama are meant to cement this shift but tellingly Israel still relies on a mixture of ‘imperial’ and ‘hegemonic’ methods for maintaining its superiority. In 2002, for instance, one of the first targets of the Israeli advance into Jenin was the city’s water system. This technique of water-deprivation-as-collective-punishment will continue to pay handsome dividend at the negotiating table for Israel. Control of water is also an indirect method of limiting Palestinian population growth and development. 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).

Whereas Israel has the technological capacity to treat and reuse waste water, Palestinian farmers cannot afford the procedure, although in recent years a few desalination plants have been set up in the Gaza strip owned and operated by the Palestinian Water Authority. 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.

Water was one of the underlying causes of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as well as a rallying cry for the Intifada. As Alexander Bell has explained, “the underground aquifers in the West Bank and the headwaters of the River Jordan in the Golan ensured that life in Jerusalem could be sufficiently resourced.” After all, some 40 percent of Israel’s water is now 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 Palestinian 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.’ During the Oslo and Camp David negotiations, Israel insisted on keeping control of the underground resources of Mountain Aquifer (the region’s largest reservoir) in any permanent resolution. The patterns of settlements on the West bank are primarily shaped by access to water.

World Water Day protest targets Massachusetts-Israel Water Partnership


We suggest that in the early days of the theocracy, the technocratic wing of the regime tried to inaugurate a depoliticised version of Trotsky’s ‘uneven and combined development’ in the water industry. The project was certainly ambitious. Ancient techniques of water irrigation (the Qanat system), and windcatchers (Baad-gir), were to be fused with the latest imported technology from the West; the Caspian Sea was to be connected to the Persian Gulf via a water canal (the ill-fated Iranrud ایران‌رود project); lakes and dams were to be built strategically to regulate agriculture as well as police the recalcitrant peripheral provinces of Kurdistan, Khuzestan and Baluchistan; and deserts were to bloom with a million flowers. Figures suggest around 650 dams have been built since 1979 with 400 more planned. This technocratic blueprint is now in tatters, and the mullah-bourgeoisie finds itself in a deep ecological crisis, due mostly to its own incompetence.

One sign of this malaise is its inability to manage and modernise the water industry. Water usage is outsripping renewed fresh water and this can only result in what experts call 'water-bankrupcy' (Ruzbeh Eskandari, BBC Persian, 17/12/2023). The inefficient nature of Iranian agriculture is repsonsible for the greatest volume of waste, although rural water shortage is even worse than urban water shortage. In turn, small farmers who do not receive suffient water have no choice but to sell up and migrate to the cities.

Another stark indication of this strategic failure is the simultaneous occurrence of droughts and floods in nearby locations. In August 2023 Zabol city (in Balochistan province, on the border with Afghanistan) witnessed protest over lack of water, whilst southern parts of the province were submerged under water. Droughts contribute to severe sand storms and pollution which has seen a sharp rise in lung related illnesses. Transporting water from the Sea of Oman would be costly and ineffective, partly because there is little investment in desalination plants. All this has been exacerbated since the return of Taleban to neighbouring Afghanistan. As Sadat and Sayed have explained, “The Helmand River has been at the centre of a growing dispute between Afghanistan and Iran over water rights and the construction of the Kamal Khan dam.” The Taleban have greatly reduced the flow of water to Iran with predictable repercussions.

Iranians protesting lack of water, Zabol, 2023

Meanwhile, sinkholes are becoming an ever increasing problem in both city and country. Usually, they are caused by the overuse of underground waters, but a recent sinkhole in the middle of a Tehran highway was traced to the theft of water pipelines (IranWire). Poverty leads to desperation and desperation creates a black market in water pipelines and electricity cables. Needless to say, being one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world does not help the water industry either. Poor city planning, lack of earthquake-proof buildings, subsidence, empty aquifers, and corruption are additional factors limiting the state’s ability to respond to the crisis. Last but not least, there is the water-intensive nature of urban industries and agri-business which drain water supplies at an alarming rate. In fact, the overwhelming share of water resources goes towards agriculture, a sector that continues to be inefficient and wasteful. The above factors have resulted in the severe depletion of renewal water. Both the present regime and the previous monarchic setup are responsible for the current crisis.

A sinkhole in Tehran, 2023

The regime deflects criticism by denying underlining causes or by blaming unreasonable consumer demand and bottlenecks in the supply chain. Instead of systemic solutions, short term emergency fixes are employed. For example, water shortage in the cities is treated through mobile water tankers supplying directly to the residents. Sinkholes are covered up by pouring tonnes of concrete down them. Out of sight, out of mind. City-dwellers are pitted against farmers; cities are placed in competition for scarce resources with each other; and, tension with neighbouring countries is ratchet-up in order to lay the blame on the ‘other’.

However, nothing mobilises the people more urgently than thirst and this fight over the social wage cannot be suppressed indefinitely. The most violent manifestation of the dispute occurs with regularity in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. Key cities such as Abadan and Khorramshahr and Ahvaz witness protests over water shortage or the poor quality of water. The drying up of the 400 km Zayandeh River زاینده رود which goes through the key city of Isfahan has also led to protests by environmentalists and farmers. These too were ruthlessly put down by Special Forces. In fact, Nikahang Kowsar has correctly observed a correlation between water-deprived regions and the severity of the security forces treatment of protests. He also suggests that the crisis which previously plagued mostly working class Iranians is now impacting the middle class as well (Deutsche Welle website). In response the mullah-bourgeoisie organises public prayers for rainfall.


As post-boom governments of the region (except for Israel and Turkey and Saudi Arabia) 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 end up cementing existing class and national privileges. 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’ (as well as Chinese and Japanese) governments will use this leverage to exert socio-political pressure. We are already witnessing in some regions of the Middle East the construction and maintenance of water-wasteful tourist attractions such as golf courses and swimming pools, as proletarians are increasingly denied basic needs.

In a way, ‘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 Middle Eastern 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 pushing the concept of ‘virtual water’ (i.e., water that is embedded, embodied or hidden in water-intensive commodities such as wheat). Once the policy has been accepted by MENA (Middle Eastern & North African) countries, the prices of many commodities will increase dramatically.

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. Related to this manoeuvre is the discursive construction of one the most imbecilic theoretical concept used by geographers and hydrologists, known as, “peak water.” Plagiarised from analysis of oil consumption, “peak water” refers to the point when demand for water meets and then outstrips supply. The argument is that as aquifers are over-pumped, groundwater becomes depleted and seawater seeps into empty caverns, ruining the aquifer (Alexander Bell). Only under a regime as moronic as capitalism, can experts construct interpretive repertoires for mystifying how a planet which is 70% water can suffer from “peak water.” The distinction between “fresh water” (2.5% of total water available) and “salt water” (the remaining 97.5%) is purely a question of political economy.

It is capitalism’s ‘development’ that is 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. Some far sighted capitalists and their faithful scientific servants are encouraging farming the sea as opposed to fishing it (Ismail Serageldin). Less imaginative capitalists feel safer with traditional methods of acquiring profits. “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).

In some parts of Africa there is the cruel irony of simultaneous droughts and flash-floods. Some parts of Kenya have been suffering from droughts, leading to the death of humans and livestock since 2004. In other regions of the same country flash-floods have displaced thousands, washed away roads, brought about water-borne diseases and slowed down agricultural activities (Simon Roughneen).

And yet capital’s apparent supremacy conceals fissures of vulnerability. As surplus value from sectors with a low organic composition of capital becomes 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.

An innocuous instance of this bourgeois violence has been documented in the contested nature of swimming pools in the United Sates. These social spaces were segregated in America, first by gender and then by race and the segregation was policed through violent means. The bourgeoisie used municipal pools to Americanize young immigrant proletarians. They in turn subverted these goals through “rowdy” behaviour. When following protests blacks were finally allowed to use swimming pools alongside other “races,” the municipal authorities lost interest in maintaining public pools (Jeff Wiltse).

Water disputes are becoming evermore entangled. As mentioned already, 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). In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh protest against contamination of water after the infamous 1984 Union Carbide plant in Bhopal are still rumbling on. Meanwhile, as the upmarket Delhi of Luytens receives 250 litres of water per person per day, the slum of Najafgarh on the city outskirts receives less than 30 litres per person per day.

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-borne diseases. By 2025 ... two-third of the world’s people will not have enough water for the basics of life” (Maude Barlow). Various World Bank/IMF integrationist and nation-state isolationist strategies of regulating water as a commodity are doomed attempts to control the uncontrollable. The water crisis is neither ‘natural’ nor ‘man-made.’ It is capitalist-made! A capitalist system as creaky and rusty as the qanats left to crumble years ago.

The Melancholic Troglodytes

Originally published as a leaflet on 8.03.2003

Expanded and groovyfied on 30.09.2010

Expanded for The People’s Clowns on 02.08.2023

Proletarian resilience in the face of capitalist-induced desertification


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