Resource wars for actual, important resources?

This is an interesting article about how the ISIS invasion of Northern Iraq is actually a “water war”, as they are actively targeting water resources. Interestingly, it was the taking of an oil field last week which got all the attention, which might show the American media’s biased thinking about the conflict in general:


It certainly lends support to the cause of Kurdish autonomy. The Iraqi state is unable to provide security so Kurdish militias once again are providing security and coordination.


as prophesied

The question is does this lead to a Kurdish state? And if so, what does that mean for Kurdish communities in places like Iran, Syria, or Turkey? Does this lead to a further destabilization of those regions or just an exodus?

But, again, I think that is getting us off track. We’re all focused on nationalists, religious, or political power, but as we can see, there is also a concerted effort to control resources that are necessary for human life. This could make other wars seem tame by comparison.

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Well, as you noted, it’s only a new thing to Americans who think in terms of oil. Before oil, fighting over water was a worldwide pastime, especially in Mesopotamia. The difference with oil is that oil is more difficult to find than water, and is more acutely useful in maintaining security and trade. Oil production is diversifying around the world now that the stuff near the surface of the desert is nearly tapped out. So Iraq’s place in that market isn’t as important.

Water is a local issue in Iraq and is an example of a return to more “normal” dynamics from the odd 20th century. Bluntly, Iraqi oil is no longer a compelling reason to allow the Kurds to be kept down. The older dynamic where the people who are local to water resources and “take an active interest” (as the Kurds tend to do) are going to see Kurdish local power rise again. Also, when they do they’ll have oil, so… yay for them?

I think it’s less of a matter of water driving global conflict and more a matter of oil becoming more expensive and global. When the same thing happens with water, it won’t work the same way as oil because oil is more narrowly accessible from geological formations. Water just needs to be desalinated and transported somehow, whether through evaporation and rain, or by plant and pipeline. More warming means more evaporation and rain, and more technology means more options for desalination and piping.

So the wars, I think, are going to continue over water to some degree, but as a new thing I think the next major series of wars is going to be over whether we’ll continue to treat technological ideas (desalinating, agriculture, solar, education, etc.) as exclusive goods, monetizing information to the fullest and restricting people from learning and using new technology. That is the coming global conflict that is reflected in water wars, food riots, and religious extremism. They’re symptoms of a much more fundamental economic problem: the fiction of exclusive intellectual property rights.


I think you have some good points here, but I don’t entirely agree. Again, I think you are viewing this from a western, geo-political perspective. You’re assuming the primary actors here are the powerful in Baghdad, here in the US, in Saudi Arabia, Iran, even Kurdistan. But as the Sunni Awakening and the ISIS incursion is teaching us, local actors are just as important in shaping the landscape and setting the agenda.

If intellectual property is a player in shaping the coming violence, it’s all about how the fiction of intellectual property rights are tied into technologies related to food and water. If the technologies that can desalinate water are being horded, that’s a bigger crisis than oil, I’d argue. Same with GMO foods, which have been touted as the way to make sure everyone has enough food-- but if a for-profit company holds the patents, and is able to back those patents with, say a private military force (Blackwater type security company, perhaps), whether or not these are fictions (which I agree with you entirely on the point) doesn’t really matter.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that oil is out of the picture entirely, but on some level, we (and by we, I mean smart people who work on climate change - not some pretentious jerk like me :wink: ) are just making educated guesses about the impact of climate change on each region of the world. It’s not necessarily global warming that leads to a more “hot house” climate, meaning more rain in more places. But whatever the changing climate does in the next 30-50 to 100 years, it’s likely to mean that existing patterns of food growth and distribution, as well as access to water will change. We’re just not sure what that will mean going into the future. Who knows, it could mean a far more abundant landscape around the world, but it could mean the opposite too. I’m certainly skeptical of universalist pronouncements, but I’d argue that we need to have a universal acceptance that access to good, healthy food and clean water is a universal human right that cannot be infringed upon, especially by those who would seek to make a profit off of such things.

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For sure the thing that guarantees these rights (and all rights) are reasonably transparent, reasonably democratic-republican states. Climate change is going to be slow, but it’s going to be a slow process of movement. Human populations will move to some extent, but the major movement will have to be in human-assisted movement of ecosystems. That’s the only way we’ll keep this extinction event from turning really, really bad in terms of our own ecosystem of food production. If we can’t move natural biomes, how can we move and adapt our ag sectors?

The reason I bring up exclusive IP (similar things can be said for things like mining concessions and other unregulated or too-lightly-regulated monopolies) is that this movement of ecosystems is going to require trillions of small changes in our actions distributed throughout the economy across several generations. It’s going to mean moving more of our human footprint out of the “easy living” of coastal lowlands and well-watered river valleys and into places where we’ll have less negative impact on wildlife reserves and the movement of wild populations. So ironically, we’re going to be moving to places with abundant green energy like Phoenix and Fallujah. These places require technology to survive, but that’s what our species excels at, right? This movement is also going to have to be largely voluntary, as responses to pollution taxes and property taxes and zoning. Which means people are going to have to do the gruntwork themselves. In doing that gruntwork it seems to me that funneling all technological decisions through IP lawyers is going to be a huge brake on people’s contributions to the world’s knowledge base of technology.

Anyway, that’s probably beside the point a little bit. In the political conflict over patent reform, the main issue seems to be in convincing people that patent holders and IP lawyers can still make good money even if they don’t have the legal right to treat copyable IP like an exclusive physical good. The exclusive nature of water and food and fuel and ore is what makes things scarce. Making knowledge non-copyable is a kind of crime that will eventually be seen as a violation of human rights and an infringement on our ability to adapt and survive.


Of course, but not all people have or will have equal ability to move. Look at Katrina–the people most effected by that were the people who had less mobility and less access to government services/help. The people who could leave did, and the majority who stayed kind of had to (no car, no way to get out of town). Unless we address the issue of inequality at its core, and give everyone the same access to the basics (and in our society, that includes mobility), then the ability to avoid the problems associated with climate change will be linked to wealth. As has historically happened, the elite get the best, most profitable, and the safest land.

Water and food should not be exclusive, though. when you commoditize food, for example, you screw with people’s livelihood. Check out Late Victorian Holocausts by Make Davis for example, where he argues that natural disasters that have a negative impact on human populations are almost always the result of policy. He points to the Irish famine in the middle of the 19th century (though he glosses over that a bit) and the British policy in India, where food grown on people’s land had been replaced by a cash crop system in the 19th century, making people’s livelihood tied to a good crop of say cotton. and since people now had to pay taxes to the British authorities, they gave up their food crops for entire crops for sale–and guess what happens during a famine and no one had set aside grain stores for a disaster (as was traditional in the old system)? In fact the British were actively moving out food stuffs from India during the worst of it, because there was a minor famine in Europe at the time.

There are also things like cheap, subsidized crops from the US (most notably corn) undermining local crops in other places (parts of Africa for example). Food and water should not ever be a commoditiy that is sold for a profit. Period.

For the role of water in more modern conflicts, see Israel-Palestine (since I want to be all topical like!):

I totally agree with this. As a producer of knowledge myself, I am fully aware that I will never have some runaway best seller as a writer of history, and would much rather people have access to my work in order to create discussions on the topic in the public sphere. But the passing of laws through federal laws and international treaties illustrates just how porous the whole thing is and is likely to remain.

I don’t think that these two issues are unrelated, nor do you I think. I do think that we absolutely need to get basics out of the realm of profit making, water, food, and arguable knowledge production (but does that extend to the production of all culture too? What say you?). How that happens is a far murkier proposition, I think.

To be fair, that’s been true in the north for like 10 years.

What I want to know is, why is Turkey never a part of these discussions. They’re the scariest mofo’s in the whole region, and they do NOT want autonomous Kurds. One of these days they could well get involved, and by involved I mean in the structure fire sense of the word.

and maps. I blame a lot of this on british cartographers c 1918

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This is a good point. There are Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, in addition to Iraq. We likely never hear about Turkey, because they are in theory our allies and have been for ages. We overlook how they’ve suppressed non-Turkish populations for ages (not just Kurds, but other groups as well - don’t forget that Turkey used to be the multi-confessional, lingustic, and Ethnic Ottoman empire). Though apparently now Erdogan is trying to pander to them, but you have decades of ultra-Turkish nationalism built up, so we’ll see where that goes.


How we manage to be allies to Turkey and the Kurdish Guard is actually one of the only good foreign policy moves to come out of the Bush White House, if only for not screwing up their existing ‘enemy of my enemy’ dynamic.


I hope you’re right that our technology to treat and transport water improves greatly in the near future, but I disagree that oil is more valuable and less accessible than water. Wars have always been fought over water rights, and that’s only going to get worse in future, if human nature is any guide. You can live your entire lifetime without one specific fuel source. Your entire lifetime will boil (hah!) down to about 3-5 days without water.

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Because Turkey brings up further issues of Russia’s access to Mediterranean ocean trade, it brings up Syria and the Caucasus, and everything goes geopolitical in a completely separate dimension to our own oil shenanigans. Fifty years from now our kids will be learning about the complex diplomatic relationships developing between Russia, Turkey, and Syria, much as we learned about our relationships with Saddam Hussein and the Gulf States. For right now, it’s opaque and I don’t have any good speculations.

A few years ago during the Cyprus financial crisis I just assumed that Cyprus had been used as a base for Russian business interests in Syria. The locals weren’t piling up that cash, and the expats that had moved in all seemed to be Russian/Ukrainian/etc. With that falling apart, it wasn’t big a surprise that Cyprian banks weren’t able to manage the capital flight. That’s pretty much the only speculation I have that seems clever. Maybe a knock-on effect of the fall of Syria into chaos was that the established oligarchies in Ukraine, Bulgaria, etc., were all disrupted.

Turkey occupies key real estate, has a big military, but for them to be involved in Syria and Iraq would seem (to the late-20th century mindset of Very Serious People) to be like the return of the Ottoman Empire. I think that’s a big reason for their low profile south of their border. I’ve seen very little reporting about what Turks feel about Syria/Iraq. The only things I’ve seen have been the news about internal crackdowns and strong movements to reject social liberalism Until Turkey becomes more democratic and sympathetic to the Kurds, they can’t offer anything but passive unhelpfulness.

Germany seems to have an okay relationship with their very close neighbors. There’s hope that Turkey will move forward with that example, but Kurdistan is going to be a big part of Turkey’s next step as a civil society.


Yeah, that’s kind of my point. Oil is going to become more and more optional, both in usage and sources. My point about water is that I don’t think water wars are the only future. I hope we are able to make water a bit more optional as well. Maybe not entirely in consumption, but certainly in production and transportation. Having those options makes the wars more optional as well.


I believe you! And, no offense intended, I don’t think you have a very good handle on the geopolitics of Turkey, but you do seem to know that. Maybe a question is in order? I have a handle on the fact that Turkey -by rights- should be putting up a HUGE stink… and they just seem to be content with border security (and some shelling across it from time to time when -their- Kurds are up to something on the Iraqi side).

All I know is that it is underdiscussed, and I’d like to hear from some knowledgable folks, or local, on that point. Seeking Fact finders, not storytellers.


No more than a medieval siege was a war over food.

I hope you’re right! Not entirely convinced, but it’ll be a much nicer world for our grandchildren if you are.


Absolutely. This is down to the ability of people to pool their wealth and go beyond mere pooling to set up governments to coordinate and finance the mechanisms of civilization and survival.

I apologize, I meant to say “rivalrous,” in the narrow economic sense, where the physical act of having (and consuming) a good means that no one else can do the same for that good. So IP is not rivalrous, but in theory it is exclusive in that IP owners have the legal right to deny the use of the good. I can’t think of an example of a rivalrous good like food also being exclusive. Perhaps the Soup Nazi’s soup. He sells soup, but none for you!

Murky, for sure. The example of food production, for example. Because food production varies from year to year, because disasters and rats occur to stores of food, food overproduction is necessary for civilization to continue, but the market price isn’t going to support year after year of comfortable overproduction. Even worse, If it were left entirely to the market, the tendency to consolidate production will tend toward oligopoly and monopoly. That would result in explicit underproduction to keep profits high and keep costs low.

The answer is subsidy, but subsidy has gotten such bad press for so long that powerful neo-liberals have managed to stop subsidies in developing countries. So now the subsidies are asymmetrical and where they exist they are badly structured. Mix that in with free-trade extremism and yes, developing countries get screwed in the food market.

My personal view is that we should move our subsidy system to something that isn’t so dysfunctional, re-erect some level of international trade tariffs, and allow other countries to do the same. The diversity in food production around the world should be enough that production subsidies can be fairly low and be paid as a simple percentage of the price paid to producers when they sell their crops.

But that’s not what current U.S. subsidies are for. The original political reason (aside from wartime planning) was to maintain farms as viable family businesses. But with mechanization, the population needed to farm is so small that multi-generational family farms don’t exist any more anyway. So every other year we’re “saving” corporate farms from regional droughts or price fluctuations when, like any other big cyborg corporation, it doesn’t need to worry as much about stability and making sure every bit of land always produces revenue. They can “ride out” downturns and finance booms. So we could shitcan all the weird subsidies that don’t serve to just move the production curve up a little bit from equilibrium. And we could antitrust-hammer the monopoly players like ADM as well, which would move the equilibrium point of production up still farther and reduce the need for subsidy.

The subsidies also allow democracy to pick and choose its food sources a little bit, as well. So no subsidies for tobacco. Taxes instead, on production. The same for marijuana, but maybe the varieties used for hemp production are managed differently. Maybe, eventually, no subsidies for decorative grass seed. But these aren’t really food crops, so the need to have a production subsidy isn’t really there.

Anyway, these are marginal measures, which I like much more than the categorical measures everyone seems to put things in terms of. And they don’t get marginal profits out of the production of basics, but with anti-trust measures and publicly-managed natural monopolies they do manage very explicitly what’s called “economic profit”, which is the kind of extractive profit that means we can’t have nice things. When a business makes economic profits, a very few get very nice things, but the rest of us only get pissed.


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