From Nature: Science Journalism Dies, No Water Wars

Haim Watzman

It’s the end of the day and I don’t have time to write what I planned, but I’d like to flag two worthwhile articles in the March 19 issue of Nature (a publication I’ve written for in the past).

As a sometime writer about science, I was discouraged to read in Science journalism: Supplanting the old media?, by Geoff Brumfiel, that-big surprise-the daily press is drastically cutting its science coverage and firing its science beat reporters. According to Brumfiel, science blogs, such as, are now providing interested readers with some of the reportage they used to receive in the general press and in popular science magazines, but of course readers who don’t actively look for science coverage but who used to glance at an occasional science headline that caught their eye are now left with no coverage at all-further distancing the general public from understanding science.

But so far there’s no alternative for another vital role filled by the science beat reporter:

Others worry about the less questioning approach that comes with a stress on communication rather than journalism. “Science is like any other enterprise,” says Blum. “It’s human, it’s flawed, it’s filled with politics and ego. You need journalists, theoretically, to check those kinds of things,” she says. In the United States, at least, the newspaper, the traditional home of investigations and critical reporting, is on its way out, says Hotz. “What we need is to invent new sources of independently certified fact.”


The second is a thought-provoking essay by Wendy Barnaby, Do Nations Go To War Over Water? It should be of special interest to SoJo’s readers, given the role that water plays in the Israel-Arab conflict. I don’t know if she’s right, but she certainly offers an argument I haven’t heard before. (Unfortunately, the entire article seems to be available to subscribers, so I’ll quote liberally here.)

Barnaby relates how she set out to write a book on water wars.

It seemed a good idea. The 1990s had seen cataclysmic forecasts, such as former World Bank vice-president Ismail Serageldin’s often-quoted 1995 prophecy that, although “the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.

This and similar warnings entered the zeitgeist. Tony Allan, a social scientist at King’s College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, summarized4 the not-so-subtle argument as “if you run out of water you reach for a Kalashnikov or summon the air strike”….

I had no difficulty finding sources to back up this argument, and I set about writing chapters on the Jordan, the Nile and the Tigris–Euphrates river systems. My chapter choice relied on what seemed a perfectly reasonable assumption: that water scarcity was governed by the presence or absence of flowing water….

Allan’s earlier thinking about water wars began to change after meeting the late Gideon Fishelson, an agricultural economist at Tel Aviv University, Israel. Fishelson argued that it is foolish for Israel, a water-short country, to grow and then export products such as oranges and avocados, which require a lot of water to cultivate. Fishelson’s work prompted Allan to realize that water ’embedded’ in traded products could be important in explaining the absence of conflict over water in the region….

Israel ran out of water in the 1950s: it has not since then produced enough water to meet all of its needs, including food production. Jordan has been in the same situation since the 1960s; Egypt since the 1970s. Although it is true that these countries have fought wars with each other, they have not fought over water. Instead they all import grain. As Allan points out, more ‘virtual’ water flows into the Middle East each year embedded in grain than flows down the Nile to Egyptian farmers.

Perhaps the most often quoted example of a water war is the situation in the West Bank between Palestinians and Israel. But as Mark Zeitoun, senior lecturer in development studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, has explained, contrary to what both the mass media and some academic literature say on the subject, while there is conflict and tension – as well as cooperation – there is no ‘water war’ here either.

Ten million people now live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. If they were to be self-sufficient in food, they would need ten billion cubic metres of water per year. As it is, they have only about one-third of that: enough to grow 15–20% of their food. They import the rest in the form of food. When it comes to water for domestic and industrial use, the rainfall and geology of the West Bank alone should provide enough water for the population there: Ramallah has a higher annual average rainfall than Berlin. But today, water for even these needs is scarce.

Power struggles and politics have led to overt and institutionalized conflict over water – but no armed conflict, as there is over borders and statehood. Instead, Palestinian and Israeli water professionals interact on a Joint Water Committee, established by the Oslo-II Accords in 1995. It is not an equal partnership: Israel has de facto veto power on the committee. But they continue to meet, and issue official expressions of cooperation, even in the face of military action. Inequitable access to water resources is a result of the broader conflict and power dynamics: it does not itself cause war….

[I]t is still important that the popular myth of water wars somehow be dispelled once and for all. This will not only stop unsettling and incorrect predictions of international conflict over water. It will also discourage a certain public resignation that climate change will bring war, and focus attention instead on what politicians can do to avoid it: most importantly, improve the conditions of trade for developing countries to strengthen their economies. And it would help to convince water engineers and managers, who still tend to see water shortages in terms of local supply and demand, that the solutions to water scarcity and security lie outside the water sector in the water/food/trade/economic development nexus. It would be great if we could unclog our stream of thought about the misleading notions of ‘water wars’.