US weaponizes environmental rhetoric to seek water hegemony

Managing water access is one of the great challenges of this century, and one should expect to see many more disputes and conflicts arising over that issue, both intra-nationally and internationally.

Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts

Much has been written on the global energy, food and fuel crises. I wrote before on how today’s fuel wars in the Levant (which includes attacks on vessels) are made worse by US sanctions. Beyond fuel, it is common knowledge that many wars are fought over access to resources and it is also common sense to state that future wars may be over water rather than oil. Oil and water may not mix, as the saying goes, but the truth is that water, energy, oil, and even food are quite obviously connected. Not so much has been said or written, though, about United States plans for water hegemony.

When one hears about water conflicts, North Africa usually comes to mind first. I’ve written on how tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan over water have been on the rise and also on how the current Egyptian-Ethiopian hydropolitical dispute, pertaining to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, could escalate and turn into a regional water war. Rather than being something that could appear in the future, water conflicts are far from being rare events: they are rising internationally, mostly on local and intra-national levels but quite often on the international level also. Take the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, for instance: in 2020, Kiev blocked the North Crimean Canal, thereby bringing about huge humanitarian problems and a water crisis, as the Canal is known to provide around 85% of Crimea’s drinking water.

Environmental issues are pressing matters which increasingly gain importance in the context of rising deforestation and pollution. No one denies that. At the same time, no one should deny the fact that great and emerging powers routinely weaponize environmental agendas in their disputes.

The Amazon river system, which could actually be longer than the Nile, is at the center of a number of controversies, both locally and abroad. In Brazil, for example, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues and other lawmakers believe new oil finds could boost the economy of the Brazilian northern state of Amapa – 90% of which is within the Amazon rainforest. However, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or IBAMA, which is the agency responsible for enforcing federal environmental laws, denied a requisition from Brazil’s national oil company Petrobras to drill at the Amazon river basin’s mouth. This has sparked an ongoing political standoff.

Brazil’s attorney general’s office, or AGU, released an opinion on August 23 stating that a major impact study that the aforementioned IBAMA is demanding in fact is not necessary for the drilling project. This could pave the way for drilling, but the legal and political dispute has not been settled yet – and this places Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at a complicated situation: his vocal commitment to high environmental standards has certainly been one of his main assets in dealing with the US-led West, according to Andre Pagliarini, a nonresident fellow at the Washington Brazil Office and Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Lula has been under a lot of Western pressure to take a pro-Ukrainian stand but has maintained a mostly non-aligned position. His environmental credentials give him international credibility, so to speak, as the West increasingly pushes the green agenda. For Lula, Pagliarini says, the issue risks “alienating Washington and Brussels for good.”

It is always a challenge to reconcile, on the one hand, industrial and developmental needs and, on the other, environmental concerns. Those are complex endeavors, involving delicate technical issues. In any case, right now, Washington has geopolitical and geoeconomics interests in limiting Brazil’s access to the Amazon water resources. The American hypocrisy, as often happens, is quite blatant: the White House this year said US President Joe Biden does not regret endorsing Ford F-150, an electric truck that damages the Amazon river (the aluminum used poisons the waters).

The March 22-24 UN 2023 Water Conference was the first global conference on freshwater in almost 50 years, and the US played a major role in it. Washington has committed over $49 billion to advance the cause of equitable access to water, at home and globally. The irony is that nearly half of the tap water in the US is permanently contaminated according to a study from the US Geological Survey). Rather than simply “leading by example”, Washington seems to be trying to build a framework for the usage of world water resources analogous to Paris climate agreements. It is not necessarily just about environmental concerns per se, but it arguably has a lot to do with American well known appetite for hegemony.

The same game can be seen in Central Asia, with USAID “Smart Water” projects: it is about redirecting water resources to Afghanistan to restore American presence in that country, influencing Central Asian economic cooperation. American policies have already worsened water scarcity in North Africa and the Middle East. What happened at Libya’s “Great Man-Made River” project, a network of pipes supplying fresh water (the world’s largest irrigation project) is one of the most revolting examples. On 22 July 2011, during US-led foreign military intervention in that country, the Brega Plant, one of the two plants making pipes for the aforementioned project, was bombed by a NATO air strike. NATO officials at the time argued, without proof, that the plant was used as a military storage facility This was basically a war crime targeting civilian infrastructure and has a lot to do with the politics of water. With such a record, Washington has no moral standing to promote water equity.

Managing water access is one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century, and one should expect to see many more disputes and conflicts arising over that issue, both intra-nationally and internationally – sadly, environmental rhetoric will often be used as a tool by a superpower such as the United States.