US Weaponizes Environmental Rhetoric to Seek Water Hegemony

Yves here. We’ve pointed out that InfoBRICS makes no bones about its editorial point of view, not unlike other outlets whose material we sometimes syndicate, such as Common Dreams and Yale Climate Connections. We’ve pointed out from the inception of this website that potable waters was the natural resource set to come under very serious stress first, with the crunch time estimated then as early as 2040. So this piece fills a gap by highlighting the biggest water conflict, industry versus the environment, and some observations on how the US is playing it.

By Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts. Originally published at InfoBRICS

Much has been written on the global energy, food and fuel crises. I wrote before on how today’s fuel warsin 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.

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  1. iread

    Well, the first thing that comes to mind is fracking in the US which seriously contaminates water supplies,
    which now reminds me of the injection of radioactive wastes long ago,… Remember,… Into one of the largest underground acquifers,… was it the Ogallala ?, On the grounds it was so vast, like the ocean, it hardly mattered…Such that all those big irrigation circles you see from the air in that neck of the woods were spraying slightly radioactive water,… which now reminds me,.. I worked for Clean Water Action once upon a time….Oh, dear, what a nightmare… I just woke up.

    My distilled water is still in the trunk of the car. Even that one can’t help wondering, reading as I did recently that organic produce, thanks to the assent of the organics authority, is now sprayed with,….. horrors, I think I’ve blocked it.
    …Oh, and wasn’t that rancher in Oregon cited for holding water that didn’t belong to him, the rain, in a catchment, a pond, for fire prevention, on his own property…..illegally they said. Some new law I missed
    I guess. Somehow these so called
    environmental concerns, or issues as framed perhaps, repeatedly bring one to the brink of….oh, dear, something else entirely. Like trying to win the teddy bear at the fair by getting the lipstick on a really slippery pig.

    1. juno mas

      The whole state of California is now beyond a water deficit. So Lake Superior is currently safe. Northern Mexico (Baja) not so much. The Colorado River allotments to the adjacent states are being reduced, with Mexico getting the hind most.

      California’s Central Valley which produces enormous agricultural product is partially underwater this year. In future years exchanging pistachio orchards for potato plants may be an option to reduce water consumption.

      1. bill

        Potato plants left California along with the sugar subsidies, long ago.

        BTW I was a financial consultant for Price Brothers, Dayton, Ohio. Price was the company that supplied the components and the know-how to manufacture the large pre-stressed concrete pressure pipe for the Great Man-Made River Project.What shame that we destroyed it.

    2. some guy

      California would probably try agitating for NAWAPA.

      Actually, Southern California would probably try agitating for NAWAPA. Northern California might join Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska in agitating against it. And if a Greater NAWAPA were proposed, meaning attaching the Great Lakes to Lake Winnipeg, Great Bear Lake , Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River to sent Great Lakes water up, over, across and back down to the Water Welfare Southwest and Southern California; then Prairie Canada and the Great Lakestan States and Provinces would also join the opposition.

      Unless the State and Provincial governors were all secret agents for NAWAPA.

    3. redleg

      The southwestern states have been proposing various schemes to do this for decades. If you want to see VBNMW and MAGA types unite, just mention a Lake Superior water pipeline. That’s what happened in 2018 or 19 when someone submitted a water appropriations permit application for a “Water Train” to rail transport water from Dakota Country MN to Arizona.

  2. Michaelmas

    YS: ….with the crunch time estimated then as early as 2040.

    Sooner. But I assume you’re being conservative.

    And of course it’ll be on a regional basis. But the US South West, large portions of Africa, and other places are practically there.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      It was estimated at 2040 in the early 2000s! I assume with climate models underestimating the arrival time of bad outcomes, it was coming sooner (witness Cape Town and Uruguay) but did not have more current forecasts.

      1. Barnes

        I witnessed Cape Town water shortage first hand with an allowance of 50 litres per person per day. That is really not a lot. Imagine people trying to save water by not flushing after number one. Even then I saw people wash their cars, water their plants and a huge percentage of real estate owners had their own illegal well in the backyard. And those wells kept getting drilled, despite the fact that those clearly worsened the salinisation issues of coastal aquifers. Authorities half hearted attempts to crack down on those through government monitoring were a joke.
        Some guest houses even kept their pools active because reasons you know…

        South African load shedding issues are a different matter because they can be eased by solar and storage, if you can afford it. But water…

      2. Expat2uruguay

        Yves, regarding the water situation and Uruguay – I just posted this to links, (it’s currently in moderation): the rains have come and save the situation, and the government has also built a pipeline to another watershed to enhance the supply of fresh water for Montevideo.

        After declaring a water emergency on June 19, the Uruguayan government announced the construction of a project to transfer water from the southern San José river to the Santa Lucía with a view to reinforcing the reserves that supply Montevideo and the metropolitan area.

        Once the work was completed, the transfer began to function on August 10 and represents an increase of 200,000 mt3 of water per day in the supply to the area, which consumes an average of 500,000 mt3 per day. “This new source of drinking water supply for the metropolitan area will be essential, since, given the persistent water deficit, it will make it possible to more efficiently manage the use of the Paso Severino reserves,” said the OSE [state water company -expat2uruguay] authorities. As they explained, the work had a cost of 20 million dollars and implied the installation of 13 km of pipeline during 35 working days.”

  3. Harvey Stavenes

    I live in Canada, and have said for years that some day in the near future
    the US will invade Canada for its water.

      1. digi_owl

        Ah yes, the UCAS, or United Canadian American States, of Shadowrun fame.

        Sadly we are way past the start date of the sixth world, and there have been no dragons sighted over mount Fuji or anywhere else.

    1. Ron Rutter

      I have a feeling Site C could be about water to the US of A. The topology (correct term??) is there.

    2. steelhead23

      No, not the United States, but Bechtel et al. There is a project underway to put title to every point on Earth, to commodify all flows, in short, to build the Capitalist Utopia Ayn Rand only dreamt of – if the capitalist do not kill us all first. IMF, the World Bank, Goldman Sachs and their friends all lust to test the limits of “willingness to pay” for water. You ain’t wrong. I’m just focusing your finger pointin’.

  4. Mikel

    “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.”

    Industrial and developmental needs may be complex, but I don’t think there’s anything complex about the basic need for water.

  5. Hepativore

    I always wondered as to how much the current landscape of environmental movements are truly focused on advocating practical solutions to promote environmental well-being…or putting a green front on corporate astroturfing to get politicians to fund the pet projects of our financial elites as part of their financialization schemes.

    Finally, many “environmental advocacy” ideas seem to be backdoor attempts by our elites and their PMC handmaidens to promote the acceptance of austerity, especially towards the precariat.

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