A major piece in Friday’s Washington Post presented the picture of a newly vulnerable U.S. Fifth Fleet as Iranian warships bulk up their capability in the Persian Gulf.
But while a potential U.S.-Iranian naval clash--and the likely damage to Saudi oil facilities--preoccupies Americans, little is said about the region’s other great vulnerability: its dependence on largely undefended desalinization plants for fresh water.
And that makes the Gulf states doubly wary of a war with Iran, an expert on the region says, even as they goad Washington to be tougher with Tehran.
“If desalinization plants go down, there will be a major humanitarian disaster,” an official intimately familiar with Gulf state defenses told SpyTalk on Friday, on condition of anonymity.
"I would say that if Iranian missiles hit the desalinization plant at the Saudi side of the Bahrain Causeway, Riyadh would have to be completely evacuated in under 14 days," added Gwenyth Tddd, a former Fifth Fleet political advisor and White House national security official. "The Saudis have a huge aquifer, but they have severely depleted it over the past three decades because of their dream to export home grown wheat, etc.--an insane policy."
"Dubai cannot function without desal," Todd added by e-mail. "All those hotels, water features, ski slopes-just imagine.
"And Bahrain, which means 'Two Seas' in Arabic, has also screwed itself on the fresh water front. Bahrain's geology involves a limestone barrier that allowed the center of the island to create a wonderful fresh water aquifer, surrounded by the Gulf, hence the Two Seas. But then came the Khalifas" -- Bahrain's royal family--"and the dream of a super-luxury skyline."
They've toyed with Bahrain's geological foundation, Todd said, creating new, grave vulnerabilities.
"Four decades ago, there were fresh water lakes and swimming holes all around. But in building all these big towers, they punched holes in the limestone barrier, not only causing the loss of a lot of fresh water, but also letting in the salt water, creating a problem with brackish water. Farmers are screwed and the various 'Ayns' are mostly dry. Meanwhile, the Khalifas have been madly filling in the Gulf to expand their land mass area, so the traditional fishermen are also screwed."
Iran is not so vulnerable--at least on that front.
“Iran does not have that problem; it has rivers and lakes, but a considerable part of the population on this side of the Gulf exists on desalinated water,” said the official, who is not authorized to speak to the media.
“Concern about infrastructure will make states on this side of the Gulf most reluctant allies in a war with Iran. A lot of people don't want to believe this, but it is true.”
To be sure, “Striking the desalination plants would represent a major escalation of any conflict,” which would give Iran pause, because “retaliation in that scenario would probably be impressive,” the official said.
“Still, it is a vulnerability of the Gulf states, and would make them less likely at least in first instance to involve themselves in conflict between U.S. and Iran.”
The dependence on desalinization plants is their “Achilles heel,” according to Agence France-Presse.
“A desalination plant is a large factory sitting on the coast, something that you could easily blow up with a bomb or a missile. You could bring the country to its knees,” Hady Amr of the Brookings Doha Center told AFP.
According to a 2010 analysis by Daene C. McKinney, a University of Texas engineering professor, millions of people in the Gulf states live in “one of the most water-stressed regions of the world,” leaving them entirely dependent on desalinization plants.
“[T]he region is already exploiting all its annual surface water resources, while its aquifers are becoming depleted in some countries....This region is arid and its countries are already passing the scarcity line that defined by WHO,” the World Health Organization, McKinney wrote.
“Bahrain,” home to the Fifth Fleet, “does have some underground water,” the official said. But “the population of Gulf States far exceeds ability to sustain without use of desalinization plants. Aquifers that do exist are being over exploited and gradually polluted."