Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge,

“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Quick – what is the most valuable liquid in the Middle East? Go to the back of the class if you answered the obvious – black crude. There is only one answer – water – two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Every known liquid, without exception, starts with a water base. Water and air are the only ingredients that distinguish our planet from other bodies in the solar system. There can be no animal, vegetable or even mineral life as we know it anywhere without those two substances. None.

Poet Coleridge described his parched sailor groping for water while floating in the middle of the briny deep, and there are regions in the world for which his sailor is a metaphor – countries on the seacoast or not very far inland that have scant water resources. While Iceland, Suriname and Guyana, for example, are relatively abundant, Kuwait, Egypt, Libya and Jordan head the list of those with the least water on tap.

Scientists are hard at work devising methods to make drinkable water from the seas that cover three-fourths of the planet’s area. The closest thus far to achieving this is China, one of the world’s largest countries with the most people and with serious concerns over potable water supplies despite its mountains, deserts and seacoast. To date, the costs of such purification and desalination in both money and environmental harm have made them impractical.

When UNICEF sought to substantiate its use of the Under-Five-Mortality-Rate (U5MR) – the number of children at age five per any country’s 1,000 live births – as a barometer of a nation’s well-being, it found two other measurements that corroborated the U5MR – the literacy rate and the percentage of its population that had access to potable water. The literacy rate indicated the role of a society’s education system as a mark of social progress; the clean water supply indicated the standing of its health authorities.

What UNICEF was saying is: if you show me a country with an acceptable U5MR, I will show you one run by a reasonably people-oriented government with meaningful health and education services. The U5MR, literacy level and drinkable water availability match up in all 189 UN member nations.

When oil supply is compromised, we turn to coal or other energy substitutes. Eventually, when the wind and sun are harnessed, fossil fuels will become dinosaurs and be limited to quieting a squeaky hinge somewhere. But water will never lose one iota of its importance. Like sleep and air, there are no substitutes.

But most significantly, water has now become a political and economic trophy.

For eye-opening and thought-provoking data, read Blue Gold by Maude Barlow and see what is happening. Bad enough that we have come to a point where privatization is taking over health care and education. Water is now on the agenda.

As Barlow and others are warning, water, taken for granted by most of us, is now known to be finite. If privatization plans of the cabal that sets economic policy in the world do not change, the dry well will come sooner rather than later.

Corporate and factory farming, urbanization, ever-increasing pollution and uncontrolled waste-dumping by the industrial powers onto the Third World coastlines are all depleting potable water supplies as we speak. And there is no relief in sight. Under NAFTA, GATT and the WTO, all acronyms for the mechanisms of capitalist global expansion, the transnationals are plotting daily to use more of the earth for their avaricious plans, which translates into less drinkable water.

Barlow notes that, at the present rate, by 2025 the world’s thirsty people could actually be buying their daily water supplies from some conglomerate that has “bought up” the sources and the people would have to queue up with empty pails and filled purses just to stay alive.

Water’s significance has gotten lost in the Middle East shuffle. But an astute analysis of the conflict cannot deny or exaggerate the importance of water.

The Israeli occupation and retention of the Golan Heights, for example, has been nonnegotiable for every administration in Tel Aviv. One reason surely is that the Heights has one of the largest water reserves in the region.

The peace process in the Jordan Basin cannot be meaningful unless the deliberation includes access to potable water supplies. For without this, whatever land, borders and rights to exist are won, the victory will be Pyrrhic indeed.

The next time you turn on the tap, remember that the people must stay alert in the struggle for our rights, our freedoms, our privacy … and our water.

Don Sloan is assistant editor of Political Affairs. He can be reached at donsloan@whereitis.com