Global Policy Forum

Is Water The Path To Health?


By Author Rachelle Kliger

Middle East Times
December 8, 2008

"We don't have water to waste," caution billboards across Israel. The ominous signs throughout the country are part of a campaign launched by Israel's water authority urging people to use the precious commodity sparingly. Concerns about the water situation were compounded earlier this year when it transpired that the water in the Lake of Galilee, Israel's most important water resource, dropped below the red line. As of mid-November the water level in the lake stands at 214.31 meters below sea level. Any lower and not only will the quality of water become poor, but the surface will drop below the pumps and there will be no more water to consume. As with all natural disasters, this crisis also does not recognize borders, and Israel is not alone in its quest for water.

Syria is going through its worst drought in four decades, Jordan is slipping down to the bottom of the list of the most water-scarce countries in the world, and the Palestinians are bearing the brunt of depleted water sources and pollution. Water crisis management is extremely complex and multi-faceted. However, the fact it is a problem shared by warring countries adds a geopolitical dimension to the problem and makes it immensely harder to tackle. Water sources in the region are scarce and straddle transnational borders. Climate change, erratic rain falls and four consecutive dry winters have given rise to speculation that water will be the impetus for any future war in the region. However, water experts throughout the region do not believe this will indeed be the case. In fact, some consider the solution to the water problem as a way to bring these nations together rather than pull them apart.

Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories share up to 75 percent of their water sources, says Walid Saleh, a water expert and regional coordinator for the MENA region at the United Nations University. "These four countries are interconnected as far as their water sources are concerned and the solutions to problems related to water shortages have to come from cooperation among them," he says. "Whether they like it or not, they share the land and the water resources and they have to talk and find ways to protect the small quantities of water they have." The problem is far reaching and has social, environmental and economical ramifications.

Syria, for example, is facing its most serious drought in 40 years. "The most vulnerable population is predominantly that of the herders and their sustenance is at risk," says Elisabeth Byrs from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Some 750,000 Syrians have lost their crops, 59,000 herders have lost their animals and prices of cereals and basic food items have shot up. Damascus is providing subsidized food rations to farmers and herders as an emergency measure. If the drought continues into the winter of 2008-2009 it could have "catastrophic" impact on the population, Byrs says. "The size and cost of the current crisis is beyond the current capacity of the Syrian government," she says. Byrs admits that the United Nations is currently responding to an emergency situation, but this is not necessarily a sustainable solution to the water crisis.

The country with the most severe water problem is Jordan, where in some parts of the country, residents receive running water for only six hours a week. Jordan's environment minister, Khalid al-Irani, recently said Jordan had slipped near the bottom of the list of water-stressed countries as a result of climate change and pollution, which have depleted or contaminated water sources. The country has a deficit of 600 million cubic meters (MCM) of water every year. While the global average water requirement is 1,000 MCM a year per person, the allocation in Jordan is around 600 cubic meters.

Perhaps the area where the water is most affected by political developments is the West Bank. "The amount of water that recharges the aquifer is enough to meet the demands of the Palestinians in the West Bank, but this renewable amount is controlled by Israel," says Amjad Aleiwi, director general of the House of Water and Environment, a Palestinian NGO. "Of that amount, the Palestinians control less than 15 percent and the rest is controlled by Israel. That makes water shortages a major problem." In Gaza there is a larger quantity of water available, he adds, but much of it is not suitable for drinking. "It's a shallow aquifer; the water table is close to ground level so pollutants get to the water table quickly and mix with ground water. In Gaza, only 10 percent of available water is suitable for drinking." According to Aleiwi, a third of the Palestinians living in the West Bank do not receive proper water supplies and sanitation services. "This is the fault of the occupation," he says. "It's very difficult to get licenses for any water projects in area C [areas under Israeli control]. There's also a lack of funding that impacts negatively on the development of the water sector."

The quality of ground water in the West Bank is deteriorating as a result of military activities and mismanagement of pollutants, says Nader Khatib, Palestinian director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). Among the latter he notes a lack of treatment of sewage, random dumping of solid waste and a lack of control over industrial waste in Israeli communities in the West Bank. In addition, Khatib says, laws are not enforced properly in these areas, Palestinians suffering from a poor economic situation cannot afford to pay for services and environmental projects face bureaucratic hurdles such as a lack of entry permits for Palestinians. The silver lining is that on the municipal and community levels there are ongoing joint Israeli-Palestinian projects that aim to prevent water pollution and salvage the joint resources.

As a case in point, direct cooperation between the municipality of the Palestinian town Tul Karem and the neighboring Israeli regional council Emeq Hefer has been crucial in rehabilitating sewage treatment in the area. The German-sponsored project includes ponds in Tul Karem, which provide initial treatment for Tul Karem sewage. The partially treated wastewater then flows under the separation barrier, the controversial blockade that separates Israeli and Palestinian areas, into a treatment plant established by the Emeq Hefer municipality for continued processing. The joint project has been operating despite a tough political climate and serves as testimony that water cooperation can work and draw communities together.

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of FoEME, says Israel has failed to recognize that shared water resources are a common necessity for both people. "When we mismanage our water resources we're shooting ourselves in the foot, for ourselves and for future generations. As Israelis, we could have done a lot more when we were in charge of the territories before the Oslo period, to put in place sewage facilities and sanitary solid waste dumps, but for the most part we failed," he says. While some Israeli politicians and military decision makers understand that water and its treatment cannot be a hostage to the conflict, they do not always get their way, Bromberg laments. As a result of failed past projects, frustrated donor countries have either withdrawn their money or invested it in other projects where they see more potential, he says. "The environment and water resources provide such a unique opportunity for building trust, for concrete example of moving forward on improving livelihoods and realities. It's never too late. We should be doing this today," he says.

Is Desalination the Solution?

In Israel, with its 273-kilometer-long coastline, experts are pinning their hopes on desalination to deal with the water shortage. Desalination is a process that removes excess salt from water and renders it usable for agriculture or human consumption. Since Israel has a coast, it has infinite access to seawater, the base product of desalination. Desalination already accounts for 138 MCM of water in Israel, which is processed in two plants in Ashkelon and Palmachim. Another desalination plant under construction in Hadera will provide an additional 100 MCM a year by the end of 2009. Israel consumes around 1.9 billion cubic meters of water a year. "I don't see any other solution besides desalination," Saleh says.

Any other alternative would rely on outside sources such as bringing water through a canal into Jordan, the Palestinian areas and Syria. "That could be a solution, but this would involve Iraq and Turkey. The issue becomes more complicated because there are more dimensions to the equation," he says. "The reality is that water is short and we have to act. I see desalination as a solution to at least release some of the pressure." But critics say a more holistic approach should be taken to the water crisis, without pinning all hopes on desalination. In Israel, where desalination is already a reality, detractors say desalination is costly and encourages consumers to waste water rather than save. They say money should be invested into awareness campaigns rather than squandered on costly desalination projects that do not make economic sense. There are also environmental concerns about desalinating seawater, because of the byproducts of the process that can cause ecological damage, and the facilities themselves that take up valuable land.

One project that has captured the imagination of water and energy conservationists is to link a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, and use the natural altitude differences to create electricity and fuel desalination, benefiting Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. The World Bank-funded project, dubbed the Red-Dead Canal, could cost up to $5 billion and could take more than 10 years to construct. The project has been reviewed and shelved several times because of feasibility problems, huge expenses and fierce opposition to the project from environmentalists.

Despite these claims, Saleh says he thinks the project is the best solution to the water problems of the region. "I think the proposed Red-Dead Canal is, from an environmental point of view, sound, safe and viable. I think it could be a win-win situation whereby we can revive the Dead Sea and also generate electricity from the 400-meter drop in levels. Then you can desalinate and somehow distribute the water to the three countries. I think it can also bring more cooperation, and hopefully, peace will be promoted through a vital resource."Large-scale projects do have their pros and cons, Saleh says. "I think facing a dry season in the region will have much more devastating effects than some probably minor pollution effects that can be controlled. The technology is available if there is enough enforcement and regulation in place," he adds. But in the meantime the implementation of the Red-Dead plan is not on the horizon.

Aleiwi, from the Palestinian NGO, says desalination is a very suitable option for the Israelis but not for the Palestinians. At least not for now. Israel has a long coast, so seawater is readily available to desalinate, he says, and that would free up the natural sources for the Palestinians to use. "Desalination is the future option. Even now, if we solve our problems in the medium term, in the long term the Palestinians will also have to desalinate," he says. "It's an immediate need for Israel now on a large scale and they are doing it. They're building desalination plants in Israel but it's their immediate need before it's our immediate need. "With climate change there will be fewer water resources in the future, there will be a rise in temperature, fewer agricultural lands, more droughts and consecutive droughts, so desalination is the option that both Palestine and Israel should think of," Aleiwi says. "We need to get our water from natural resources because that will solve our problem in the interim period and then we [can] move to desalination on a larger scale."

A standoff over water sources would not be unprecedented. Syria's efforts to divert water from Israel in 1965 and 1966 prompted an attack by the Israeli army, and was one of the events that led to the 1967 Six-Day War. If Syria were to get the Golan Heights in a territorial compromise, as has been discussed in peace negotiations, Damascus could divert water from the Lake of Galilee, which provides a third of Israel's water. This is no small concern for Israel. A Syrian water engineer with extensive experience in the public sector says water is very important in political negotiations between Israel and Syria. But despite past experiences, he does not believe Damascus and Jerusalem will spar again over water. "Our strategy in Syria is peace and we need cooperation with all the neighbors, after we get our rights, land and our share of water. By cooperation with our neighbors we can have peace, not war," he told The Media Line.

Syria is currently experimenting with desalination on a small scale, but is still very new to these techniques, both because it is costly and because Syria lacks the technology. The engineer said that under any future peace deal with Israel, he could not rule out Syria using peaceful relations to tap into Israel's know-how in desalination. "We're ready to have cooperation, if we have peace," he says. However, he added that Israel would not necessarily be the first or only country to provide Syria with water-related technology, as other countries are also leading in these efforts.

Uri Schor, a spokesman for Israel's water authority, does not believe that water is the main impetus for making peace. "But without a doubt, it helps," he says. "Our approach is that the water can be a bridge for peace rather than a reason to wage a war." Ori Yogev, chairman of the Israeli NGO Waterfronts, also does not believe the water crisis will be the impetus for future wars. "It's a way to make peace if you have enough water," he says. "If we're clever enough to invest a lot of money to make the water problem irrelevant in our region, and we solve it mainly by desalination, we can desalinate water and send it to the Palestinians, to Jordan and even to Syria and it might solve wars." According to Yogev, Israel is already exporting around $1 billion-worth of water related technology every year. However, he acknowledges that Israel is a small country and is not the only innovator of water technology. Israel will be just one of several strong economies that have high-level technology in water, he says.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More General Analysis on Israel, Palestine and the Occupied Territories
More Information on Israel, Palestine and the Occupied Territories
More Information on Water in Conflict
More Information on The Dark Side of Natural Resources


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