Israeli Water, Mideast Peace?

Courtesy of The New York Times, some commentary on the impact that water woes may have upon Middle East politics:

Nuclear proliferation, religious militancy and income inequality are all major threats to Middle East stability. Sadly, a new one is brewing: water scarcity.

The human causes are clear: rapid population growth, antiquated infrastructure, the over-pumping of aquifers, inefficient crop practices and pollution from fertilizer and pesticides. Then there are the factors that climate change is accelerating, like evaporation of lakes and rivers and diminished rainfall.

One country in the region might have a solution to these water woes: Israel. It shares the same problems of climate and desertification as its neighbors, but it has mastered the management of water resources, such that it can endure periodic droughts while supporting a growing population. Its water management can not only be a model but can even reduce regional tensions.

Wasteful farming practices — in particular, flooding a field to irrigate it — are the biggest factor behind the regional water shortage. Starting in the 1960s, Israeli farmers abandoned this technique in favor of drip irrigation, which reduces the loss of water to evaporation, gets water to roots more efficiently and, critically, produces crop yields vastly greater than those with conventional irrigation. Israel also treats household sewage as a precious resource, reusing more than 80 percent of it for agriculture. In Iran and many Arab countries, sewage is dumped, which can threaten public health by contaminating wells and aquifers.

There is precedent for Israel’s helping its neighbors with water. Before 1979 —around the time it began to adopt technologies and policies that led to its current water abundance — Israel was Iran’s partner in developing its national water resources.

That cooperation began in 1962, after a severe earthquake in the Qazvin region of Iran killed more than 12,000 people. The earthquake collapsed a chain of wells that engineers had drilled in a qanat, or tunnel, style. Hundreds of thousands were at risk from lack of drinking water. Israel flew in teams of drillers. New water supplies were identified, and a series of artesian wells were drilled. The drilling was such a success that Israel’s water engineering company, today a private enterprise, was hired to identify and gain access to underground resources elsewhere in Iran.

Beginning in 1968, a desalination company owned by the Israeli government built dozens of plants in Iran. These are now aging, while Israel continues to innovate: On its Mediterranean coast, it recently opened an immense, energy-efficient desalination plant. More than half of Israel’s drinking water — purer, cleaner and less salty than natural sources — now comes from seawater.

Cooperation with Iran abruptly ended with the Islamic revolution. Indeed, the Israeli team of water experts was on one of the last direct flights from Iran to Israel in 1979.

Wars over water have been forecast as a coming threat worldwide, and the geopolitical risks can’t be discounted. Syria, ruined by civil war, and Iraq, still an epicenter of religious violence, will suffer even more, as Turkey accelerates its diversion of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to make up for its shortsighted over-pumping of once-massive Anatolian aquifers. Egypt, with 10 times Israel’s population but nearly 50 times the water available, uses water inefficiently, despite the age-old centrality of agriculture to its economy. Ethiopia, upriver to Sudan and Egypt, is asserting water rights to the Nile for its growing population, putting it in tension with Egypt. Yemen might be in the worst shape: Short of immediate, radical steps, it could be out of water in 15 years.

Because of geography and hydrology, the Palestinians’ water future is closely tied to Israel’s. In just the few years of Hamas control of Gaza, the water supply there has been polluted, and though no solution to its coming water crisis is likely without an Israeli role, Hamas has refused to cooperate with Israel.

The Palestinians in the West Bank already receive much of their water from Israel’s national water utility and, sovereignty and symbolism aside, neither a two-state solution nor a continuation of the status quo will change that. Given their proximity to Israel, the Palestinians are likely to be among the few Arab winners in the water race.

Israel’s self-sufficiency in water goes beyond irrigation, drilling, desalination and reclaimed water. It is also dependent on a sophisticated legal and regulatory structure, market mechanisms, robust public education, an obsession with fixing leaks and efforts to catch rainwater and reduce evaporation, among many other tools. Natural plant-breeding methods have raised crop yields with salty, high-mineral brackish water of the kind found, but mostly thought of as worthless, all over the Middle East. Israel has transformed water from a struggle with nature to an economic input: You can get all you want if you plan and pay for it.

No one should wish for a water crisis anywhere. But as water problems grow, one hopes that ideology will give way to pragmatism and may open a door to an Arab and Islamic outreach to Israel. A partnership that starts with engineers and extends to farmers could contribute to deal making, even reconciliation, among leaders. Rather than seeing Israel as a problem, Israel’s antagonists would be wise to see it as a solution.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 26th, 2014 at 7:32 pm and is filed under Israel.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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