Saturday, June 13, 2009

Water Water Everywhere

I've been saving up a few articles on water in the middle east that I wanted to write about. There are four stories that are loosely related but that caught my attention and I think are worth highlighting.

The first is about a project in Israel to recycle "grey water." "Grey water"--as opposed to "black water," which is sewage--is water from showers, sinks and washing machines that goes through some degree of treatment to reduce the bacteria in it and can then be reused in toilets, for watering plants and lawns. The project is being championed by a group called Shomera, an Israeli environmental NGO. The idea is to test out the feasibility of installing grey water collection facilities in a "mikvah," a Jewish ritual bath, to see how well it works. If successful, the project can be expanded to other public buildings and then hopefully will become a standard in all new construction in Israel. According to a 2003 study, if grey water from just 20-30% of households were to be recycled, it could save enough water to supply a small community for a year.

This is an exciting prospect. There is no magic technological solution to the water shortage problems facing not only Israel and the rest of the region but much of the world. Nonetheless this is a common sense approach to saving water in one of the driest places on earth. It's a project, that if successful, should be promoted in other parts of the world (the technology being used is neither new nor novel.) There are, however, catches to this rosy picture. Grey water can still be dangerous and does need to be treated. It requires a facility that can be constantly monitored and maintained and needs to be done within the framework of an organized program. Grey water collection needs separate plumbing in buildings that recycle it. Pipes need to carry clean water in to a shower, then a separate pipe system needs to carry the water away for treatment and return it, grey, to toilets and garden hoses while another system carries away black toilet water to wherever it's disposed of. It's a tricky system and it means that most private homeowners may not wish to go to the trouble of implementing it. Still though, it seems to have great potential and is something that I think even a "water rich" country like Canada ought to consider.

The second article is about a report published by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem which suggests that there is a major water crisis in the West Bank (as there is in the region as a whole) and that Palestinians are receiving far less water than they need. The site produces some upsetting statistics about the amounts of water available to Palestinians and to Israelis and shows some statistical inequalities that, the report claims, translates into real hardship for Palestinians. The blame, according to the article is in part to be laid upon the regional water shortage, but not entirely. Israeli policies such as requiring authorization for well drilling (which is actually also required in Israel proper) and unequal distribution of the mountain aquifer (the underground water source) is leading to this situation.

Despite searching, I was not able to find any sort of technical response or analysis of the B'Tselem report. That being said, there are some comments that can be made. Firstly, while it may be true that Israel uses disproportionately more water than Palestinians do, much of that may go do different uses. Israel, an industrialized developed country, is likely (as all developed countries are) to use more water than a developing area. Therefore, the per capita water uses in Israel may include industrial uses of water which simply don't exist in the West Bank and result in statistics showing much higher Israeli use than Palestinian use. Another point worth making is that when similar reports have appeared in the past, is that the Israeli response has always been that they are providing as much, or more water than they are required to under the Oslo agreements. They also point out Palestinian failure to build, maintain or properly manage the infrastructure for which they are responsible. Do these responses apply in the present instance? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that while there may be inequality and serious problems with regards to the supply of water to the West Bank, the statistics do not tell the whole story and the blame, cannot be laid at the feet of one party alone.

A third article relates to an Israeli waste-water facility that was being built on privately owned Palestinian land and intended to supply a settlement. The land is owned by two Palestinians who say that they did not authorize the use of their land for the construction of the facility. The court has ordered that construction on the site which was to provide clean water for both Israelis and Palestinians in the region was to stop and now the land owners--represented by the Israeli NGO Yesh Din--are seeking demolition of the plant.

Those in favour of the ongoing construction say that by demolishing the plant, now the water used by residents of the area will simply be left untreated and an environmental hazard. Obviously, this is a problem, but this is not the point. The construction took place on privately owned land without permission. Nobody living under a legal system where land may be privately owned should tolerate something like that. In most such legal systems, the state must follow a procedure and offer fair compensation if they wish to expropriate the land for a certain purpose, but authorities may not legally just show up one day with a construction crew and build away.

The last article I wanted to mention, in my mind ties the other three together. It's about a report prepared by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. This report (in full here) may be summarized as arguing that climate change, and especially the water shortages it can be expected to cause will lead to increased conflict in the Levant and will curb efforts for making peace. It lists a number of reasons for this, including migrations that will be caused and food shortages, and suggests amongst other things that Israel and the west do more to curb their greenhouse gas emissions so as to avoid creating bitterness in the Arab world.

The report is about 40 pages long and is not such a bad read. Some of the scientific data it provides seems pretty interesting and I do not have the knowledge to properly critique it. I do, however, take issue with the idea that water shortages will cause wars. On the contrary, the universal need for water will lead to further cooperation. One need not look further than example cited in the report in question where Israel and Jordan, even prior to their peace treaty, had moderated discussions over sharing and joint use of the Jordan river. The treaty itself has provisions to protect water resources and even when these resources were stressed, solutions were found. Water is a zero-sum resource. It is needed by all and so the risk of going to war to capture it and failing is too great. It is far less risky to cooperate and work together to ensure that the resources that do exist can last and be used with maximum efficiency.

All this being said, I can imagine circumstances where water could lead, not necessarily to a full out war, but to a raid or attack of some kind. If a state has water which it is currently sharing with another and that that first state takes measures to prevent the free flow of water into the region of the other (for example a dam, or a diversion project) it can easily be imagined that the state being disadvantaged would do what it could to try to stop such a project. This is only true, however, for states with no form of relations and where all diplomatic efforts have already failed.

More convincing is the argument that limited water resources may slow peacemaking. Take the Golan heights for example. These are important headwaters for much of Israel's water supply. Unless Israel can be assured that the water it would receive from the Golan heights would remain at sufficiently high levels, it's difficult to imagine the territory being returned to Syria. On the other hand, if Syria is demanding immediate concessions on the Golan as a precondition to detailed negotiations, then certainly, an impasse is imaginable.

These four articles are linked not only by water, but also because they can all be related to a broader peace process. Grey water can help alleviate a water shortage. This additional water can then be used to reduce the amount of water Israel takes from the Mountain Aquifer and in turn, reduce the need for the construction of plants such as the treatment plant causing such trouble in the West Bank. All this in turn can lead to further cooperation and good will, which in times of future water stress--as predicted by the final article discussed above--will go a long way towards encouraging a healthy peaceful resolution to the challenges faced.

Water can and will be a major key in bringing peace and cooperation to the middle east.

No comments: