Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sodium Free Key

In April, I blogged about a report from the World Bank suggesting that Israel was taking more than its fair share of water which ought to have been shared with Palestinians. Now, Israeli officials have met with World Bank officials to correct a report Israel finds to be inaccurate. The nature of the inaccuracies are highly technical and are probably only verifiable by on site inspections by real experts. Nonetheless, if Israeli explanations are to be taken at face value, then the onus of taking the next step to ease water shortages in the west bank is the Palestinians. Apparently, much of the work that can be done would take place in areas fully under Palestinian control, removing Israel from the equation. What is not explained, is why this work, which could apparently be done so easily, has not occurred. This would be the missing link. Hopefully, if the entirety of the discussions between the World Bank and Israeli officials are made public, this question will be answered.

In the interim, what may begin to ease the problem are the several new desalinization facilities to be constructed by Israel. By creating new water sources for Israelis, theoretically--in combination with efforts that have resulted in a decline in Israeli water consumption over the past month--more water will be available for distribution and in natural aquifers.
The desalinization facilities are also part of the solution to the problem of the dying Dead Sea. Significant water withdrawals from the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee in northern Israel by Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, combined with a drought impacting the whole region are causing the Dead Sea which is fed by the Kinneret to shrink. This impacts not only a unique ecosystem, but also the many industries, including tourism, which rely on the Dead Sea. Environmental groups, such as Ecopeace have criticized a plan being discussed to pipe water from the Red Sea to the Dead one in order to save the latter. The project is fascinating in that it has Israelis and Jordanians cooperating with one another to find a solution, but as the critics point out, it's a proposal fraught with problems. The best solution remains the natural one. Let the Kinneret feed the Dead Sea and let the desalinization facilities do what they can to ease the pressure on it. As for the drought, well, if you're so inclined, pray for rain.
On a final, water related note, this article highlights the importance of water to the peacemaking situation and political dynamics and considerations in the region. In short, Syria has, apparently, seriously mismanaged its water resource and is, on a regular basis, being short changed on the water that Turkey allows to naturally flow across its border into Syria. This places Syria in a water crisis situation and naturally, they are looking at new sources for this water, the Golan Heights and the Kinneret amongst them. Rather than talk of war, discussions seem to be over how to share these resources peacefully. The problem the article points out is that there are no safeguards that Syria will not also mismanage water in the Kinneret, should it be given access, which would impact all other riparians of that basin. As seen under the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, however, even in hard times, the two states honour their agreements and share the water they both need. Maybe Syria can be trusted as well, but some sort of joint management system would need to be set up. If Syrians are as poor at water management as this article suggests, then they cannot be trusted; not because they have ill intent, but because despite their best efforts, they may simply have no idea what they're doing.
Another interesting point in this article is that Turkey, a country so eager to be the mediator between Syria and Israel is the one partially at fault for problems in Syria and so they have a national interest in seeing a deal struck which could ease the pressure on them to reduce their water consumption. Both Syria and Israel ought to be wary of this consideration and perhaps even allow another trusted mediator to work on that part of the deal. As always though, water will not be a point of friction between Syria and Israel, it will be a point for cooperation and confidence building. The universal need for water makes it too valuable to squabble over and risk losing.

3 comments:

David Herz said...

The Arab states in general have basic issues with water management. As a civil engineer, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the water situation in the Middle East. In 2005 the PA, Jordan, and Syria respectively lost 40%, 60% and 35% of their drinking water to leaky pipes and antiquated agricultural techniques. I doubt those numbers have changed much since then.

Desalination is indeed the longterm solution to the water issue. Although desalination has become increasingly cheap and efficient, it is still a process that requires much energy.

The point of the Red-Dead Canal is not only to simply bring in water, but also to generate hydroelectricity (think of the 400 m drop from the Jordan Valley into the Dead Sea). There is also the added possibility of using the larger Dead Sea as a massive solar sink to capture solar energy, although this would be a novel experimental undertaking.

The energy generated by the canal would be necessary to meet Israel's energy needs, as well as Jordan's, which will rise drastically as they come to rely increasingly on desalination. Granted the canal does cause environmental problems, but it is the optimal longterm solution.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

David,

I'm not really convinced the canal is the best solution. Some of the critiques raised seem pretty compelling.

I don't understand why the solution can't just be a combination of grey water recycling, public conservation efforts, and desalinization all with the goal of minimizing impact on the Kinneret, which would in turn continue to feed the Dead Sea.

As for infrastructure problems in the Arab world, wouldn't a powerful confidence building measure be for Israel to provide some expertice or assistance to Jordan and the PA, and at least make offers of the same to Syria and Lebanon? I recognize that these offers may not be accepted, but it could be an excellent opportunity to build connections and to act in Israel's interests vis-a-vis the water situation.

David Herz said...

Israel has indeed made such offers to the Arab world. The Israel-Jordan peace agreement was partially based on such an offer. Part of the treaty involved Israel building Jordan a desalination plant. Prior to the peace treaty, Jordan faced a massive water shortage, with over a third of its population not getting enough water. This was one of the major factors (obviously not the only factor) that led to Jordan signing the peace treaty.

Desalination can address the water shortage. But, the energy required to power desalination plants on such a massive scale are staggering. The canal is the optimal option for the hydroelectric energy it will produce. Otherwise Israel will have to use fossil fuels or build mini-nuclear plants to power desalination facilities, both of which would be environmentally and politically problematic.

I'm not saying the canal doesn't pose any problems. But Israel needs the hydroelectric power.