By Timetraveller (pseud.)
As populations of the Middle East become more urbanised and adopt Western-style living standards, the demands on the area’s water resources will become more immediate and desperate. Of 33 countries worldwide predicted to suffer severe water shortages by 2040 due to changing populations and life-styles, as well as the effects of climate change, the Water Resources Institute lists 14 in the Middle East – among them Israel . These countries are already heavily dependent on water extraction from ground sources, aquifers and desalination, and deteriorating factors will most likely result in unprecedented demands on the water infrastructures of those countries. An immediate example can be seen in Syria, where the civil war has been partly blamed on a prolonged drought, resulting in people who previously lived on the land losing their livelihoods and moving into urban centres, thus destabilising that country.
Israel is a special case in this area, since, due to its large urbanised Western immigration, it is amongst the most economically developed countries in the region; add to that the immeasurable benefits it enjoys through the benevolence of the United States. With the foundation of the modern state of Israel, the earliest Zionists immediately realised the importance of the water economy and efforts were made at the outset to conserve water and educate the population about this priceless resource.
That has led, over the years, to Israel becoming an international leader in water conservation and recyling. Seth M. Siegel, author of ‘Let There Be Water’ (2015), in his highly commended investigation of the subject, proposes that not only is Israel a world leader in exporting water saving and rescuing technologies, but that the export of this expertise and promotion of the technology will also serve as a force for international peace. In so doing, he states that Israel could help rescue the populations of the world from an increasingly water-starved future.
How has Israel achieved this unique situation? Without getting too technical, it has been done by recycling all water – sewage, industrial and agricultural – as well as the construction of massive water desalination plants. Stormwater is also pumped back into aquifers for storage. Israeli agronomists and engineers have developed such innovative practices as drip-irrigation and drought-tolerant plants. (It may come as a surprise, but Tel Aviv receives a similar annual amount of rain as London – 524 mm compared to 594 mm; however the annual rainfall patterns are vastly different, resulting in vastly different landscapes). So the image of a desert – at least on the coastal plain of Israel – is somewhat erroneous – if one only considers total annual rainfall. Certainly the Negev and the Beka’a Valley are arid zones with very little intermittent rainfall.
Having said all this, it seems somewhat inconsistent that such a large part of its economy (3.6%) is based on the export of high quality agricultural produce where the relatively warm winter climate enables the growth of lush out-of-season produce for export to wintry Europe. However, this export comes at cost because there is a large water investment in the produce, as well as the water in the product itself. Thus Israel is, in fact, exporting water. This resulted, recently, in the somewhat mythic Jaffa orange orchards of Israeli being uprooted due to the excessive amounts of water required to grow the trees and produce the crops.
So how does all this tally up. On the one hand climatologists have predicted severe water shortages in the region versus a country which not only exports water in the form of agricultural produce, but will benevolently export its knowhow to escape those countries’ predicament. For a foretaste of the future, perhaps we should look at the current situation as it applies to Israel’s closest neighbour – the Palestinians. A recent Al Jazeera publication raised the question of peace and water by accusing Israel of using water to dominate the Palestinian population. Chuck Spinney, writing in Consortium News corroborated this saying:
Access to water is one of the most fundamental and least discussed issues underpinning the Israeli – Palestinian conflict (as well as the recurring pattern of Israel’s conflicts with Syria and Lebanon). Control of the West Bank’s water resources is intimately tied into the growing pattern of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and, if left unchecked, Israel’s inevitable annexation of Area C (60 percent) of the West Bank (thereby formalizing the Gazification of Areas A & B). Water resources are also intimately woven into pattern of destruction in Israel’s siege of the Gaza ghetto.
Historically, the Oslo Interim Agreement in 1995 set the stage enabling Israeli authorities to secure 71 percent of the water resources of the Jordan River and the Alpine Aquifer (an aquifer located beneath both Israel and the West Bank) compared to the total Palestinians allocation of 17 percent. (This was accounted for by the Palestinian population being much smaller than the Israeli population at the time of the Accord’s signature). Today the figures for sharing these water resources are 87 and 13 percent respectively, in spite of changes in population figures. In addition, Mekorot, the Israeli water authority, restricts water flows to Palestinians on the West Bank, creating a hegemonic imbalance. Over the years of occupation, Israeli authorities have disrupted the up-keep and development of water resources in the West Bank, thus wells which have been over-used and run dry are not able to be deepened for access to water. Furthermore, Palestinians are prohibited from drawing water from the Jordan River.
A joint body – the Joint Water Committee (where Israel has “de-facto veto power”) has successfully handicapped Palestinian efforts to rejuvenate and expand their water infrastructure. Al Jazeera reports,
As reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the ICA has refused between 2010 and 2014 98.5 percent of the Palestinian building permit applications for Area C projects.
It also reports that since 2016 alone, over 50 water and sanitation projects have been demolished on the grounds that they lacked the relevant Israeli permits. To put this in clear focus, Al Jazeera notes that the average Israeli has access to around 240 litres of water per day, with settlers having 300 litres; “…while Palestinians in the West Bank are left with 73 litres – well below the World Health Organisation’s minimum standard of 100”.
The coercive nature of the Israeli authorities in the field of water resources has resulted in Palestinians initially becoming dependent on Israel, but eventually has resulted in their giving up and leaving – thus enabling the growing Israeli footprint into previously Palestinian-held West Bank land.
The imbalance between the water usage of Israelis on the West Bank and their Palestinian neighbours is even more extreme when one considers the plight of the Bedouin who have lived in the Negev Desert from time immemorial. Take the case of a Bedouin family living in Umm al-Hieran, 9km from the nearest source of clean water. The Israeli authorities have prohibited the upgrading of this pipeline which is leaking and dilapidated because they do not recognise the village itself. These Bedouin were evicted from their pre-1956 home in Wadi Zuballa, then in 2004 as the authorities planned a Jewish development in the area, their homes in Umm Al-Hieran were declared illegal. Today some 80-90,000 Bedouin are living in unrecognised villages where they have no rights to hold the land they stand on. Given this, they are forced to truck in water at prohibitive rates for a people who are subsisting in an environment where they can be moved on and their houses destroyed at the whim of the authorities.
Moving on to Gaza, Hagai Amit of Ha’Aretz points out that the situation in Gaza is of immediate major concern. While the burgeoning population requires the basic necessity of life, namely water, excessive pumping of the coastal aquifer has resulted in its infiltration with salt and sewage contamination. The Gazans’ inability to develop adequate sewage and water infrastructure systems have compounded the problem. Furthermore, since electricity is available only part of the day, water cannot be secured through constant (extremely expensive) desalination. In the meantime, Israel currently supplies between 5-10 million metres of water per annum to Gaza. This, however, is no long-term solution to the dire situation emerging, and today hydrologists agree that by 2020 the water catastrophe in Gaza due to over pumping and contamination will be irreversible and Gazans will be left waterless.
Where to now? The inequalities I have described above need to be considered in light of projected climate changes due to global warming. Aytzim (Environmental Judaism) describes projected changes such as reductions in precipitation by as much as 4-8 percent, increased transpiration by up to 10 percent, increased severity of rainfall and changed rainfall patterns. These changes will most likely result in loss of arable land, mass migration in search of resources, etc. What does this mean for Israel and its closest neighbours? How will the imbalances already being witnessed in water allocations play out when there is even less of that life-sustaining substance to share around?
Again, quoting from the World Resources Institute,
Water is a significant dimension of the decades-old conflict between Palestine and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s government said its people will depend entirely on grain imports by 2016, a change from decades of growing all they need, due to fear of water-resource depletion. The U.S. National Intelligence Council wrote that water problems will put key North African and Middle Eastern countries at greater risk of instability and state failure and distract them from foreign policy engagements with the U.S.
No-one knows what the future holds, but given the glaring imbalances between Israel and her neighbours, we can probably say that there will be “interesting times” to come.
This post is part of Just Voices #11 – Climate Change.