Water is the New Oil
Israel has always had to contend with too much desert, and too little water. Since the days of antiquity, scientist and great minds in Israel have tackled the problem of water scarcity. In fact, archaeological digs in the Negev have shown that ancient settlers devised ways to conserve whatever precious water they had. Wells, cisterns, dams, and public reservoirs have been unearthed, demonstrating the creative ways ancient people saved water. Today, the water dwindles and the population grows, and the Middle East finds itself in yet another crisis.
Politically, the region’s water sources are quickly becoming as contentious as its oil supplies. The Middle East, known for its hot, dry, nearly rainless climate, is dealing with a population surge—particularly in Israel—that is draining its few water resources. The two main sources of water in the region are the Jordan River Basin, which originates in Lebanon, and the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, originating in Turkey. However, since the waters are shared among many countries, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, disputes and political disagreements are rampant. Syria accuses Turkey of building dams on the Euphrates River, essentially drying out Syria. The Lebanese contend that the Israel seeks to divert the water from the Litani River, in Lebanon, for use in Israel; the Israeli government counters it has no such plans.
In Israel, the main water sources are the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret), which is the country’s largest fresh-water source and is dependent on the Jordan River Basin; the Coastal Aquifer, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea; and the Mountain Aquifer, under the Carmel Mountain range. In addition to those major sources, there are other, smaller sources dispersed throughout the country. The Mountain Aquifer, which runs under the West Bank, is a major source of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians claim that Israel saps most of the water resources while simultaneously charging the Palestinians a much higher rate to access the water.
In an effort to procure more water, Israel has been in talks with Turkey regarding the construction of an energy pipeline between the two countries which would allow for the transport of water, electricity, gas, and oil. The agreement is viewed as a natural “next step” for the two countries whose governments have signed dozens of agreements over the years dealing with arms, agriculture, and tourism.
But it is more efficient and cost-effective to save what you have rather than trying to buy more. Israel has always been at the forefront of the water conservation movement. “Drip irrigation” is a technology which is synonymous with Israel, and in fact, though forms of the conservation method had been around for years, it was an Israeli scientist who pioneered the modern method. In addition to saving water, drip irrigation allows the use of recycled or “grey” water, lower labor costs, and lower energy costs, as the water drips at a lower pressure. (The widespread use of treated grey water for agriculture, along with consistent public awareness campaigns regarding water conservation, make Israel one of the most water resource-conscious nations in the world.)
Israel’s National Water Carrier was established in 1964 as another creative way to solve Israel’s water crisis. The water carrier’s main goal was to transport water from the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), in the relatively lush north of Israel to its densely populated center and very arid south. Since the plan’s success involved diverting water from the Jordan to the Kinneret, the water carrier has been a source of tension between Israel, and Syria and Jordan. The construction of the water carrier in the 1960s was one of the precipitating causes of Syria’s involvement in the Six Day War. Even today, Syria claims the reason Israel refuses to withdraw from the Golan Heights is because it would deny the country access to precious water sources there.
As a result of these complicated needs and considerations, Israel is quickly becoming a world leader in desalination. Desalination, also known as “reverse osmosis,” is the process of removing excess salt and minerals from water, to make it fit for human consumption. Desalination experts view the water crisis as a problem of excess salt rather than too little water. The Ashkelon Desalination Plant, built at a cost of over one billion NIS (approximately four billion dollars) is the world’s largest such operation. The plant produces about 5% – 6% of Israel’s water needs daily, and at one of the lowest costs in the world for desalinated water (approximately fifty-three cents per cubic meter of water). The plant boasts an on-site power plant, meaning the desalination process is not subject to disruptions, allowing the supply and the cost to remain constant. However, the cost is still considered too high for agricultural needs, and scientists are continuing to develop new technologies to make the process more cost-effective. In a move to bolster both research and cooperation between Israel and Jordan, NATO’s Science for Peace program and the Middle East Desalination Research Center recently awarded a grant to three universities—one Israeli, one Jordanian, and one American—to set up desalination plants in Israel and Jordan.
Another attempt to “water” the region is an agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea in order to channel more water to the rapidly drying out Dead Sea, as well as provide drinking water for people of the region. Jordan recently decided to begin the first phase of the canal on its own, without help from the Israeli government or PA. However, all actions are coordinated with Israel.
Sharing the region’s precious water supplies while working in tandem to develop new, innovative solutions is not easy in a region fraught with enemies and uneasy alliances. Israel has been at the forefront of cutting-edge green water technology and continues to work with its neighbors in an effort to find a workable solution.