War, chaos and terrorism may be rampant in the Middle East, but the situation could become much worse as a catastrophe looms out of the regional water crisis.
“The Middle East suffers from so many obvious problems – despotism and anarchy, civil wars and refugees, misogyny and jihad – that the looming desertification of the region tends to slip into the background,” Daniel Pipes, scholar and president of the Middle East Forum think tank, told The Jerusalem Post.
“Yet, the prospect of agricultural collapse and massive dislocation of peoples looms over this as an ultimate catastrophe,” he said.
“Historically, living in an arid region inspired peoples of the Middle East carefully to husband their water sources over the long term,” said Pipes, adding, “Only in the past half century or so has this caution been discarded in favor of a mentality of reckless short-term exploitation.”
Asked if it is more likely that the EU would come to the region’s aid since Israel’s involvement would be unwelcome, he replied: “With the exception of Spain, the countries of the European Union have too much water to be of much help to the Middle East; only Israel, with its similar circumstances and its cutting- edge scientific prowess, is in a position immediately to offer assistance to the region.”
According to research by Pipes and published in an article in the Washington Times on Friday, Israel is the only exception to the regional water shortages because of its desalination, conservation, recycling and innovative agricultural techniques.
“I find particularly striking that Israel can desalinate about 17 liters of water for one US penny; and that it recycles about five times more water than does second-ranked Spain,” wrote Pipes.
However, Israel aiding most countries in the region, like Iran or Iraq, is not a politically viable option at this time.
“Desperate neighbors might think about ending their futile state of war with the world’s hydraulic superpower and instead learn from it,” he commented.
More than 50 percent of Israel’s water comes from man-made resources, such as desalination and sewage recycling.
This has allowed the Water Authority to significantly reduce its pumping of natural fresh water resources, such as those in Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), a Water Authority spokesman told the Post as the rainy season subsided last month.
Desalination is expected to account for about 600 million cubic meters of the country’s annual water production once an additional facility in Ashdod opens later this year.
Leading the world in reclaiming wastewater, it treats more than 90% of its sewage – most of which is then reused for watering agricultural fields.
Pipes mentioned a report in Al-Monitor a couple weeks ago in which an Iranian agricultural expert, Issa Kalantari, was quoted as warning that because of a water shortage, up to 70% (or 55 million out of 78 million) of the population would “have no choice but to leave the country.”
“With the state of our foreign policy, which countries are ready to accommodate 30 to 50 million Iranians?” he asked.
Pipes said that Iran’s Lake Urmia, the largest lake in the region, has lost 95% of its water since 1996.
In Yemen, where a civil war is raging, drinking water “is down to less than one quart per person per day” in many mountainous areas, he said, citing water expert Gerhard Lichtenthaeler.
In Iraq, “The April 25 seizure of the Tharthar Dam and opening of one of the dam’s gates demonstrates the growing prioritization of water infrastructure in Islamic State’s strategy,” wrote Allyson Beach on the Council on Foreign Relations website last week.
Beach called on the US to prioritize the protection of Iraqi water infrastructure.
Aiming to help curb some of the region’s water challenges, Israel and Jordan signed a historic water swapping deal on February 26. According to the approximately $800 million agreement, Jordan and Israel will share the potable water produced by a future desalination plant in Aqaba, from which the residual brine will be piped to the Dead Sea.
In return for its portion of the desalinated water in the South, Israel will be doubling its sales of Lake Kinneret water to Jordan on the countries’ common northern border.
At the time the agreement was signed, Jordanian officials stressed to the Post how sorely water is needed in the country’s north. In part, this situation has resulted from the heavy influx of refugees from Syria to Jordan.
As a result of the ongoing wars plaguing Syria and Iraq, not only have the aging water and sanitation infrastructure in these countries been impacted, but the movement of displaced people to neighboring countries has taken a toll on resources in these states as well, a March report from the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed. All in all, some 4 million displaced Syrians have ended up relocating to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, the report said.
In contrast to Israel’s ability to quench its country’s thirst by means of the vast array of man-made solutions, the 1.8 million residents of the Gaza Strip still face a severe shortage in their water supply.
Aiming to improve the situation there, Israel’s Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Unit announced a decision in March to double the territory’s allocation of water from 5 m.cu.m. of water to 10 m.cu.m.
At the time, Prof. Uri Shani, former commissioner of the Israel Water Authority and an expert in soil and water sciences, told the Post that in addition to the quantity of water Gazans receive from Israel, about 60 m.cu.m. accumulates as groundwater each year there. Nonetheless, Gazans consume much more water annually than what accumulates in their underground reserves – about 120 m.cu.m. according to Israeli estimates and about 150 m.cu.m. according to Gazan estimates, Shani said.
The resultant over-exploitation of groundwater resources there has caused the water table to deplete and led to a situation in which seawater mixes in with that supply, he explained. Households using instruments to desalinate their home water supply then release resultant brine back into the groundwater, exacerbating the poor situation, he said.