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Global Ideas

Water scarcity spurs Mideast neighbors to work together

Israel, the West Bank and Jordan are all fighting to access water from the same source - the River Jordan. It's led to tensions but also created an opportunity for the stakeholders to cooperate to tackle the problem.

A warning sign at the edge of the sea. (Quelle: ddp/AP)

The Dead Sea’s water levels are dropping at an alarming rate of one meter a year

The River Jordan, one of the most historically significant rivers in the Middle East, is fast disappearing. The most important tributary of the Dead Sea has been reduced to little more than a stream in some places and the river’s water levels are falling by a meter each year.

So what explains the sorry state of the once mighty river? The environmental organization Friends of the Earth’s Middle East branch (FoEME) says 98 percent of the Jordan River’s waters is being diverted to neighboring countries, from Israel to Syria and the Palestinian territories.

Essentially, they are competing for access to the same source of water – and that has aggravated the problem of scarcity.

A fast depleting resource

An embankment dam at a distance

The water of the Jordan River are accessed by several countries

Experts use the term “water stress” to describe the situation where countries face a major lack of water.

“Until now, the region’s water scarcity couldn’t be completely attributed to climate change,” Ines von Dombrowsky from the German Development Institute said.

Shea added that the region has always experienced hot, dry weather, conditions that lead to high levels of water consumption. Rapid population growth of two to three percent a year has also complicated the situation. And in the long term, climate change will only exacerbate what has already become a major problem, she added.

The “GLOWA Jordan River” international project has researched how strongly climate change has impacted the Jordan River basin. It brings together scientists from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Germany.

“The water resources are set to dwindle,” Jens Lange from Freiburg University, a member of the research group, said. “Just like in the rest of the Mediterranean area, precipitation is on the decline while more and more water is evaporating,” he added.

Unequal distribution

To make matters worse, not all countries in the region have equal access to the water resources. For some Palestinian families living in the West Bank, flowing water remains a luxury. Just a few kilometers away, Jewish settlements are dotted with swimming pools and sprinklers irrigate fields and lawns.

Amnesty International has calculated that the average Palestinian has access to around 70 liters of water a day while an Israeli, on the other hand, has around 300 liters. The Israeli government also imposes strict rules on the Palestinian population – they are required to register the construction of any new wells with Israeli authorities. Approval however is rare, according to a report by the World Bank.

“In the West Bank, water is not naturally scarce. There is enough groundwater underneath the West Bank,” Amjad Aliewi, a Palestinian water expert and professor for groundwater resources management, said. “It’s Israeli politics that is causing a water shortage for Palestinians,” he said. That’s why, he added, many Palestinians have no choice but to buy overpriced water from Israel.

Clive Lipchin, director of an Israeli environmental organization called Arava Institute, agrees.

“It’s true that Palestinians receive less water, but they also use less,” he said. He believes only a legally-binding agreement will create a lasting solution.

A child at a water tanker

Water is a precious resource for Palestinians in the West Bank

Red-Dead” project

Among the solutions proposed is the “Red Sea–Dead Sea Conduit.” The project envisions pumping water from the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba through a 177- kilometer pipeline into the rapidly disappearing Dead Sea in a bid to top it up.

At the same time, the pipeline system is meant to harness energy from hydropower because the Red Sea lies 417 meters higher than the Dead Sea. The project, it’s hoped, can help tackle two issues – slowly filling the Dead Sea while supplying cities and towns along the canal with desalinated water.

Feasibility studies are currently underway to research possible problems that may arise from the mammoth project initiated by the governments in the region.

The Geological Survey of Israel points out that the already strongly damaged ecological balance of the Dead Sea could further suffer through the transfer of water from the Red Sea which has a different composition.

Palestinian water expert Amjad Aliewi says the proposed conduit skirts the real problem.

“The natural solution is simply to divert less water from the Jordan River,” he said. Another concern is that the route along which the canal would travel lies in the heart of a seismic area. If a pipe were to rupture in the event of an earthquake, the salt water could contaminate ground water.

A salty source

Israel, meanwhile, is capitalizing on its location on the Mediterranean Sea to gain access to additional water sources. Three desalination plants are already operating to purify sea water, supplying 30 percent of Israeli households.

A salination plant on the sea

The world’s largest seawater desalination plant is in Hadera, Israel

“Our efforts to adjust to the water shortage are in full swing,” said Clive Lipchin. “By 2020, we want to meet up to 80 percent of the household demand with desalinated water by the year 2020,” he said.

But desalination of sea water also has its downsides. The process consumes large amounts of energy. “Until now, those facilities have been powered by fossil fuels, and they contribute to climate change,” Lipchin said.

Two more conventional desalination plants are in the pipeline. But in future, the goal is to harness the region’s extensive solar power to power the desalination plants.

Author: Brigitta Moll /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar