The Half-full Glass: Could 'Water Diplomacy' Bring Peace to the Mideast?

Water could be the main factor in even bloodier conflicts than those we have become accustomed to. But it doesn’t have to be that way: Water could also be a source of security, prosperity and peace.

David Bachar

We should not let ourselves be fooled by the rainstorm that lasted for several days this week. The Middle East has always had a water shortage. Conflicts and treaties over water are mentioned as far back as the Bible, and recently the journal Climatic Change published a study claiming that a drought was responsible for the collapse of the Assyrian Empire 2,700 years ago. A water shortage and population density are still typical of the region, and even though political and religious circumstances play a part in the conflicts and treaties of our own day, the role of water cannot be discounted.

Advanced technology, desalination and water recycling have helped Israel to overcome its initial disadvantages and become a kind of regional water superpower. The gap between the bleak water situation in the neighboring countries and Israel’s much better one is the key to understanding the future of the Middle East. Estimates say that while almost 634 million people will be living in the Middle East by 2050 – that’s double the current population – the water sources are drying up and the amount of precipitation is decreasing.

Water could be the main factor in even bloodier conflicts than those we have become accustomed to. But it doesn’t have to be that way: Water could also be a source of security, prosperity and peace. This vision brings with it the concept of “water diplomacy,” a hot field in international relations that is based upon a simplistic equation that states: “A thirsty neighbor is a dangerous neighbor.”

Catastrophe or peace

In Amman, Jordan’s capital, 50 percent of the water leaks out of the pipes and inhabitants receive water twice every two weeks. Roughly 10 million cubic meters of water evaporate from the Aswan Dam every year, to be lost forever. In the Nile Delta, near Cairo, the water has become an open sewer into which millions of inhabitants empty their waste. In Turkey, dams are being built at the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, preventing the water from reaching Syrians and Iraqis. Tehran has running water, but the inefficient sewerage system there causes sewage to leak into the groundwater. The groundwater in Kuwait is full of oil that trickled into it when it was poured out during the first Gulf War. Since the second Gulf War, roughly 70 percent of the population in the areas where combat took place have not been receiving a steady supply of water.

By comparison, inhabitants of Israel, which started out with the toughest situation of all (besides Jordan), enjoy a constant, steady water supply, and farmers receive as much water for their crops as they need. “Thanks to strategic management, which includes reuse of water for agriculture, desalination of seawater, reducing the rate of waste, establishment and maintenance of good and effective systems and proper pricing of water, Israel’s water economy is stable and good,” says Oded Fixler, senior deputy director of the Water Authority.

Avraham Tene, chairman of the Water Desalination Administration at the Water Authority, adds that the average amount of precipitation in Israel is 1.2 billion cubic meters, while we consume roughly 2.2 billion cubic meters. “We make up the difference with technology, water conservation, recycling and returning water to agriculture and desalination,” he says.

A visit to the Palmahim Desalination Plant shows how water facilities in Israel have become a pilgrimage site for researchers and scientists from all over the world. It takes 20 minutes for a drop of water to complete the desalination process and become drinkable.

“The plant stops desalination work at peak electricity consumption times to keep costs down, while at the same time using energy provided by salt water that remains after the desalination process,” explains Avner Hermoni, the director of the plant.

As expected, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom has the highest praise for Israel’s water economy. “Israel recycles 87 percent of its water, much more than any other country on earth,” he says. “Second place is 25 percent, and third place is 10 percent. We also use desalination wisely and we water our crops with drip irrigation systems, which were invented here back in the 1960s.”

“We can take a pessimistic or an optimistic view,” says Prof. Haim Gvirtzman, a hydrologist at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Either a holocaust, in the sense of a regional catastrophe, will happen here or Israel can export its successful water model to the region’s countries as part of peace treaties. I take the optimistic view – water is a bridge to peace.”

Oil is losing its importance

As we approach the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, it may be said that the predictions of a regional water apocalypse did not come true. But there were still internal conflicts, many of them fueled by a shortage of water.

Micheline Calmy-Rey, the former foreign minister of Switzerland, had good reason to announce in 2011 that in the future, the most important geopolitical resource in the Middle East would be water, not oil. Much has been written about the connection between the drought in Syria, which lasted from 2006 to 2009, and the outbreak of the civil war there, and naturally, water is one of the weapons being used in the ongoing fighting there. Islamic State’s takeover of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River in Syria’s Raqqah Governorate in February 2013 was one of the worst blows that the Syrian regime has suffered during the war.

The field that the United Nations calls “environmental diplomacy” (water diplomacy is one of its subcategories) is definitely necessary in a region where more than 50 percent of the water sources are shared by two or more countries. The most prominent example of this is the Tigris River, which passes through Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

“Environmental issues are unique in that they can make connections between people in ways that other fields, mainly political ones, cannot,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Officials of Friends of the Earth are about to publish a long article in the International Journal of Water Governance, a scientific journal, claiming that the water crisis, and the environmental problems of the Middle East in general, can be the keys to opening the gates of peace. In their article, they write that a look backward over the history of water problems in the world shows that contrary to the theory that water shortages lead to conflict, the lack of fresh water actually promotes cooperation between countries.

Sinaia Netanyahu, the chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Ministry, clarifies the issue of possible cooperation among countries in the region and cites the countries of Europe, which are connected to the same power grid and transfer electricity to one another when necessary, as an example.

Francesca de Chatel, a Dutch researcher specializing in water issues in the Arab world and the Mediterranean region, recently received her doctorate from the Institute of Science, Innovation and Society at Radboud University in The Netherlands. Her dissertation topic was the water crisis in Syria – and she is pessimistic regarding a solution to the water problem in the Middle East. She has visited every country in the region, paying particular attention to water and the cultural relationship to it. For example, she studied the different approaches toward water in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and interviewed thousands of people living in the Middle East.

De Chatel says that while people are aware that there is a water problem in the region, they do not understand how critical the problem is. She adds that governments cannot deal with the problem at present, and definitely cannot create long-range policy on the issue.

Despite her pessimism, de Chatel does not believe that wars over water will be breaking out here – for the simple reason that war is more expensive than finding a solution to the water crisis. She recalls that a high-ranking Israeli general told her: “There is no reason for us to conquer the Jordan River basin as long as it is cheaper to desalinate water.”

De Chatel is also skeptical of the possibility that Israel will sell desalinated water to its neighbors since most of the countries are too poor to buy it. While desalination itself is fairly inexpensive (the desalination process comprises roughly 13 percent of the price of water for consumers), transporting water is a costly affair. But, she says, internal conflicts and uprisings by a thirsty populace against the government, as happened in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, will increase.

Water as a weapon against Islamic State

Although the price of transporting water is high and the country in question is a poor one, the water agreements between Israel and Jordan, which went into effect when both countries signed a peace treaty in 1994, have been a shining success. For 20 years, Israel has been providing the Kingdom of Jordan with 55 million cubic meters of water per year. Besides the fact that providing water to Jordan is part of the peace treaty, Israel also has a political-security interest in doing so.

“Security stability in Jordan and preventing the undermining of the current regime are important to Israel,” says Dr. Oded Eran, Israel’s former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union and today a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “Jordan faces two existential threats: One is the entry of a million-and-a-half Syrian refugees on top of the half-million refugees from Iraq who arrived there in 2003, joining the previous waves of Palestinian immigration of 1948 and 1967. The other is posed by Islamic State, which has infiltrated it with local cells, mainly in places where there is a water shortage that causes economic hardship.”

But while the water agreements with Jordan rise above political differences of opinion, among the Palestinians water and politics are intertwined. De Chatel believes that ideological differences are keeping the issue from being resolved.

“While Israel believes that the transfer of desalinated water to the Palestinian Authority solves the problem, the Palestinians view as highly important what they call ‘the right to water’ – the idea that the PA can be responsible for the water sources in the territories, which Israel does not allow them to do at the moment,” she says.

Both the PA and Israel must also deal with the question of Gaza, which suffers from contaminated water sources due to overuse and the lack of sewage treatment plants. Because of the shortage, people drill private wells, which only makes matters worse. An international project to construct a desalination plant in Gaza has been around for some years, but has not yet been carried out.

To help the inhabitants of Gaza receive more water, Israel has two options: either to sign agreements for continued provision of water to Gaza, as it did after Operation Protective Edge when it transferred five million cubic meters of water to Gaza as humanitarian aid, or allowing Gaza to operate a desalination plant and assist it by providing power to run it. A desalination plant of this kind might also be an important factor in preventing the next war.