Opinion

Could a Drier Middle East Be a More Peaceful One?

Access to water been mostly a source of upheaval and conflict, but Israel and its neighbors are starting to have little choice but to work together to solve a common problem

File photo: A Palestinian carries plastic gallons he filled with drinking water from a vendor, background, in Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp.
KHALIL HAMRA / AP

Could something as simple as water succeed where statesmen no less than the “very stable genius” occupying the White House have failed for decades? It’s a long shot but maybe not as long as it once was.

The history of water as a catalyst for Middle East peace is poor. A U.S.-led effort 65 years ago to create a regional equivalent of the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Jordan River came to naught. Israel’s unilateral program to tap the water led to tensions with Syria over water-related rights, a factor that led to the Six-Day War. In 1975, Syria and Iraq nearly went to war over Syria's damming of the Euphrates River.

More recently, a severe drought in 2007-10 drove desperate Syrian farmers into the cities, bringing poverty and social distress, and helping spark the civil war. In the last few years, the Islamic State has weaponized water by cutting off supplies and threatening to blow up a dam to inundate Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the region’s handling of its limited water resources has been little short of abysmal. Lebanon has 60,000 wells emptying out the country’s aquifers at an alarming rate, but ordinary Lebanese have little choice because a fifth of households aren’t hooked up to the national water network.

Jordan’s subsidized water is cheaper than in Israel, encouraging farmers to grow water-hungry crops like bananas and tomatoes. Agriculture consumes half the country’s water even though it accounts for just 4% of GDP. 

Even when Syria was in firm control, the government grossly mismanaged the drought crisis. Nowadays, the country’s water system is shattered and no one pretends Damascus controls much of anything.

Already parched, the Middle East is drying out even more. In Jordan, for instance, reservoirs are at just one-fifth their capacity and the country is forecast to have 30% less rainfall by 2100 as temperatures climb. The World Bank last year designated all of Israel’s neighbors a global hot spot for unsustainable water usage. 

Israel is facing a fifth year of drought, but unlike our neighbors we have the technology, money and governmental resources to cope with it. As reported in TheMarker this week, the Water Authority wants to earmark 7.5 billion shekels ($2.2 billion) for measures like building more desalination plants and recycling more sewage. No one in Israel will go thirsty.

In the past there was a lot of talk (most famously by Shimon Peres) about how Israeli technology could be wedded with Arab money to solve the region’s problems. It was a pipe dream because politics has traditionally more important than economics in the calculations of the region’s leaders. But the unfolding water crisis is about much more basic things than delivering better products and services – it’s about political stability and, when you get right down to it, life and death.

We already see some faint signs in the energy sector that fear of economic and social collapse may yet be a source of cooperation. As much as many Jordanians loathe the idea of doing business with the Zionist enemy, Jordan is buying natural gas from Israel because it has no other realistic choice.

With water, politics unfortunately is still the deciding factor, as the fate of the Israeli-Jordan Red-Dead project shows. A multifaceted plan, it calls for Jordan to sell desalinated water produced in the port of Aqaba to southern Israel and pump the brine left over into the shrinking Dead Sea. In return, Israel would sell its desalinated water, which is produced by plants closer to Jordan’s population centers than Aqaba, to northern Jordan.

The deal makes economic sense, but last July an Israeli Embassy guard in Amman shot two Jordanians – one an attacker and another a bystander. Jordan was outraged and shut down the Red-Dead negotiations and talked about going it alone – an alternative that for all intents and purposes is unfeasible. Presumably the talks will now resume after the two sides reached an understanding on the shooting incident. Jordan, more than Israel, is in no position to delay.

No doubt many Israelis who envision an era when Israel employs its high-tech genius across the Middle East imagine it as a one-way street: A desperate Bashar Assad or Mohammed bin Salman comes on hands and knees with parched mouth and says, “Keep the settlements, do what you want the Palestinians. Just give me your water technology.”

But water isn’t just about technology, which in any case is accessible from other countries. It’s also about cooperation to make the best use of water resources across borders, and that’s a two-day street. Israel won’t get far with water if it’s used as blackmail rather than as a common interest. Ignoring the Palestinian issue won't be an option.

Successful business deals don’t necessarily lead to successful political deals, but they do create economic interdependence that gives the countries involved second thoughts about risking heightened tensions, much less violent conflict. Today it’s Jordan that's reaching the inflection point on water versus politics, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that Lebanon and Syria might be willing to do deals.