Denizens of the Middle East have always understood the importance of fresh water. Their lives have depended on it. Now, says a panel of experts convened on June 19 by the United Nations, the demand for water in the region is even more acute and cooperation on cross-border water use is more essential than ever.
Speakers at the U.N. conference included Clive Lipchin, director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies; Sharon B. Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona; and Seth M. Siegel, a writer who focuses on water issues. Jewish National Fund sponsored the event, which was live-streamed online.
Lipchin defined water scarcity as access to less than 500 cubic meters of water per capita per year, explaining that “Israel, Palestinians and Jordanians fall below this point.” He said the demand for fresh water is only increasing in that neighborhood. He offered desalination as one potential solution, conceding that the process of removing salt from water is costly—roughly 60 U.S. cents per cubic meter.
Additionally, desalination carries environmental consequences. The process requires high energy consumption from power plants that emit harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental group, told the Seattle Times in March that desalination should be “part of integrated water policy that includes conservation and use of solar energy to power desalination plants.”
Part of that integrated policy has been the advent of drip irrigation, an Israeli invention. The technique produces 200 to 500 percent larger crop yields and saves between 50 and 60 percent of the water that would usually be wasted through traditional irrigation methods. Currently, it is only used by 5 percent of farmers around the globe. “The U.N. and other organizations need to think of changing to this system,” Siegel said.
“It was great to see Israel discussed at the U.N. with a focus on Israel’s achievements in water management,” said Leonard A. Miller, a prominent Washington, D.C., environmental lawyer who attended the conference. “Israel has much to teach the world not only on water re-use and desalination, but on the whole array of its sophisticated water policies.”
But, cautioned Lipkin, technological breakthroughs alone will not solve the region’s water woes. Water does not respect “political borders,” he said, noting that the Jordan River and the Dead Sea are two examples of bodies of water that are not only Israel’s responsibility. Water scarcity, said Lipkin, “is creating severe problems in planning for agriculture and tourism” and resolving the problem “requires cooperation.”