In a region that has grown increasingly vulnerable to the effects of both climate change and cross-border resource depletion, it has become all the more critical that neighbors develop interdependent solutions for their water and energy sectors, experts said on Thursday.
“We will go to war over water if we don’t find comprehensive solutions for this issue,” said Dr. Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
Eran was participating in a conference on “Climate Change and Geo-Strategic Aspects of Water, Environment and Energy Issues in the Middle East” – organized by the INSS, together with EcoPeace Middle East (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East) and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. A failure among neighbors to band together on such issues could lead to potentially disastrous consequences, such as regional violence or disease spread, according to experts who gathered from both Israel and abroad on Thursday.
“This area is in a climate crisis,” said Prof. Arnon Soffer, of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Haifa. “Any change in floods or drought brings about human crises. Any additional degree in the [temperature] increases violence.”
While much of the discussion on Wednesday focused on opportunities for Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, Soffer also presented problematic situations in Egypt and Turkey that have been exacerbated by climate change.
Since the 1970s, Soffer explained, the Nile River has been drying up, and for the first time, Egypt has built a combat airport opposite Ethiopia, a country facing severe water shortages.
“Egypt will be very busy with the Nile – that’s its raison d’être,” he said, noting that as a result, the country does not have time to properly deal with the Sinai region and the ISIS factions taking hold there.
He likewise expressed his concern about the water situation between Turkey and Syria, as the former is continually using up shared resources by filling its Ataturk Dam.
“Turkey is completely in control of the water in that area, very cruelly,” Soffer said. “It has dried Syria up.”
Middle East region as a whole, meanwhile, refugees are constantly moving northward, he continued.
“The combination of climate and demographics brings about a crisis,” Soffer said.
Regarding such a combination, Mahmoud Daher, from the World Health Organization’s Gaza sub-office, described how the coastal strip has one of the densest populations in the region. Accompanying this fact is the issue that nearly 98 percent of all of Gaza’s water resources are unusable for human beings, due to high salinity and contamination levels, he said.
The “coping mechanism” to deal with such shortages often involves reduced washing and sanitation efforts, which has spurred a rise in diarrheal diseases, Daher said.
“This doesn’t respect any border, as you all know, so we are looking at this situation with a very high concern,” he added.
Gaza has insufficient electricity to power wastewater treatment plants or the large desalination facility that has long been proposed for the strip, Daher explained. Households therefore often have no other choice but to buy water from private vendors, who often charge 20 times the price of tap water, he said.
Dave Harden, the West Bank and Gaza mission director for USAID, said that although he sees a future in the areas under his purview, a large desalination plant for Gaza – for which USAID has committed funds – will not likely be constructed before the strip’s aquifer is entirely depleted.
“The desalination technology that the Israelis run with is extraordinary, and you couple that with the water reuse that the Israelis excel in, and you have an example of what could be,” Harden said.
Already, he explained, USAID has been bringing Israeli technology to farmers in the West Bank, and the organization will be partnering with MIT to build a solar-powered desalination “micro-plant” for Gaza, he added.
Yet despite the success of Israeli technologies and requests that Harden said he has received all over the Middle East to be connected to such innovation, there are still many instances of “catastrophic failure” on the ground, particularly in Gaza, he explained.
“You all are going to be swimming in the shit,” Harden said.
“I just want us to be crystal clear about the consequences of action and the consequences of inaction.”
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director for EcoPeace Middle East, echoed Harden’s comments regarding the strength of Israeli technologies, particularly in the desalination and wastewater reuse sectors. But he, too, spoke of the challenges posed by the high energy demands of operating such technologies, which remains an obstacle to building the Gazan desalination facility.
“The money is there; the energy is not there,” he said.
Bromberg, along with his Eco- Peace colleague Youval Arbel, presented initial feasibility findings for a forthcoming study that will examine how a regional natural resource community might benefit Israel, Jordan and the PA. The research will be conducted by a team of 15 scholars, based in the three entities, with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Israel Energy Forum, they said.
Despite the fact that constructing a Gazan desalination plant has not yet been possible, both Israel and the PA do have an ample Mediterranean coastline, while Jordan has only the Red Sea.
“On other hand, Jordan has the comparative advantage when it comes to radiation,” Bromberg said.
Israel may have expansive deserts, but much of these lands are either used for military training or are designated as nature reserves, he explained. Jordan could potentially sell electricity generated by its future solar fields to Israel and the PA, while purchasing the potable water that the country is lacking.
“By creating such a relationship of interdependence, we change the paradigm,” Bromberg said. “Neither side has the upper hand.”
“We create wealth in our neighbor, and we have an interest that our neighbor be wealthy,” he added. “If by working together we can build economies that work together, that complement each other, then all sides can win.”