A pipe dream

Can a 'peace canal' carrying water from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Israel and the PA stop the next war?

October 25, 2007 10:34
A pipe dream

pipeline 88. (photo credit: )

That water may be the issue over which the next major Middle East war will be fought is not news. Boaz Wachtel, a Sharon resident with a penchant for thinking "out of the box," thinks he has a solution to the area's impending water crisis: He is proposing constructing a canal that will bring some two billion cubic meters a year of potable water from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority that will redress the area's negative water balance and produce tremendous peace dividends. "The full name of the project I'm proposing is 'The Peace Canal on the Golan Heights,' because they're also calling the more recent Red-Dead Sea canal plan (see box) the 'Peace Canal,'" Wachtel told Metro last week. He lacks political patronage and the mainstream environmental organizations have not embraced his ideas, yet the maverick proposal is starting to make waves. Wachtel has become an expert on hydro-politics, and outlined the issue in regional terms: "Gaza has the absolutely worst water situation in the region. Over-pumping of the Gaza aquifer has led to intrusion of salt water. Over-drilling of wells coupled with the absence of a sewerage infrastructure led to a health crisis that affects the very young and old. The Jordanians are in the second-worst situation - they have no storage capacity, no lake and their major aquifer borders Saudi Arabia. Water cutoffs are common - that's why you see water tanks on roofs in Jordanian cities. Syria suffers from water quality and quantity problems in its major cities in the west of the country - Damascus, Halab (Aleppo) and Hims - even though the Euphrates flows from Turkey through eastern Syria." Desalination is not the solution, he insists. "Israel is rich enough to desalinate and solve its own water problem, but the Palestinians cannot desalinate because they cannot afford it. Desalination gives the illusion of independence, but relies on foreign and polluting energy sources - so we're substituting one environmental blight for another. "We must address the water situation in such as a way as to increase the pie," says Wachtel. "There is enough water in the Middle East - if you consider Turkey part of the Middle East. If we build a conduit of closed canals and pipelines and run it through western Syria parallel to the major cites, a quarter of the water would be for use in those cities and the Golan Heights. Once they get it back, the Syrians plan to settle tens of thousands of people on the Heights. When that conduit arrives at the southernmost slopes of the Hermon (the current border), it will open into a wide, deep canal combined with modular tank barrier obstacles on both sides from the northern Golan to the southern Golan. This will allow Israel to withdraw from the Heights without the fear of sudden Syrian armor attack across the border. I emphasize 'modular' because one day the barriers will hopefully be dismantled. "From the Golan the water would fall down the western slope to the upper Jordan River, and on the southern slope to the Jordan-Syrian dam on the Yarmuk river. The water flowing down the southern slope to the Yarmuk would be used by Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian Authority farmers. From the Golan there will be an extension to the Jordanian cities of Amman and Irbid. From the western slope the water would flow for use in Israel and recharge the coastal and mountain aquifers, and the Gaza aquifer. "Wachtel claims that the project could be constructed with standard technologies in 3-4 years using private or international institutional capital, at an estimated cost of 5-7 billion dollars. "A few former Turkish presidents have expressed a willingness to sell up to four billion cubic meters from two rivers in south-east Turkey - the Ceyhan and Sayhan - with a combined annual discharge of 14 billion cubic meters. To put things in perspective, the total Israeli and Palestinian water use is about two billion cubic meters. In terms of energy, the project will be self-sufficient. The hydro-electricity produced will offset the energy required to move the water the 700 kilometers from the Turkish rivers - that's not much further than from Metulla to Eilat. It is absolutely feasible." Wachtel, 49, has an outlandishly diverse resume. He earned a BA in Jewish Education from the Hebrew College in Brookline, Mass. 1980-83, and an MA in Management and Marketing from University of Maryland in 1984-87. A former combat soldier in an elite IDF unit, he served as an assistant military attaché posted to the Israeli Embassy in Washington from 1983 to 1986. In 1987, he was an assistant to the Ministry of Defense representative on Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), from which Israel's Arrow anti-missile missile system evolved. After his years in Boston and Washington DC, he moved to New York in 1988 where he lived for five years, making a living treating drug addicts with the naturally-occurring psychoactive compound Ibogaine while working on the Peace Canal plan. He returned to Israel in 1993, where he now lives with his wife and three children in a Sharon moshav. "I love this country, and care about Israel," says Wachtel, who twice almost became a Knesset member as the head of the Green Leaf (Aleh Yarok) party that promotes the legalization of marijuana, prostitution and gambling, and emphasizes environmental issues. "I've been trying to get this proposal off the ground since 1991," says Wachtel, who began to hatch the idea as the Oslo negotiations began. "Since I was politically-aware and involved, I came to the conclusion early on that without a resolution to the water problems of the Jordan river-shed countries, all political agreements, as strong as they may seem, could fall apart because of competition for water among the parties. It was a learning process, through a process of elimination. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that a regional problem requires a regional solution." The multi-lateral Middle East peace talks in the early 1990s included extended Israeli discussions with Syria, he notes. "I was truly concerned that the peace talks would not provide a solution to the regional water problems. I'm a curious guy, and not shy to speak my mind. I bought maps of the Middle East and read a tremendous amount about the water issues before drawing up the plan. It took half-a-year to prepare, and two weeks to write my original 500-word proposal." First published in the Journal of Commerce international business newspaper in 1991, Wachtel's idea began to gain admirers, including the late journalist Ze'ev Schiff, who wrote about it in Ha'aretz. In 1992, he was invited to a conflict-resolution NGO conference at the UN headquarters in New York and presented the plan to over 500 NGOs. "Freedom House, established by Eleanor Roosevelt as the first human rights and democracy advocacy NGO in the world, adopted me. They gave me an office in New York so that I could develop the initiative, but no salary - I was very poor in those days. I was just a guy with an idea. Freedom House maintains that equal access to water is a basic human rights issue." Wachtel approached a myriad of official bodies, NGOs and individuals, including the State Department and the Jordanian ambassador to the US. "I wrote to Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter. Carter's office replied 'Your idea is unique since it combines alternative solutions to the problem of water with security considerations.' I built on that - the former President didn't trash the idea." "The key to this plan is in Washington," Wachtel asserts. "The State Department included my project in a document they prepared entitled 'Grant Schemes for Water Development' in their proposals for peace in the 1990s." He pointed to the slowly warming political climate during the first half of the decade. "In April 1994, the Syrian ambassador to Turkey said that Syria is not against the sale of water to Israel, but it prefers for Ankara to play the water card to put pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syrian hands." Wachtel, however, eventually ran out of steam. "I stopped working on the idea in 1996 when the Likud took power, because I was convinced that the Likud would not give up the Golan Heights, even for peace with Syria. I realized that it wasn't going to happen soon. A year previously, I had met with the water commissioner, the late Gidon Tzur, Agriculture Minister Ya'akov Tzur [no relation] and Amos Epstein head of [the national water company] Mekorot. The agriculture minister and water commissioner instructed Mekorot to enact a feasibility study of the Peace Canal plan. I began working with Mekorot on checking five parameters: the economic, environmental, technical, political and social aspects. We worked for a couple of months, and then Bibi won the elections. Because Mekorot is a politically-sensitive organization, they stopped the feasibility study in its tracks." Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry Director-General and ambassador to Turkey, says that Wachtel has a lot of persuading to do before the project garners substantial support. "Everyone is so tired of all the talk of water from Turkey. It's been going on for so long that it looks like a joke. Boaz's idea to bring water from Turkey is not new - there has been talk of a pipeline since the 1980s. That proposal fell through because of the Syrians: International relationships were not suitable to allow such an idea. In the late 90s it came up again, in the form of shipping water from Turkey to Israel in huge tankers. Agreements were signed but the finance ministry thought that desalination is a better approach, and stymied the project." Yet Liel is one of Wachtel's staunchest supporters. "Boaz's vision has extra elements. Turkey and Syria have close relations nowadays, which is why I'm excited by the idea. Two questions remain: the viability of the project, and how Israel-Turkey and Israel-Syrian relations develop in the next few years." Liel is pessimistic about the project's chances in the short term. "Israeli-Turkish relations are far from being stable, and I can't see the Turkish government getting involved in this right now. Quite a few things will have to happen in order for this project to get off the ground. First of all, it has to be correctly marketed to the relative governments. It's difficult to persuade people, but he carries on trying because he believes in it. The Red-Dead Sea project has greater meaning in terms of peace with the Jordanians and Palestinians. I'll be happy if at least one of the projects becomes a reality." In the intervening years, Wachtel has turned to entrepreneurship, promoting a series of commercial, environmental and socially-oriented enterprises, including coordinating broadcasts of Hebrew television programs in the US. He is currently busy raising funds to kick-start a new business based on another of his ideas. "Once I realized that a macro solution was not feasible right now, I turned to finding more specific solutions applicable everywhere. In 2000, I received a US patent for an irrigation system based on extracting moisture from the air by condensing it on un-perforated pipes that contain cold water at a temperature under dew point. I call it the 'iced coffee effect,' similar to the puddle left on a table by a cup of iced coffee. The vision is to produce energy from the sun to extract water for irrigation from the humidity in the air. That would allow us to produce food off the water and electricity grids almost anywhere that plants grow," explained Wachtel, who also holds two other international patents for irrigation systems. During a World Bank hearing devoted to the Red-Dead Sea canal proposal held in Neveh Ilan in August this year, Wachtel was invited to present his idea from the podium. "I told them that the Turkish option - to bring water to the Middle East and save the Dead Sea and Jordan River - is an alternative that should be assessed properly. Even though it currently lacks political viability, it beats every other option in technical, social, environmental and economic aspects, and we should prepare ourselves for the day of political viability due to peace between Israel and Syria." "There's an anti-Israeli-Syrian peace climate right now, that stems from American insistence to isolate Syria and the belief in Israel that we cannot proceed on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks at the same time. This sad line of thinking strengthens radical force across the region. Syria is a key to reversing the trend of radicalization in the region. If we wait too long, we're going to end up in another war," he warns. Wachtel will be holding one-on-one meetings with international venture capitalists at next week's fourth annual International Water Technologies and Environmental Control (WATEC 2007) exhibition and conference at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds (October 30-November 1). The WATEC gathering is aimed at strengthening Israel's burgeoning reputation as the "Silicon Valley" of the global water and environmental technologies market, and he sees it as an opportunity to bring similarly forward-thinking concerns on board. He is not even considering giving up. "From a historical perspective, 17 years is a blip. The Israeli peace camp is fragmented and disorganized, so I'm doing it myself. When I go to my grave, I'll know I did my utmost for the environment and for peace," he says. How can the Dead Sea be saved? The Dead Sea is shrinking rapidly. In October, Israel's Hydrological Service reported that the lake's water level had plummeted 15 centimeters in one month. The level has been dropping at an increasing rate in recent years - 1.2 meters in 2006 - and currently stands at 420.47 meters below sea level. This is having destructive geological and environmental consequences, including an increasing number of sinkholes along the shore. The primary reason for the Dead Sea's annual deficit of more than a billion cubic meters is the reduced flow of fresh water from the River Jordan. Some 15 to 20 percent of the drop is associated with the water that factories (such as the Dead Sea Works) on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides pump into salt-evaporation ponds. In recent years, many political and business leaders - notably President Shimon Peres - have been promoting the "peace canal," which would run from the Gulf of Eilat via the Arava desert to the Dead Sea, as a solution to the problem. Under this plan, Red Sea water will be used to produce energy and desalination for both Israel and Jordan, and the entire project would be financed by foreign contributions. "Peres, Israeli and Jordanian politicians are in favor of the Red Sea-Dead Sea solution, but environmentalists are adamantly against it," notes Wachtel. "Friends of the Earth - Middle East and other environmental organizations say that the World Bank and parties to the conflict have to thoroughly examine other alternatives to save the Dead Sea. There is great uncertainty about the environmental impact of the Red-Dead Sea canal project, because no one can build a model to extrapolate accurately what the ultimate impact will be. Studies have proved that mixing Dead Sea water with that of the Red or Mediterranean Seas produces massive amounts of gypsum, that would either float or sink, cause the whitening of the lake and increased temperatures around the lake, and permanently alter the mineral extraction properties from the Dead Sea. The Red-Dead Sea canal also lacks economic viability, and in the case of an earthquake could cause salt water to enter the aquifers under the Arava." Wachtel noted that the Mediterranean-Dead Sea canal project that was dropped in the 1970s still has supporters. The World Bank is currently planning to fund a technical, economical and environmental feasibility study for the Red-Dead Sea canal. Other alternatives touted by environmentalists include releasing water from the Kinneret to the Lower Jordan River and into the Dead Sea. "Organizations such as the Friends of the Earth are proposing that the parties surrounding the Jordan River would stop impounding the water that once flowed to the Jordan from tributaries and the Kinneret," says Wachtel. The once-gushing Jordan River has been reduced to little more than a meandering sewage channel in recent years. Over 90 percent of the 1.3 billion cubic meters that flowed through the river 50 years ago have since been diverted by Israel's National Water Carrier, Jordan's King Abdullah Canal and dams across tributaries in Israel, Jordan and Syria. A meager stream in winter (20% of which is untreated sewage), the river is in danger of drying up altogether during the hot summer months. The Jordan is arguably the world's most famous river, with symbolic value to three of the world's major religions. In June this year, the World Monuments Fund, the leading international body for the protection of monuments, proclaimed the "Lower Jordan River Cultural Landscape" one of the world's 100 most endangered cultural heritage sites. "The River Jordan is at a critical juncture. It is in danger of disappearing altogether if governments in the region do not take action immediately," Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), told this writer last year.

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