(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Boaz Wachtel has a dream - a pipe dream perhaps, but for him a dream whose time has come. It's a dream solution to the regional water problem, in particular to the receding of Lake Kinneret, which this week dropped below its "lower red line" at which further pumping could damage its water quality.
Wachtel, an entrepreneur who specializes in water-usage issues, has for a number of years been promoting an artificial waterway that would start in Turkey, pass through Syrian territory, become a wide and deep above-ground canal on the current border between the Golan Heights and Syria, and flow down the Golan into the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) through hydroelectric turbines - helping to provide power, water and security in one neat package.
Wachtel is a serious person who was once assistant military attachÃ© in the Israeli Embassy in Washington and who has presented his concept to the European Parliament in Brussels. But since his improbably diverse resumÃ© also includes having served as chairman of the local Alei Yarok (Green Leaf) party that seeks to legalize cannabis use, one could be forgiven in this instance for inquiring just what he's been smoking lately.
Not that Wachtel isn't absolutely correct in declaring, "Without additional water resources peace will be very difficult to achieve with Syria and maintain with our other neighbors."
Nor are the technical particulars of his plan by any means unrealistic. Many of the other ideas that have been seriously proposed to economically import water from Turkey, such as constructing an underwater pipeline in the Mediterranean or "floating" the liquid here by towing it in giant balloon-type containers, sound even more of a stretch.
No, the only really unrealistic aspect of Wachtel's scheme is that it is dependent on peace with Syria - a prospect that unfortunately, despite the fact that Jerusalem and Damascus are now engaging in negotiations for the first time in decades, doesn't hold water.
It should, though, since the wet stuff has been a major cause of continuing tension and occasional shooting between the two states - not surprising since the Golan watershed is the origin of more than a third of Israel's fresh water. Syrian determination to get access to the Kinneret by regaining the foothold on the shoreline it lost in 1967, and Israeli reluctance to relinquish a sovereignty it views as entirely legitimate over the entire rim of its precious one and only freshwater body, remains a key sticking point between them.
So is the shrinking of the Kinneret, and the wider water crisis it portends, making peace between Israel and Syria a receding prospect as well? Or could the growing severity of the situation prove a catalyst that helps drive the two sides together to deal with a problem that ultimately requires a regional solution.
In past years, the answer was clearly the former. It was Syrian attempts to divert the Banyas and Hatzbani streams (which feed into the Kinneret and the Jordan River) that led Israel to attack their dam-works in 1965. The coming water crisis will surely only strengthen those voices that have long argued that the Golan's water sources are just as vital and irreplaceable a strategic asset as its elevated view over the Galilee, and that even an agreement with Syria that falls short of concessions on the Kinneret shoreline is too big a risk for Israel to take.
But if the water situation of 2008 is not what it was four decades ago in the depth of its severity, neither is it so in the scope of possible solutions.
Former Israeli water commissioner Meir Ben-Meir, who warned that the country was headed for a potential crisis when he stepped down from the position eight years ago, says "there is no reason for any nation in this day and age that borders on the Mediterranean to be suffering the effects of a long-term water shortage. The cost of desalination has dropped to half [of] what it was a decade ago, and if we were contemplating concessions on the Golan at that price, it could be done today."
What's more, adds Ben-Meir, "If Israel would significantly broaden its efforts beyond desalination, toward retrieving the 100,000,000 cubic meters of brackish water beneath our soil that could be purified; utilizing the 100,000,000 cubic meters of sewage that could be recycled annually; and of course take more conservation measures, then our water needs could be met, and not be a major issue in peace negotiations with our Arab neighbors."
One US expert in Middle Eastern "hydro-politics," Aaron Wolf, has asserted in a paper titled "Trends in Trans-boundary Water Resources: Lessons for Cooperative Projects in the Middle East" that water issues can be in fact serve as a positive factor in those relations, writing that "despite a growing literature suggesting that Arab-Israeli warfare has had a 'hydrostrategic' component, the evidence suggests that water resources were not at all factors in strategic planning during the hostilities of 1948, 1967, 1978 or 1982. The decision to go to war and strategic decisions made during the fighting, including the question of which territory it was necessary to capture, were not influenced by water scarcity or the location of water resources.
"Moreover, although questions of water allocation and rights have been among the most difficult components in the Arab-Israeli peace talks and a large number of studies have identified hydrostrategic territory and advised its retention, no territory to date has been retained simply because of the location of water. Solutions, in each case, have focused on creative joint management of the resource, rather than sovereignty."
The down-side of that thesis, though, is that if water, in particular the Kinneret and its sources, isn't really at the source of our differences with the Syrians, neither will their distress likely lead to a new spirit of cooperation that will easily overcome the real problems between us - such as the fundamental nature of the Assad/Ba'athist dictatorship, and its ties to even worse regimes and groups.
Or to put it another way, if it's not really the Kinneret that divides us and the Syrians, then neither concerns over its receding shoreline - nor dreams of a canal from Turkey to replenish the lake - are really going to help Jerusalem and Damascus bridge their differences over troubled waters.
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