Water security expert: Middle East water shortages require regional action

According to hydrologist Prof. Jay Famiglietti, the regional scale of the world’s water scarcity hot-spots requires regional solutions

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September 23, 2019 11:38
4 minute read.
Prof. Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Sask

Prof. Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The already hot and arid Middle East is getting dryer, with satellite imagery showing that the region is losing water earlier and faster than previously forecast. The decline is a result of an alarming combination of drought and increased groundwater demand.

While the issue of water scarcity crosses over national borders and sometimes complex political boundaries, including in Israel’s neighborhood, water security solutions are lacking on a regional level.

According to hydrologist Prof. Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, the regional scale of the world’s water scarcity hot-spots requires regional solutions.

“We are under-institutionalized when it comes to global, transnational and trans-boundary water issues,” Famiglietti told The Jerusalem Post.

“We can talk about the United Nations, but I think they have their hands full with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is no real body taking on this issue, so it comes down to regions or individual governments,” he added, including in Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.

According to data published from NASA’s GRACE satellite mission, the Middle East lost an excess of 144 cu.km. of fresh water between 2006 and 2013, equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea. Researchers revealed that more than 60% of water loss was caused by groundwater pumping, with over half of the world’s major aquifers now past sustainability tipping points.

While water scarcity poses clear challenges for access to safe drinking water, irrigation and food production, issues of groundwater depletion are also present in some of the world’s most sensitive regions: the Middle East, the tense India-Pakistan border and Northern Africa.

“The Middle East is a region that is drying out and losing water faster than almost every place on the world. That should be a cause for concern on its own,” said Famiglietti, who previously served as senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“When we think about what it means for international relations, complex relations in the Middle East and for growing food, this is a huge problem that not enough people are talking about.”

Even when countries in conflict regions do discuss water security issues, Famiglietti said, they often fail to discuss the critical subject of groundwater. Agreements, he says, are often based on what can be seen on the surface, and more strategic water supply sources such as groundwater slip through international accords.

Famiglietti, who previously visited Israel in 2013 on a water diplomacy trip with the US State Department, will be returning to participate in the Water Technology and Environment Control (WATEC) conference taking place Nov. 18-21 in Tel Aviv.

Focusing on water stewardship and innovation, the global conference aims to leverage Israel’s technological solutions to advance the management and protection of water across the world.

“Such meetings are about sharing the technology – we need to learn from each other what is available and to inspire others to do better. Sometimes there is a disconnect between the technology sector and the water security sector,” said Famiglietti.

“I hope that maybe some of the issues that we will discuss inspire people to embrace not just technological innovation, but also social innovation, policy innovation, political innovation and economic innovation.”

While innovation and technology are not capable of solving the global water crisis or global change, Famiglietti is quick to add, they enable authorities to manage and adapt to new developments.

In the case of agriculture, he said, the implementation of smart irrigation systems – developed by the likes of Israel’s Netafim – ought to be pushed and developed further. Improved data collection and sharing mechanisms also needs to be advanced in order to support water management decision-makers at the local level.

Beyond issues of water scarcity, Famiglietti also cautioned of the dangers that cyber vulnerabilities pose to water infrastructure. In March 2018, the US blamed Russian government hackers for cyber attacks on its critical infrastructure sectors, including energy, nuclear and water facilities.

“As we become more interconnected through the internet, we become more vulnerable, and I’m not sure that our cyber security is where it needs to be with respect to our own infrastructure,” said Famiglietti.

“The potential is there for our water infrastructure to be weaponized by outside actors, and the risks are about as serious as they can be. If you can hack into the operating room of a reservoir, it is possible that you could release unscheduled amounts of water that could be extremely dangerous for nearby populations.”

According to WATEC co-chairs Oren Blonder and Ari Goldfarb, this year’s conference – the eighth of its kind – will mark “an exciting departure” from previous conventions.

“We are joining forces with the Israeli Ministry of Economy and Israel Export Institute to bring you Water Week – four days of international and local focus on water management, with WATEC 2019 featuring proudly as the flagship event,” said Blonder and Goldfarb.

“Sessions will incorporate workshops, round tables and panel discussions with interaction from all participants. This is the only conference that truly addresses the future of water and the water industry worldwide, and does not simply exhibit pipes and other equipment, regardless of how large and lovely they may be.”


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