Thirty years ago, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian politician and diplomat who would go on to become UN Secretary-General in 1992, warned of Middle Eastern wars to come. His prediction was correct but he was wrong about the cause. What should have worried him was the rise of extremist movements within the Islamic world. What worried him instead was water.
This was an issue to which he and other global authority figures would frequently return. Their solution? Ten years ago, in an interview with the BBC, Mr. Boutros-Ghali “urged the international community to ensure a fair division of water between nations.”
Fortunately, there were those who saw it differently. They agreed that without clean and abundant water, poor people would stay poor and growing nations would stop growing. But they did not believe that the answer was to empower transnational bureaucrats to divide up a scarce resource according to their notion of fairness. The alternative: make the resource less scarce. Make it plentiful.
Impossible, you say? There’s only so much water to go around? This is a demand-side problem so there can’t be a supply-side solution? Among those not buying such conventional thinking were innovative Israeli policy makers, scientists and engineers. The results of their dissident efforts are now plain to see. Go anywhere in Israel – most of which is a desert and the rest of which is semiarid – and turn any faucet: pure water, safe to drink, will flow.
It’s a miracle – right up there with turning water into wine. The most complete explanation for how that miracle has been achieved and what it could mean for the world is the subject of a new book, Seth Siegel’s “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.”
He recounts how Israeli leaders, since the earliest days of the modern Jewish state, have made water a top priority, second only to defending their people from those sworn to drive them into the sea. That led to innovations, some well-known, such as using drip irrigation to make deserts bloom using relatively tiny quantities of water; some mundane but necessary such as conservation, extensive sewage treatment and recycling. And, in recent years, enormous strides have come about thanks to the development of cost-effective methods to turn seawater – the same seawater in which Israelis’ enemies have hoped to drown them -- into freshwater.
Among the key breakthroughs: “reverse osmosis,” in particular the development of a “membrane that had nano-sized holes that were large enough to allow pure water to pass through but small enough to block particles of salt and other dissolved minerals.”
Ilan Cohen, a former top aide to two Israeli prime ministers, sees this as a historic paradigm shift: “Today, we are in a period like the dawn of agriculture,” he told Mr. Siegel. “Prehistoric man had to go where the food was. Now, agriculture is an industry. Until recently we had to go where the water was. But, no longer.”
In a more rational world, Israel would be able to use its hydro-alchemy to resurrect the moribund peace process. From 1948 to 1967, the West Bank was ruled by Jordan. Then Jordan joined other Arab countries in a war intended to wipe Israel off the map. Israel prevailed and one consequence was Israel’s occupation of the West Bank – till then ruled by Jordan. At that point, Mr. Siegel notes, “only four of the West Bank’s 708 cities and towns had running water.” Today, 96 percent of the West Bank’s growing population has “clean, safe water delivered to their homes” – and more than half of that water comes “from Israel’s own system.”
As for Gaza, which Egypt lost to Israel in the same war, it has been ruled by Hamas since 2007. According to Mr. Seigel, Gaza is now “only a few years from a water crisis of unimaginable scope.”
Among the reasons: over-dependence on and over-pumping of a shallow aquifer into which seawater is seeping; thousands of poorly constructed and illegal urban wells that allow contaminants to percolate into that aquifer; environmentally harmful agricultural practices that consume 65 percent of the enclave’s water; and lack of sewage treatment. “Every day, about twenty-four million gallons of sewage are either stored in growing pools of human waste or dumped untreated into the Mediterranean Sea.”
Israel does provide water to Gaza though not as much as the growing population requires. It could provide more – as well as modern sewage treatment facilities and desalination plants utilizing Israeli technology. Were that to happen, Gaza’s economy – and the standard of living of the average Gazan -- would be transformed. But Hamas opposes any “normalization” with Israel, preferring to devote its energies to making missiles and terrorist tunnels in pursuit of its avowed goal: Israel’s extermination.
Blood, they say, is thicker than water. Too many Palestinians prioritize spilling the former -- in recent days using kitchen knives -- over manufacturing the latter. In other thirsty parts of the Islamic world, is there a chance that Israel, which has never been able to successfully trade “land for peace,” could now trade “water for peace”? Hope springs eternal.