Thursday, February 4, 2010

Water Under the Bridge

In 1817, Benjamin Franklin famously uttered the phrase, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Had Franklin lived in Israel today, he might have added two certainties: water shortages and Syrian belligerency. Indeed, recent reports about both affirm this including the most recent saber rattling from Damascus, Israel’s water crisis is well known and something that weighs on the mind of Israelis across the spectrum. Water is about politics, religion, the environment, economy, agriculture, and impacts all sectors of Israeli society. It’s interesting to live in a place where Biblical traditions play out on a day to day basis with fervent prayers for rain in its season to fill our aquifers and provide abundance, and the reliance on the rain to sustain our lives. In an arid and largely desert land, while agriculture continues to be relevant, the simple fact of Israel’s population nearly doubling in the past two decades, coupled by many years of less than average rain leading Israel to one of its’ most severe droughts, water use and conservation play a role in every facet of our lives, from the price of produce to the length of our showers. In the past, Israel has dealt with the water situation in many new and innovative ways. Israel leads the world in reclaiming and recycling of grey and brackish water. Israel has given the world drip irrigation which brings just the amount of water a plant needs to thrive right to its roots. Israel has built and continues to build desalination plants which provide a growing amount of potable water, and Israel regularly practices cloud seeding to precipitate maximum precipitation. Israel has also proposed but not implemented vast international projects to supply water. Some have been shelved for political, diplomatic, and economic reasons, as well as what sometimes appears to be ineptitude. As much as Israel has built and continues to build desalination plants, wide criticism exists in our not having done this sooner, faster and to a greater extent. Plans have existed for decades to build a canal from the Mediterranean (and since formalizing peace with Jordan now the Red) Sea. This would serve four important purposes of 1. Providing a source for generating energy, 2. Desalinating water for use, 3. Creating tourism and industry along the way, and 4. Replenishing the Dead Sea which is rapidly drying out. Even Theodor Herzl envisioned this in his 1902 “Altneuland.” In better times, Israel even proposed importing water from Turkey, by pipeline or by tanker ships. But the water situation in Israel is deeply tied to politics and peace with our neighbors. As noted in a recent article (, the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan obliges Israel to provide tens of millions of cubic meters of water to Jordan each year. Leading up to the 1967 Six Day War, Syria attempted to divert water from tributaries of the Yarmuk and Jordan Rivers which Israel considered belligerent, and to which it responded accordingly. Controlling and use of water resources in the Middle East is something that can both be part of the terms of establishing peace, and can be the trigger for a full fledged war. In this context, I was interested to read an article about how years of drought have impacted Syria, Since my first visit to Israel as a teen, I have been aware of the lack of water and how water has been a source of potential regional conflict. It was interesting to read that Syria, a much less developed and much more agrarian society with virtually no natural resources, was suffering as a result of years of drought. It made sense to me how over the past few years Israel has facilitated Druze farmers on the Golan Heights, who have had surpluses of their famous Golan apples partly by benefitting from using Israeli irrigation technologies, to export their apples to Syria. As if two streams coming together to form a river, in my mind, a number of issues flowed together to yield a possible source for conflict resolution, if not peace itself. At a minimum, there is a possibility to rehydrate the region if not bring peace. While there’s no sign that peace with Syria is in the offing, it is clear that if it were ever to come, one of the issues that will have to be resolved is water rights, especially because Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan requires it to provide vast quantities of water to the desert kingdom. Similarly, while in the past year, once very warm Israeli-Turkish relations have become more strained as if in a drought. At the same time, Syrian-Turkish relations which had been mired in conflict in the past, some of which as a result of water problems between them, have seen a new wave. In the past, Syria has long complained of Turkish plans to build a string of dams cross the Euphrates, depriving it of water on which its agriculture so heavily depends. So as the tide seems to have changed, perhaps a new way of thinking is in order. Maybe Turkey holds the key. Maybe a rapprochement between Turkey and Syria can be catalyst for the former to provide relief for a parched Syria. Maybe Turkey, long desiring to serve as an intermediary between Israel and Syria in making peace, can provide water guarantees that provide not just Syria, but Israel and Jordan as well, with an ample flow along the natural network of rivers that feed one another, oblivious to national borders and regional conflicts. Rather than being a thorn in the side of one another’s mutual distrust, perhaps Turkey can be the leverage for the resolution of a problem that will not go away on its own. An Israeli public burned over and over the past year by growing Turkish intransigence can be reassured that maybe Turkey’s interests are not as wildly anti-Israel as an objective observer might believe. Syria’s active participation in rehydrating the region would restore its centrality in the region as a player, not a pariah. Seeing water flow over the border between Israel and Syria would go a long way to repair decades of hate, rhetoric and threats which is all Israel has ever seen from its northern neighbor. This flow of water could energize life for Israel, Syria, Jordan and even the Palestinians, literally and figuratively, and lay a foundation for peace in its wake. There’s been more than enough hostility, and that’s been like swimming against the tide. Perhaps it’s time to let history be seen as water under the bridge and let water, the source for life, be part of the solution, not an ongoing part of the problem that yields conflict and death.