The scriptures of every religion born in the Middle East are filled with references to water, to the benevolence of rainfall, to miracles and deliverances beside the region’s rare streams and rivers, to sacred pools and fountains that comfort travelers and cleanse the hands and feet of pilgrims. Rain comes down from heaven and waters the whole face of the ground. Is it any wonder that the devout usually look to the heavens when they worship?
In today’s Middle East, water plays a crucial role in politics, economics, and conflict. When water is abundant, people of different faiths live amicably. When water is scarce and crops wither, old rivalries and divisions – differences in belief, language, or appearance – reemerge.
A US National Intelligence Estimate forecasts that by 2022 droughts, floods, and freshwater depletion will increase the likelihood of water being used in war or terrorism. A recent study by the American Water Works Association, which promotes water quality worldwide, says places already experiencing water stress include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States.
Countries where water has always been in modest supply appear to be especially vulnerable as population growth, urbanization, and climate change cut annual rainfall, diminish snowpacks, and deplete wells and aquifers. So just as humans are learning better ways of managing energy and waste, the decades ahead will require smarter water management.
In a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), Christa Case Bryant examines the world leader in water management: Israel. Even before independence 67 years ago, Israelis made water a strategic priority and vowed to make the desert bloom. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, knew that Israel would always have to defend its right to exist. But he saw the new nation’s supreme test “not in the struggle with hostile forces outside its frontiers but in its success in wrestling fertility from the wasteland.”
From drip irrigation technology to recovery and reuse of wastewater to large-scale desalination (which is increasingly being powered by Mediterranean gas fields), Israel has mastered the water cycle and become the world’s beta site for water management. Its experience and techniques are being studied from California to China.
At least as important as what the world can learn from Israel is the effect Israel’s water policies might have on the peace process. Israel has long been criticized for aggressive water use. The Arab-Israeli divide is often symbolized by the sparkling swimming pool of a West Bank settlement overlooking a parched Palestinian village or orderly ranks of Israeli farms and greenhouses tapping water from the aquifers that water-starved Gaza relies on. Water abundance can erase that divide. Israel now has more than enough water for itself and is exporting supplies to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza.
Water alone won’t undo deep-seated rivalries or rewrite thousands of years of Middle East history. But in the oldest scriptures of a dry and thirsty land, offering an enemy water to drink has been an act of peace. Water isn’t the secret to peace. But when it is plentiful, peace is more likely to bloom.