Troubled Waters

by Jeffrey Kaiser and Nathaniel Sobel:

A hazy, thick atmosphere permeates the coast of the Dead Sea. The inescapable heat, the thick air, and the warmth of the mineral-heavy water can be overwhelming. Since the era of Herod the Great, the people of this region have known about the water’s therapeutic properties. Its viscous, black mud, rich in salts and minerals, leaves the skin feeling silky and rejuvenated.

But the Dead Sea itself lies in desperate need of rejuvenation. Since 1960, its surface area has shrunk by a third. While this abrupt change has created its own problems, it is only a small part of a much larger issue: the critical water shortage that has only recently become a priority in the Middle East.

Each year, thousands of tourists and pilgrims come to the site of Jesus's baptism on the Jordan River to bathe in the holy, yet polluted, water. (Flickr Creative Commons)

In a region beset with political and religious discord, water both poses the greatest threat and offers the greatest potential for peace. “Solving the water issue is not as hard as solving the refugee problem, and not as hard as solving the Jerusalem problem,” said Mira Edelstein of the Tel Aviv office of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an NGO focused on finding solutions to the water crisis, “but water is the beginning.” Across the Jordan River, Abdel Rahman Sultan, of the Jordanian FoEME office, stressed the gravity of the issue. “In a hundred years, if nothing is done to mitigate the crisis, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian conflict because there will be no people,” Sultan said emphatically. In an area fraught with dangerous political tensions, cooperation on an issue that could supersede all others has the potential to create peace, as Sultan put it, “from the ground up.”

Implications of a Crisis

The Middle East, which receives low average annual precipitation, has few sustainable water sources on which to rely. In the 1950s and 60s, Israel, Jordan, and Syria each built competing dams on the Jordan River and its tributaries, the Sea of Galilee and the Yarmuk River, diverting the water to faucets and farms.

These dams and water harvesting tactics have come with a political and environmental price. When Syria built its dam on the Jordan River in 1953, Israel was outraged. Abba Eban, then Israel’s chief delegate to the United Nations, claimed that the act was part of Syria’s “avowed political and economic warfare” against Israel. Tensions eventually subsided, but the need for water did not. Today Israel, Syria, and Jordan divert nearly 95 percent of the lower Jordan’s flow, wreaking havoc on the river’s ecosystem and preventing any significant flow into the Dead Sea.

In addition to its ecological importance, the Jordan River has rich historical and religious significance. It is believed that Jesus was baptized there, and each year thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage
to bathe in the holy water. But, according to Sultan, these people are literally “jumping in holy shit.” This far downstream, nearly all of the clean water has been replaced by sewage and wastewater.

Most emblematic of today’s water crisis is the state of the Dead Sea. At 418 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest land point on Earth, the saltiest body of water in the world, and a primary tourist attraction for both Jordan and Israel. Additionally, it is the core of the local potash industry, which extracts potassium-rich salts from the water for use in fertilizers. The fact that water flow into the Dead Sea is currently only five percent of what it once was has dire consequences. According to FoEME, within 50 years the Dead Sea will be little more than a large pond.

The ecologically destructive water management policies instituted by Israel, Jordan, and Syria have made it impossible to quench the region’s thirst in a sustainable manner. In Amman, where the Jordanian government limits the supply of public water to 24 hours each week, private water distributors are rapidly depleting non-renewable underground sources in a mad dash to meet consumer demand. Inefficiencies in the current distribution system also cause significant loss of water: USAID has reported that up to 40 percent of water diverted from the region’s major water sources is leaked along the way.

That the major cities in the region are desperate for water is understandable. That there has been such delay in addressing the environmental repercussions is not.

Mitigating the Crisis

Water issues in the Middle East have become so dire that governments can no longer afford to ignore the facts. They have taken two basic approaches, both of which are necessary for real progress. The first is to reduce consumption. But attempting to change behavior is a challenge, especially as the populations of both Israel and Jordan grow and modernize. Dr. Hazim El-Naser, the former Jordanian Minister of Water and Irrigation and a current member of the Jordanian Parliament, stressed the need for behavioral changes in the general population. “The Jordanian government is already utilizing every possible efficiency device in order to save water,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress on the water issue isagriculture. The agricultural lobbies are very strong in both Israel and Jordan, and convincing famers to use less water is no easy task. “Farmers want to maintain the status-quo,” said Edelstein of FoEME. The farming of lucrative non-indigenous crops, which Edelstein described as “water intensive,” is a major source of the problem. “We don’t need to be growing bananas in the Jordan River valley; bananas are from a tropical environment,” she said. Furthermore, most farmers receive government subsidies for the cultivation of these crops, which, instead of feeding the population at home, are often exported. In effect, Edelstein argued, “we’re exporting our water.”

In an effort to address this problem, subsidies have recently been lowered in Israel, and farmers are beginning to use recycled water; about 70 percent of water used on Israeli farms is treated wastewater. Two new wastewater treatment plants are currently under construction on the Israeli side of the Jordan River.

The second approach to tempering the crisis looks to technological innovation to provide new water sources. Most research efforts have focused on creating a passage to pump water inland from the Red Sea. According to its proponents, the canal, known informally as the “Red-Dead,” will have a two-fold purpose: to pump desalinated water north to Amman and to help replenish the Dead Sea. While the plan may seem simple, it has sparked significant controversy.

El-Naser sees the canal project as “an environmental project, not a water project. Water pumped to Amman from the canal is a byproduct.” Ms. Galit Cohen, the head of environmental policy at the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection, emphasized the environmental hazards of the project. “Pumping such a large amount of water out of the relatively small Gulf of Aqaba could destroy the Coral reefs and the ecosystem there,” said Cohen, referencing a feasibility study conducted by Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians.

Moreover, mixing waters of such different chemical and mineral makeup “is really an irreversible process,” said Cohen. “It may be a solution, but it very well may be a disaster.” Still, the Jordanian government recently decided to go ahead with the preliminary phase of the project, which ultimately aims to deliver an additional 120 million cubic meters of drinking water to the country each year and pour 190 million cubic meters of water into the Dead Sea.

A Road to Peace?

While at its core the water crisis is an environmental issue, many hope that it could also offer potential peace for the region. Abdel Sultan of FoEME leads the Jordanian branch of FoEME’s Good Water Neighbors project, which intends to increase water awareness between neighboring Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian communities. Sultan believes that only through this sort of interpersonal contact – “creating a human component” – can there be sustainable peace. But with Jordan proceeding alone on the Red-Dead canal, hopes for communication and cooperation may be waning. Israel is still considering the project but is waiting for more definitive results from a World Bank survey before making a final decision. And while the involved governments and a handful of interested NGOs have taken up the issue, nothing significant will be accomplished until the population realizes what is at stake. But as Sultan pointedly suggested, this may not occur until “people open their taps and no water comes out.”

Jeffrey Kaiser ’12 is a Political Science and International Studies double major in Saybrook College. Nathaniel Sobel ’12 is an American Studies major in Berkeley College. Contact them at and