The Water War in the Middle East and Beyond

The Water War in the Middle East and Beyond

water war

By Samuel Scott

JERUSALEM — For the past five years, hundreds of young Israelis have gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first Friday of every July to fight in what is billed as “the largest water war in the world.” No, it is not armed conflict over one of the planet’s most-precious resources — it is an afternoon in which strangers and friends douse each other with water from water guns, water balloons, and water buckets filled from the fountain in the square. The most-recent one was on July 1.

Such a fun occasion is a welcome diversion from the ongoing political turmoil here in the Middle East. After all, Tel Aviv is known for its soft, secular, and fun sand as opposed to Jerusalem’s hard, religious, and serious stone. As I wrote in prior essays here at Considerations, traveling between the two cities — and it is only forty-five minutes on the bus — can seem like entering and exiting entirely-different countries.

However, the annual event is not without controversy. (Nothing in this country can escape debate.) Israel — along with the Middle East and much of the world in general — is facing a water shortage that many experts think may erupt into a water crisis and lead to future water wars in the coming years or decades. And the so-called Water War in Tel Aviv may be a symbol of that fact.

But before I go into the geopolitical aspects of water, here are a few YouTube videos to set the scene. The first is footage of the Water War in Israel at the end of this past week, and the second is from 2010:

Before I discuss water in its political aspect, it is first important to understand why it is so important. First, as anyone who has taken high-school chemistry knows, a molecule of water is comprised of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen that are all connected by covalent bonds:

water warRoughly 71% of the surface of the Earth is comprised of water, and it is necessary for life, at least as we know it, to appear and function. In human beings, roughly 50 to 80 percent of our bodies are comprised of water. (Think about it: Your body is more liquid than solid.) It is for this reason, among others, that scientists and astronomers who explore the universe look for the presence of water on distance planets and moons — such a presence would signify the possible presence, whether in the past or present, of life (at least carbon-based and as we know it). It is also the reason that nearly all world religions have taken water as the symbol of (present and/or eternal) life, purity, and general holiness. (In just two examples, Judaism has mikvot and Christianity has baptism.) It is also a meaning that results from that fact that water is used in household-cleaning and that water is always incorporated into the diets of people who wish to cleanse themselves of drugs like tobacco and alcohol or unhealthy eating-habits like fast food. The symbolism, metaphor, and practicality have all always been universal.

However, the usage and availability of water have always been limited. According to the standard calculations, the total amount of water on Earth — in any form, whether solid, liquid, or gas — is roughly 1.36 trillion square-kilometers (or 326 million square-miles). But only part of the amount is usable by human beings as a result of ecological conditions. Take the Mississippi River. Vaporous water falls as rain into the northern source of the river, which then flows in liquid form south to the Gulf of Mexico, and then becomes unusable salt-water. The water of the ocean evaporates into vapor and then falls again to the source. The cycle begins anew. The important point is that the water is only directly usable by humans — unless and until technology says otherwise — when it is in liquid form in the river in the middle of this cycle. (The total amount of water on planet Earth is always the same, it just takes different forms.)

Water that is captured in mountain-tops, glaciers, in the clouds, or in the undrinkable oceans is worthless in a day-to-day context. And that is why everything else in lakes, rivers, and ponds is so valuable.

Here in Israel, I can attest to the political and economic implications. First, the famous Dead Sea — the lowest point in the world as far as geographic sea-level — has been shrinking. The Jordan River feeds this particular body of water, whose own water is unusable because of its high salt-content, and the Israeli and Jordanian governments have been diverting the fresh water of the river for their own uses before it reaches south to the West Bank and Dead Sea (see the picture of mine of the latter at the top of the post):

In recent decades, the Dead Sea has been rapidly shrinking because of diversion of incoming water from the Jordan River to the north. The southern end is fed by a canal maintained by the Dead Sea Works, a company that converts the sea’s raw materials. From a depression of 395 m (1,296 ft) below sea level in 1970it fell 22 m (72 ft) to 418 m (1,371 ft) below sea level in 2006, reaching a drop rate of 1 m (3 ft) per year. As the water level decreases, the characteristics of the Sea and surrounding region may substantially change.

The implications for the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank are obvious — if Jordan River water is diverted from the north before it can reach them (as well as the Dead Sea), then they will have less water. And that will lead to more unhappiness, instability, and conflict. I have not researched enough about this particular issue here in the Middle East, but I invite readers to peruse the resources here, here, here, here, here, and here as an introduction (while admitting that these links may be biased one way or the other).

Still, I can provide some insight as to how the issue affects Israelis in their daily lives here. In a 2009 post on conserving water here in Israel, I copied the text from an Israeli-government advertisement in the weekend newspapers into English at the time:

From now on, wasting water has a price!

Within the framework of the national effort to conserve water, an “extra charge for surplus use” will go into effect on the day the law is approved (expected date: July 15, 2009).

The “extra charge for surplus use” is intended to encourage water conservation in households which use an excessive amount: a bimonthly use of more than 32 cubic meters (bimonthly water bill) in a household up to four members.

Those households whose water consumption exceeds 32 cubic meters for two months will be obliged to pay an additional NIS 20 [roughly $5] for every excess cubic meter.

Households with more than four members will receive a monthly addition of 4.2 cubic meters per person.

Check with your water supplier that the number of family members is up to date: if it is not, inform the supplier to avoid an extra charge.

Further details at your water supplier and website: www.water.gov.il/hetel

Now, I will admit, I cannot describe what this means on an individual level. I rent my apartment, and nearly all expenses — like water — are included in my lease. I can take a three-minute shower, or I can take a ten-minute shower everyday. My personal outlay will remain the same because my landlord will pay 100% of that payment under the terms of my lease. However, I grant that my personal experience is not the same as most Israelis. Besides, no one takes ten-minute showers here — the reality of living in a desert combined with the experience of mandatory military-service after high school makes short showers the rule.

Still, my experience is atypical. People in many parts of the world are experiencing the effects — economic or otherwise — of a world in which more and more people are trying to use the same, limited amount of H2O. Worldwater.org has a list of global conflicts over water, and the list is sortable based on a given timeline. From 2000 to the present — just over eleven years, which is nothing in the context of world history — there have been roughly seventy conflicts that were directly or indirectly related to water.

Water is a resource that is much more volatile than oil ever could be. Part of the reason lies in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

water warThe point is that the items lower in the pyramid distinguish whether a person will live or not; the items higher will determine whether a person is happy or not. In other words, if a person cannot gain access to clean water, he will not care whether he is satisfied with whether his creativity contributes to society in general. Further, a person will be more likely to fight if he has no water than if his poems are not viewed as quality by his country because his ability to live overrules any creative impulse. The implications are obvious: Those without the items lower on the list will become more violent than those who lack those higher in the pyramid.

Even some U.S. states are competing with each other (as in the California water war). In addition, Peter Annin has examined whether the Great Lakes will become a source of conflict between the United States and Canada, and Steven Solomon has provided an extensive analysis in a water-wars book of how water has affected human history. (See the New Statesman as well.) Perhaps there will be a Third World War for water.

The reasons for and affects of the water wars are related to what I wrote in a prior post on the ongoing food crisis:

Regard­less of the long-term trends, the short-term real­ity is that the world will endure more insta­bil­ity as a result of pop­u­la­tion growth and increased food water-consumption.

In the essay, I had written that technology and government policy may make the growing of plants and rearing of animals more efficient and allow the planet to support more people. In a similar vein, water desalination — the removal of salt from ocean water to make it drinkable — may eventually become an economically-viable solution. A lot of the research is occurring here in Israel at a reverse osmosis seawater-desalination plant in the city of Hadera — and it is the largest of its kind in the world.

Still, until Israel (or any other country) makes a significant breakthrough, the world will still endure instability — and fun, at least in Tel Aviv once a year. According to the Jerusalem Post, roughly 500 people participated in the so-called Water War of 2009 — and a government spokesperson criticized the event that year:

Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor said the issue was not the waste of water, but the inappropriateness of such a display during a severe drought. Schor said [organizer Yaron] Nahari had contacted him before the event to explain the details and ask for his support, but Schor declined to give it. “I told him in such a water crisis to have a water fight is not a good idea,” Schor said. “He assured me that the water will come from the fountain, but nevertheless it doesn’t look right. It can only do damage. When you have such drought-filled years, if a kid sees such a thing, he doesn’t understand where the water comes from. He doesn’t think about it.”

However, Nahari responded at the time that the event is meant in part to raise awareness about the issue of water conservation. “From the get-go we placed an emphasis on intelligent use of water,” he told the Post. “We’re recycling the water from the fountain to make it into something else that people also enjoy.” Water War’s Facebook Event (mainly in Hebrew, but with some English) has more than four hundred people who said that they were coming this year, so perhaps many people agree.

Related: Scott Thill writes at AlterNet that that United Nations is reportedly helping with corporate takeovers of drinking water.

Samuel Scott is a for­mer Boston news­pa­per edi­tor who now lives in Israel and works as Direc­tor of Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing and SEO Team Leader for The Cline Group. You can fol­low Scott on his per­sonal Face­book, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twit­ter accounts as well as see his per­sonal, jour­nal­ism web­site and online-marketing one.

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