Mideast seeks water solutions

By LEAH KRAUSS, UPI Correspondent   |   Feb. 14, 2006 at 1:47 PM
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EIN GEDI, Israel, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- Water scarcity in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have spilled over into political disputes and peace talks and experts worry the problem could lead to another conflict in the region.

"Water should not be the cause of further conflict," said Nader al-Khateeb, the Palestine general director of Friends of the Earth-Middle East, at a conference over the weekend that brought together researchers affiliated with NATO.

NATO designates poor water management as a threat to security -- not just for the countries or regions dealing with scarcity, but for the world.

Al-Khateeb said he believes working together to manage water smartly is a bridge to making peace with Israel. He and dozens of other scientists, researchers, writers and policy experts from 17 countries were in Israel this week to learn more about the problem and to discuss solutions.

Their case study is the Dead Sea, which is dying. Because Israel and Jordan divert water from its water supplies, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, the water's depth is falling at an average rate of 1 meter per year.

This means the sea, famous for being the lowest point on Earth, is shrinking. The tourist resort at Ein Gedi used to be on the shore. Now, trolleys ferry beachgoers across hundreds of yards of salt-encrusted expanses, just to get them to the water.

The disappearing lake is also leaving dangerously unstable ground in its wake. When areas of salt concentration left on the sand are washed away by rain or underground springs, the ground collapses into crater-sized "sinkholes."

Tourism development in the region has practically halted, said Gidon Bromberg, Israel's general director of Friends of the Earth-Middle East

Roads and military bases have been relocated because of the instability of the ground, Bromberg said as he stood on what used to be the Dead Sea's floor, several hundred yards from a giant sinkhole.

"We call sinkholes 'the revenge of nature,' because they are nature responding to humans' ... overexploitation of water," he said.

One possible solution is the planned Red-Dead Canal, a project on the magnitude of Egypt's Aswan Dam. The canal would replenish the Dead Sea by pumping from the Red Sea. At the same time, engineers would take advantage of the 450-meter differential in elevation between the two bodies of water to generate hydropower - an energy form still in its nascent stages in Israel and Jordan.

The World Bank has invested heavily in the project, which is chiefly a Jordanian initiative but is billed as a joint venture to secure international funding, said Eric Pallant, a professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania who is co-director of NATO's Integrated Water Resources Management in the Middle East project.

Plans are currently stalled due to environmental concerns. Experts fear the canal could burst, flooding the surrounding desert. Some environmentalists also worry that mixing the ecosystems will have a detrimental effect.

Pallant said when he first heard about the project, he opposed it for these reasons. But once he realized how dire the water situation was in Jordan, he decided the benefits would outweigh the risks. As for the danger of mixing ecosystems, he said the chemical reaction could turn the water "a weird color," which might hinder tourism.

Salam el-Labadi, a project coordinator for the Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan, said he wasn't convinced about the project.

"How much are they spending? Fifteen billion?" he asked. "With that money, we could find other ways to provide water."

Like their countries' politicians, experts at the conference differed on how to save the sea and provide water to the region.

Al-Khateeb said the Palestinian Authority had a strategy for how water management should ultimately be handled. Hamas, the newly elected majority party in the Palestinian parliament, is unlikely to change course on water issues, he said.

But for all their differences, the experts said they valued the learning experience the NATO conference provided.

"I come from Holland, where we have too much water," said Francesca de Chatel, a freelance writer who spent four years researching and writing a book about water issues in the Middle East.

"I expected to come to the Middle East and find a whole different culture and value associated with water, but people here waste water just as much as they do in Holland," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

One of the region's problems, she said, was a lack of awareness of the problems.

In Israel, for example, where technology makes water seem plentiful, many people have no idea that water in the Palestinian Authority is routinely cut off without warning, she said. And in Jordan, wealthy people have good access to water and don't always realize that their poorer neighbors do not.

Pallant said he and his partner, Clive Lipchin, said young experts were chosen for the conference because they would be more willing to work together on water issues in the future.

"It's a slow process. We don't have Bill Clinton here offering handshakes," Lipchin, who is also director of research at Israel's Arava Institute, said.

The Arava Institute, in southern Israel, sponsors science projects aimed at solving environmental problems while bringing people from around the region together peacefully.

"We do our work with very little fanfare. We're just rolling up our sleeves, and not waiting for the politicians to come to some kind of an agreement," because while they argue, "environmental problems are getting worse and worse and worse."

"We're just getting things done," Lipchin said.

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