Eric Pallant is a professor of environmental science at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and codirector of the NATO Advanced Study Institute on Integrated Water Resources Management.

Monday, 13 Feb 2006

Kibbutz Ketura, Israel

A Moldovan, two Bulgarians, and three Canadians walk into the desert. It’s like the start of a bad joke, but this is a specific desert — an extreme one, according to local hydrologists. The Arava, in the southern Negev of Israel, is one of the driest deserts in the world, with an average amount of annual precipitation that would barely breach the soles on a pair of sandals.

The Moldovan, Bulgarians, and Canadians are in the company of 41 colleagues, who have come from 14 countries and the Palestinian Authority for a 10-day institute on water resources management. The event is sponsored by NATO, which understands that a future conflict in the Middle East — heck, in many places on the planet — could arise over natural resources. And water is the most embattled liquid, after oil.

I organized this institute with Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The organization is a liberal survivor of the 1990s, when peace between Israel and its neighbors seemed imminent and environment and peace groups sprouted like spring flowers. Arava is located on Kibbutz Ketura, a small communal village generating income from growing voluptuous medjool dates, farming fish in cages floating in the Red Sea about 35 miles from here, and raising cows that produce the best chocolate milk in Israel. On many mornings, before the desert winds flow down the Syrio-African rift valley, the aroma of desiccating cow manure blankets the kibbutz.

To kick things off, NATO sent its program director for Scientific and Environmental Affairs, Professor F. Carvalho Rodrigues, to explain why an organization formed during the Cold War to protect Europe from the Warsaw Pact had become a funder of a conference in Israel on water use in the Middle East. Carvalho, built like Luciano Pavarotti, sported a black suit and floral bowtie beneath a coal-black beard. He said the challenges to NATO’s core countries and partners (there are 56 nations now) “have been transformed from national security to broadly defined social security.” NATO now worries about failures in transportation, energy, communications, and what Carvalho calls “life support systems”: water, air, soil, and climate.

Immediately after Carvalho sat down, we heard “good news and bad news” from David Brooks, a Canadian septuagenarian who is the closest thing to a globally recognized, impartial expert on Middle Eastern water. Brooks said the good news is that water wars aren’t imminent, thanks to reasonably good cooperation among erstwhile enemies. The bad news is that water scarcity is pronounced, and getting worse. The overwhelming majority of surface water in the region is polluted, mostly by raw sewage. Inappropriate disposal of industrial and chemical waste is widespread. Farmers receive water for irrigation at absurdly subsidized prices, and groundwater is being extracted at unsustainable rates.

Brooks predicted that as Middle Eastern populations continue to expand, water shortages would be felt first in food production, nearly all of which depends on irrigation. There wouldn’t be a shortage of drinking water; humans can survive on mere gallons per day. In fact, the average Palestinian consumes just 15 gallons a day — half as much as a Jordanian, a fifth as much as an Israeli, and about one-twentieth as much as a Californian.

We got a hint of things to come when Dr. Samir Hijazin, from the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation, asked, “How can Israel grow vegetables [and raise cows] in the middle of the desert, when Jordanians and Palestinians have to wait for sporadic water deliveries during the middle of the summer?” To paraphrase David Brooks, water shouldn’t be a cause for war in the Middle East — but it could become an excuse.