Across Borders 2011 Summary

Under a State Department grant, 17 fellows from across the US traveled to the Middle East to study water challenges and management in the Jordan River system. We represent academia, government, consulting firms, NGOs, and the law, and we all share a focus on water, natural resource management, and/or conflict resolution. After a quick orientation to the program in Tel Aviv, we jumped right into the substance. Our first speaker was the Director-General of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, a non-profit that seeks to address water challenges in the Palestinian territories. An immediate indication of the limits to this group’s power was the fact that the DG was only able to come to Tel Aviv to speak with us because a high-level USAID official lobbied for permission. The speaker outlined the water situation in the region and shared his perspectives. In short, the Jordan River system is water-stressed. Approximately 3.75 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water are available to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. Demand for water is expected to reach 5 BCM by 2020 due to population growth. And the quantity of water that is currently available will not all be available in the future because some of the water is pumped from non-renewable fossil aquifers, some of the renewable aquifers are becoming saline or polluted, and climate change may be causing a decrease in water flow to the region.

Straying a bit from the subject of this session, there are three primary means being discussed for increasing the quantity of usable water in the area. The first – desalination – is highly regarded in Israel and Jordan. Israel already has a few operational plants, including two that are among the largest in the world, and it is planning several more in the coming years. We visited the plant that provides Eilat with all of its drinking water, drawing from brackish groundwater and Red Sea water. The Palestinian speaker pointed out that desalination is very expensive relative to other options, and while Israel can afford it, the Palestinians cannot. In addition to equity issues, other challenges associated with desal are high energy costs and the environmental consequences associated with disposing of the brine byproduct. (Interestingly, unlike most desal plants, which dump brine into the sea, the plant we visited uses evaporation ponds to produce marketable salts.) To address the energy question, Israel has a mid-term plan to rapidly expand its installed solar power capacity, but while the first commercial-scale solar field has just been built, the pace of installation is too slow for its impact on the grid to be felt for some time to come. Jordan seems to think that nuclear power will be key to its energy future, but there is strong local opposition on human and environmental safety grounds.

The second strategy under discussion is increasing water use efficiency. While Israel’s National Water Carrier – the pipe system that supplies all of Israel’s water north of Sde Boker – is relatively efficient, water delivery to Amman is incredibly inefficient, with 40% losses from leakage and theft. In both countries, a majority of the water goes toward agriculture even though agriculture’s contribution to each country’s GDP is in the single digits. In some cases, water-intensive crops such as bananas are grown for export, resulting in the effective export of water from this water-poor region (see the literature on virtual water for more information). In Israel, which carefully protects its domestic dairy market, cows are ubiquitous throughout the desert, and need to be washed a few times each day simply to keep cool enough to produce milk. There are efforts being made to address some of these things, but this tack is not being considered a major source of improvement in the water equation.

The third option on the table is the controversial Red-Dead project that would move water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. This would involve pumping Red Sea water up several hundred meters, letting gravity bring it through a canal to the Dead Sea, and using the elevation change to power a hydroelectric system that would desalinate a large amount of the water for use in Amman, and to a lesser extent Israel and the Palestinian territories. A World Bank-funded evaluation currently underway is expected to raise a number of challenges, ranging from the canal’s ecological impacts in the Arava valley and the chemical consequences on the Dead Sea of the infusion of Red Sea water, to issues of equity, cost, and the net negative energy flow of the system. A positive of the plan would be that it would help stabilize the level of the Dead Sea, which is currently shrinking at a rate of over a meter per year, resulting in sink holes that are wreaking havoc on adjacent farmland and causing headaches for hotels that are no longer near the shore. Whatever the impacts of the project, Jordan is banking heavily on it, having already worked the freshwater that it would receive into future development plans.

After the session in Tel Aviv we headed south to Kibbutz Ketura where we spent the following week. Amid hikes in the desert mountains and time in the pool (the temperature was consistently above 100 degrees), we heard from various faculty at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies – located on the kibbutz – and learned some interesting things about water supply, use, and management in Israel. The quantity of water available to the country has declined by around 15%, perhaps as a result of climate change. Rainfall in the Arava Desert, for example has fallen by half during modern times. The country is doing some good work to make the water that it has count, through efficiency measures such as drip irrigation and by treating and reusing waste water in agriculture (it recycles 75% at the moment, which is apparently by far the highest percentage of any country in the world). At a nearby kibbutz called Lotan that we biked over to, residents have constructed an artificial wetland to treat their waste water. Back on Kibbutz Ketura, experimental work is being conducted to commercialize crops that require little water, such as the dates that are an agricultural staple in southern Israel.

The next part of the program saw our group driving with various stops up the Jordan River Valley, through the Palestinian territories. A memorable stop was in a village called Uja that a generation ago was water-independent. When the Israeli water utility drilled a well nearby to tap the Mountain Aquifer from which the local spring flows, the spring dried up and the residents now have to buy water from Israel. There is some bitterness there, spurred especially by the contrast between the level of greenery in Uja and the nearby Israeli settlement. After a quick visit north in the Golan Heights, we drove back down and across to Jordan near Beit She’an, down through Amman, Petra, and Aqaba, and then across the Red Sea to Nuweiba, St. Catherine, and Sharm el Sheikh. Rather than trace exactly what we experienced in each place, here are some of the things that we learned, presented in a more thematic fashion.

The Dead Sea is shrinking. The Sea itself is not ecologically significant, so this is not a problem from a biodiversity perspective, but both Jordan and Israel have significant economic interests tied up in the Sea, including tourism and chemicals. That the Sea is shrinking is problematic for tourism because the shore is moving farther and farther away from the hotels (in fact this is only a problem for some hotels; the Jordanian side of the Sea is steeper so the distance increase is less, and some of the Israeli hotels are built on evaporation ponds used to produce chemicals, and these ponds are not shrinking). It is also problematic because of the sinkhole problem mentioned above, which affects infrastructure and agricultural land. Shrinkage is not, however, very troubling to the chemical industries in Israel or Jordan (which produce potash and magnesium from Dead Sea water) because studies show that the rate of the Sea’s decline will stabilize in something like 200 years, enabling the companies to continue exploiting it into the future. In fact, the increasing salinity of the water as the volume shrinks makes it easier to extract minerals. However, the proposed Red-Dead project would likely cause gypsum to form as a result of the different chemical compounds present in the different waters, complicating extraction of other desirable chemicals. (This could also turn the Sea white, which some might find less than desirable.) Many in Israel care little about the profits of the chemical company on the Israeli side of the Sea, which has done extremely well for itself, and in fact blame the company for the reduction in the Dead Sea’s levels. This is not an unfounded claim – the company artificially speeds the evaporation process by pumping Dead Sea water into shallow ponds. If one looks at a satellite map of the Dead Sea today, it is separated into two unconnected sections, the southern of which is entirely artificial. However, only about 15% of the shrinkage of the Sea is attributable to the Israeli and Jordanian chemical companies. The rest of the shrinkage is due to the Jordan and all other tributaries that once flowed into the Dead Sea being fully diverted away from the Sea. The only water that flows into the Sea at this point is the waste water from the Jerusalem area that occasionally reaches the Sea in the winter.

The water of the Jordan River is fully exploited for human consumption by Israel (which dams the entire flow just south of the Sea of Galilee near Kibbutz Deganya), Syria (which dams the portions of the Jordan’s tributaries that originate in the country), and Jordan (which fully diverts the flow of the Yarmouk River before it reaches the Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee). This has consequences for the ecology of the valley, which has lost 50% of its biodiversity as a result, and for the Palestinians in the West Bank, who are not able to draw any water from the river (this is separate from the issue of restricted access to the river in the first place). The riverbed south of the Sea of Galilee is not in fact dry over its entire length, but unfortunately this is not necessarily a positive thing. We visited the baptismal site Qasr al Yehud and watched a number of pilgrims dunk themselves in what is literally untreated sewage that has made its way to the riverbed from adjacent settled areas.

Our first stop in Jordan was at the Adasiya Dam, which diverts the Yarmouk River into the King Abdullah Canal (minus a fixed amount of the river’s flow, which is pumped to Israel in exchange for a fixed amount that Israel pumps to Jordan from the Sea of Galilee). We got to see the dam only after the guards sized us up and phoned their superiors for an hour. Pretty small by international dam standards, but the exciting part was that we got to sit at the table used for the “picnic table talks” that preceded the Johnston Plan, which in turn preceded the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. The King Abdullah Canal is technically redundant because its entire length runs pretty much parallel to the Jordan River, but it was clearly necessary to construct for security reasons. Whereas Israel is able to draw on the Sea of Galilee, groundwater, and desalination for its water supply, the Yarmouk River – through the canal – provides fully 3/4 of Amman’s drinking water (and Amman represents about half of the country’s population). The other major source of water for Jordan is the Disi Aquifer, which is a fossil (i.e. non-renewable) aquifer beneath the Jordanian/Saudi Arabian border. In addition to the problem of water availability, the means by which Jordan obtains its water represent fully 14% of its total energy consumption. Given that Jordan imports 96% of its energy and that the gas pipeline from Egypt that was supplying 80% of the energy has been attacked several times, this is especially problematic.

In Amman we heard from a panel of speakers including government officials, donors, and NGOs about the water situation in the city, which is pretty serious. Already home to about half of Jordan’s population, the population in the city is exploding. As it is, the majority of residents are only able to fill the water tanks on their roofs once or twice a week. And although water is provided under a block pricing scheme that allows people to pay a very low rate for the first chunk of water, many can’t afford to maximize the quantity they take at this low rate. This is in contrast to the wealthier neighborhoods and hotel districts in Amman, which basically have access to as much water as they need.

Amman was followed by Petra, the highlights of which included a steep climb up a mountain on donkey-back for some and a chat with a Bedouin dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow, and then by a night in a Bedouin encampment. The Bedouin in Wadi Rum have really hopped on the tourism train and have set up facilities for a fair number of guests. Although the Wadi was beautiful, the experience didn’t quite feel so authentic because of how built up the accommodations were. Just another example of the challenge of balancing tourist access and associated revenue with the “real” experience that tourists desire.

At our next destination, Aqaba, we heard from a large panel comprised primarily of speakers eager to tell us about the city’s expansionary plans. Speaker after speaker glowed about the enormous developments that are underway, including the most expensive project in Jordan’s development history. I guess the speakers hadn’t been briefed on the fact that we were mostly environmentalists and were cringing at the thought of virtually unhindered expansion. I say virtually unhindered because Aqaba has been given license to draft its own regulations to govern its growth. Many of the hotels and luxury apartment complexes will include pools, golf courses, and even artificial lagoons. Which of course begs the question of where the development authority plans to procure all the water that will be needed. The answer that we eventually got after asking the question diplomatically in several different ways is that there is no real plan. Some of the luxury developments will desalinate water privately, but otherwise, the government is counting on additional future supplies of water from undetermined sources. In addition, the development is proceeding immediately on the coast without any plans for adapting to future elevated sea levels. Equity issues also arise because Aqaba is Jordan’s only link to the sea, and almost all of the shoreline is being privatized, stripping many poor Jordanians of the ability to access the beach. On top of this, the city’s expansion is so targeted at attracting the global elite that the city may risk squandering revenues that could really benefit local citizens through reinvestment. We were informed that there is no property tax, sales tax is limited to a few items and is far lower than elsewhere in Jordan, and corporate income tax is a mere 5%.

The time we spent in Sinai (which we reached by boat from Aqaba to Nuweiba) was basically a comparative case study of low and high impact tourist development. At our first destination, Basata, we saw how wonderfully environmentally benign tourist developments can be. The following day saw us at a Bedouin camp in the vicinity of Mount Sinai that did a much better job incorporating our group into the Bedouin lifestyle, which is fairly ecologically sustainable. Interestingly, one technique that the Bedouin and other Arabs have not adopted is compost toilets, which they have an aversion to because culturally, water is required when using the bathroom. Our last stop in Egypt, Sharm el Sheikh, provided the model for what Aqaba could turn into if its under-regulated development is permitted to continue. Once a small fishing village, the city is now a sprawling collection of resorts that have severely degraded the coral reefs that originally drew development to the area. Some of the hotels are actually built on top of formerly living reefs, and runoff from coastal activities has expanded the scope of the damage. What makes this kind of expansion particularly problematic is that the waters in the Red Sea are only replaced every couple of hundred years because of the closed nature of the Sea. We were able to get out to some exquisite snorkeling sites, but we had to go by boat several hours up the Gulf of Aqaba. Egypt is a classic case in which the government has excellent environmental laws on the books, but lax enforcement and powerful corporate interests often combine to render these practically useless. We can only hope that Aqaba somehow learns from the Sharm experience.

-Akiva Fishman