Water

Perhaps because of the cold I picked up in the (abberantly frozen and sleet-y) north, or perhaps because the dry season is kicking in, I noticed when I got back to Rehovot that the water seems decidedly tasteless1. Now as any resident of any desert in the world will tell you, water is life. So does that mean I'm justified in complaining that life has lost its flavor?

Ba-dum ching.

Contrary to what one might expect for a Middle Eastern nation, Israel has quite diverse supplies of water available to it. Water can be, and is, drawn from the Jordan River, Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee to everyone else), the Coastal Aquifer, and most importantly the Mountain Aquifer System -- which is actually at least three geologically distinct underground effluences with different flow directions. However, all of these supplies combined are barely adequate to accomodate Israel's ballooning population, industry, and agriculture. Water, then, is a sensitive issue.

[Update: I have rewritten and expanded slightly the following to clarify where some of my data are coming from.]

Gaza is a case in point. The Coastal Aquifer has diminished in usefulness in recent decades, because it is the only water supply available to feed the densely populated Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Overpumping has lowered the water table and led to salt intrusion from the Mediterranean. The UN has estimated that Gaza will be entirely without potable water in 15 years if present trends continue.

In this article the New Scientist describes one typical Israeli response to the problem. The question to keep in the back of your mind as you read this is, why not use the desalinated water for Israel, and let the Palestinians pump?

The Palestinian Hydrological Group documents (browse chapter 1 for a useful overview) at some length the problems faced by the Palestinians with regards to water supplies. The overarching theme is that Israel, claiming security needs, bars the Palestinians from making use of most water supplies, and severely limits pumping even from the portions of the Mountain Aquifers that lie underneath Palestinian territory. As a result, each Palestinian gets by with, on average, less than one-fifth as much water per year as an Israeli.

My understanding is that Israel justifies this situation with logic to the effect of: if the Palestinians were allowed to control their own use of the Mountain Aquifer they could simply out-pump Israel; then Israel would have to rely even more heavily on the Lake Kinneret supply; then Israel would be strategically vulnerable to Syria diverting the headwaters of the Jordan someday.

I call bull. The WHO recommends a minimum domestic consumption of about 100 L/day/household of potable water. Israelis are consuming more than twice that much, while Palestinians get somewhere more than half (estimates I've seen range from 57 to 85). This is the same problem that sustainable development policy (search for Palestine to find the specifically applicable comments) has been grappling with for years.

AMMAR HIJAZI, Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine, said that ... Palestinians were only allocated 120 million cubic metres of freshwater out of the 850 million cubic metres from water aquifers that the West Bank produced.

Consequently, he said, the current domestic water supply for Palestinian households amounted to only between 57 and 67 litres per day, which was significantly lower than the World Health Organization ( WHO )s minimum for domestic water consumption2.

Too many people trying to make use of too little fresh water. If all people living under Israeli control were allocated a fair and equal share of the available water, nobody would have enough (certainly the Israelis would feel that way, at least, if they were forced to consume half what they do now ... the Palestinians might welcome the increase in their share, even if it didn't push them over the recommended minimums). Simple math.

As for Israel's concerns about having absolute control of its water supplies? Grow up, I say. Every nation on the planet has to arrive at some kind of arrangement with its neighbors over shared water supplies. Not all of those nations have the luxury of liking their neighbors, but since natural water supplies are readily degraded by overuse or mismanagement, even nominal adversaries routinely cooperate to manage them.

1 I would point out that, contrary to popular opinion, water almost always does have a detectable taste. Tapwater in San Antonio generally tastes bright and a little rocky, clean and rich in calcium like the limestone aquifer it comes from. Chicago water is duller, with a complex flavor that reflects the many trace impurities found in Lake Michigan. North Texas water is particularly memorable for its metallic bite, partially thanks to the iron in the Red River, and partially due to the aggressive chemical treatment needed to make Dallas's much-abused supplies potable.

This winter, Rehovot's water tasted somewhat like San Antonio's, suggesting that it came from the West Bank Aquifer. Since I've been able to taste my food just fine (which is admittedly far easier to detect than the trace substances in drinking water), let's suppose for the moment that the water has indeed changed. The dull, slightly heavy water I've been tasting for the past few days suggests a lower mineral content, but maybe more microsediments, and perhaps an added round of treatment. My best guess would then be that the local supply has been switched over to the Kinneret supply (that's water drawn from the Sea of Galilee in the north), which would come in through Tel Aviv.

2 This from the statements at the thirteenth session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which dealt with "policy options and practical measures intended to speed implementation of water, sanitation and human settlements goals" related to the Millennium Development Goals project. The IUCN's representative fairly sums up the problems on the commission's plate:

ACHIM STEINER, Director General, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), said that in terms of water, we are reaching our limits. Some rivers no longer reached the sea, and groundwater levels were falling dramatically in many parts of the world. The capacity of the life-support systems to provide us with the water resources vital to life and the economies of countries was being seriously undermined. The IUCN was encouraged by many of the positive developments under way to reach the Millennium Development Goals. Increasing official development assistance (ODA) levels, creative financing mechanisms, and governance innovations were all steps in the right direction. But, more investments in ecosystems were needed to maintain the goods and services they provided. Those were not just essential to ensure sustainable water supplies, they were vital to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on May 16, 2005 6:35 PM.

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