Between Bodies

An agreement being hailed by some as historic was signed this week between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority.

It has to do with one of the great motivations for both war and peace: Water.

At heart, it’s a desalination project. Water will be takenĀ  from the Red Sea, pumped through a pipeline to a desalination plant in Jordan, with the resulting fresh water distributed to different points in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. The briny water that remains will be pumped into the Israel’s Dead Sea, which has been losing water at an alarming rate.

From a political perspective, any sign of cooperation has to be seen as a positive step. If parties who are so at odds can agree on this, then perhaps there are other areas for agreement.

From a societal perspective, viable and peaceful solutions for cross-border fresh water supply are always welcome.

From an environmental perspective, well–I guess there always has to be that pesky fly in the ointment.

Environmental groups close to the $200-400 million project are none too pleased that briny processed water from the Red Sea ecosystem is going to be pumped wholesale into the entirely separate Dead Sea ecosystem, even if the Dead Sea water levels are dropping.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East, told The Telegraph, “The link to the Dead Sea that’s being proposed here threatens the viability of the project from an environmental and economic perspective. It will bring foreign water into the Dead Sea that would upset its ecosystem, creating Gypum and quite probably algae.”

It’s worth noting that Friends of the Earth Middle East is, itself, an organization which brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists.

Dead Sea Image: Atlas Tours

Dead Sea
Image: Atlas Tours

I find myself usually landing on the side of the pesky fly, and it gives me little pleasure. Time will tell what happens when the waters of these two seas are combined.

Still, I deeply hope that this agreement is both a sign of potential cooperation in other sectors, and a signal that some cross-border water challenges can be solved through cooperation.


Briny Abundance

One hallmark of economic growth is abundance of availability, or at least, the demand for availability. This is as true of consumer goods and better jobs as it is for food and better housing.

It’s also true for fresh water.

The demand for water grew six-fold during the 20th century. Some predictions chart a rise in demand of 40% over the next 20 years alone due to population and economic growth. This comes as fresh water supplies are decreasing.

I talked yesterday about the ongoing push to privatize water resources – ownership of water itself, as well as the delivery infrastructure.

The infographic below, which was produced by desalination company Energy Recovery for World Water Day, looks at water use, and the possible solution (already a reality in many Middle Eastern countries) of using desalination to meet water needs.

The infographic touches very briefly on major challenges for ‘desal’: The high energy cost of treating saltwater (mostly fossil-fuel based technology is used at this point, which might explain the popularity of the process in the Middle East) and the environmental impact (one major problem is the polluting waste outflow of concentrated brine that can be lethal to marine environments).

One other concern I might add is that if (or more likely: when) desalination becomes an indispensable method for obtaining fresh water, then fresh water will be less seen as a natural resource that should be a human right – it will be a processed product subject to market value.

Maybe one of the future hallmarks of economic abundance will be the ability to turn brine to fresh water. For the moment, reducing our water footprint may be the best approach.