Water and Peace

Water and Peace

For clues to resolving the Middle East conflict, consider the case of the embattled Dead Sea.


Headlines in the Western press depict a seemingly hopeless cycle of violence in the Israeli-Palestine sector of the Middle East. An Israeli warplane destroys the home of a militant Palestinian. A retaliatory suicide bomber blows up an Israeli bus. In both instances, innocent people die and the anger escalates.

Missing from the media coverage is any clear sense of what is going on in the day-to-day relationship between the two countries other than the sporadic violent exchanges. Between the missiles and bombs, people are-under great duress, and at great risk-continuing to trade services and goods, drive cross-border trucks, commute through checkpoints to their jobs or schools-and manage a range of transboundary natural resources that are essential to the livelihoods of all the peoples in the region.

There's a theory gaining adherents among some of the more thoughtful observers of this troubled land, that it is in those essential day-to-day activities that the real chance for achieving peace can be found. In the common resources essential to all life, and especially in fresh water, the conflicting cultures share a universal interest. Water is extremely scarce in this region and getting scarcer. Human desperation is never greater than when water is no longer in reach. If the people of this region can find viable ways of cooperating in the management of this most valuable of all resources, there's no other challenge they can't meet.

A leading proponent of this theory is the grassroots group Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an international NGO that has recently brought new attention to one of history's most storied bodies of water-the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is not fresh water. In fact, it is the saltiest large body of water on the planet. But water is not a static asset, as the Earth's hydrological cycle keeps its water moving through evaporation, rain, streams, and rivers before it flows to the salty seas and begins the cycle again. Along the way, there are subordinate cycles, both natural and man-made: the diversion of river water for agriculture, industry, and household use; the dissemination into plants and animals, as sap and blood. Water is a complex system, of which both freshwater and salt are integral parts. While the water we drink is fresh, the blood it forms is as salty as the sea. In the Middle East, the Dead Sea is the very heart of the larger system. If people can learn to manage this sea as a system rather than as a something to be plundered-so goes the theory-they've got a good model for peacefully managing everything else.

by Gidon Bromberg

The name of the place is both accurate and misleading. It's true that there are no fish in the Dead Sea, and that the surrounding Judean Desert is bone-dry and hot. And that geographically, it is known as a "terminal lake"-because it is where the Jordan River comes to its end. All that might suggest a place of great desolation and morbidity. But the reality is that the Dead Sea has been a place of abundant life-natural and human-since prehistoric times. Its shores are dotted with springs and oases, which provide water for 90 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 24 species of mammals, as well as more than 400 species of plants.

For humans, it has been an important locale since the beginning of civilization, and over the millennia it has become one of the most mythic and storied places on Earth. Some say that where the River Jordan flows into the Dead Sea is the place where Jesus Christ was baptized. It's where the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are believed to have been located, although no evidence of them remains. It's where the city of Jericho, believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth, still stands. It's where Masada, the fortress in which Jews martyred themselves and their families rather than become slaves of the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, stands on a mountain overlooking the western shore. And, of course, it's where the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest copy of biblical texts, was found in a cave. It's an archeological mother lode.

Culturally, the Dead Sea has been a place of importance to all three of the world's major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Pilgrims still make long treks to see Masada and the desert monasteries. So do tourists, who are entranced by the spectacular scenery and the belief that the Dead Sea's uniquely salty/mineral-rich water-10 times more salty than the ocean-contains great healing qualities. Perhaps most important, given the conflict that continues to rage between Israel and the Palestinians, the Dead Sea Basin is an asset in which Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians all have a common interest. Like Solomon's baby, it brings out in each of them a greater willingness to be reconciled to the others' claims on it than to let it die.

The ancient functions of this basin are now endangered, however, in ways that put such cooperation to a difficult test. Like the great Aral Sea of Central Asia, the Dead Sea is drying up-and revealing an ugly side to its unique geography. At about 417 meters below sea-level and falling, it is the lowest place on Earth. While drainage is impossible, evaporation takes a steady toll. The surface level has dropped by more than 25 meters (about the depth of a 10-story elevator shaft) in the past four decades, and continues to drop by nearly a meter per year. Its surface area has shrunk by a third or more since a measurement was made at the beginning of the last century.

Does it matter? To the tourism industry, it's a train wreck. There are 5,500 hotel rooms in the Dead Sea Basin, and developers have been hoping to build 50,000 more. The resorts today provide 11,000 tourism-related jobs, and with the new development that number could expand dramatically. For the struggling economy of the Palestinians, those jobs could be a huge boon. But as the water level falls, the hotels along the southern shores of this mythic place find themselves trapped in an unhappy marriage with another industry.

The Dead Sea is today two bodies of water-a deep northern lake and a smaller, shallow southern one. The two bodies are separated by a land bridge, once a peninsula, called El Lisan ("the tongue" in Arabic). The southern basin would now be completely dry, except for the fact that it is the site of a huge potash mining industry that has a stake in keeping the water there from disappearing altogether. Because the Dead Sea is a terminal lake, it is where millions of tons of sediment, carried down the Jordan ever since the Syria-African rift was formed by a volcanic eruption about a million years ago, have come to rest. Potash is highly valued as fertilizer, and it is extracted from the water by evaporation. Other minerals extracted are bromides and magnesium. The mining operations have facilitated the extraction process by turning the shallow southern basin into rows of evaporation ponds demarcated by earthen walls, into which water is pumped across the land bridge in order to maintain the water in the ponds at a depth of about a meter.

For a strip of resort hotels that were built along the southern shores over the past half-century, the presence of the mining operations is a necessary evil; without their continuous pumping of water from the north, there would be no water for guests to bathe in-and they'd be left literally high and dry. The tourism industry in Israel openly admits today that locating the hotels on the evaporation ponds in the very south was a poorly conceived idea. But the dilemma for the southern hotels is that as salt has built up at the bottom of the evaporation ponds, the potash companies have had to raise the earth walls of the ponds higher in order to keep the depth of the water at about 1 meter. As a consequence, even as the water level in the main body to the north has continued its fall, the level in the lower section has risen-causing flooding to the foundations of some of the hotels. As a result, at least one of the hotels that depend on the mines to bring water to the lower sea has now sued the mines for doing just that.

Meanwhile, on the main basin to the north, the falling of the water table has caused large sinkholes to appear. Over a thousand holes now riddle the western shore alone-some of them larger than a car. These holes can open up overnight, under roads, buildings, parking lots, and wildlife reserves. The plans to expand hotel capacity have had to be put on hold, as it is no longer safe to build. And even where there are no cave-ins and where the super-saline water is deep enough for a guest to sit back on the surface while reading a newspaper, there is another potential peril. On the western shores, the declining water levels have also exposed deep mud, making strolling along the shoreline outright dangerous. In many places the mud is so thick that it acts like quicksand, with little chance that anyone who sinks into it could escape without help. Concerned about the legal ramifications of the sinkholes and the mud, the Israeli authorities have now placed warning signs along the whole length of the western shore.

After its founding 10 years ago, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) began to take a particular interest in the Dead Sea Basin. The group brought together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists who were galvanized by the unique natural wonders of this ancient sea-and by the alarm with which they were watching its demise. An immediate concern of the group was the threat posed by the Sea's decline to the several important wildlife refuges that ring the Sea. These oases are unique biodiversity hotspots in the middle of a desert, but the falling water table and proliferation of sinkholes threatened to bring them to ruin.

FoEME also saw the Dead Sea Basin as an opportunity to promote the idea of sustainable development in a region where modern economies are on a collision course with growing water scarcity. It surmised that any serious hope for sustainable development in turn depended on achieving a level of cooperation that has been almost unheard of in this region of ancient enmities.

To facilitate such cooperation, FoEME reasoned that it was essential to forge a common understanding of the real value of the Basin to the stakeholders-not just the value of potash mining revenues and hotel receipts, but a range of values that don't show up in conventional measures of GNP. For example, the group wondered, what is the value of preserving a wildlife refuge or archaeological site rather than let it be bulldozed for new roads or hotels? If there were no comprehensive plan that took such value fully into account, it could too easily be ignored by policymakers. If the ecological, recreational, and cultural values were as visible as are the industrial ones, the priorities for planning might be quite different. One visitor to the Dead Sea, questioned during an FoEME survey, suggested that the emotional satisfactions of hiking or bird-watching, for example, are "no less real than the more obvious economic benefits of sectors such as agriculture and mineral extraction."

To measure how important some of these often overlooked values might be to the region's own quality of life, FoEME recently conducted a study1 of "willingness to pay" (WTP)-the amount of money each household would be willing to contribute toward conservation and sustainable development of the Basin. Remarkably, the study found that all three of the populations whose lands adjoined the Dead Sea said they would be willing to pay substantial amounts of their own money to establish a fund for this purpose. Israelis were willing to pay, on average, $23.06 (U.S.) per household. Jordanians had a WTP of $13.12. And even the Palestinians, who are struggling with poverty and unemployment, had an average WTP of $9.48. Multiplied by the total numbers of households in the region (1.8 million Israeli, 893,000 Jordanian, and 576,000 Palestinian), that came to over $59 million. FoEME concluded that "the economic benefits to conservation are "at least in the tens of millions and possibly the hundreds of millions of dollars per year."

Today, FoEME sees the Dead Sea's decline as a reason to underscore not only that the region's diverse industries, cultures, and environment all have great economic value, but that they are highly interdependent-and thus mutually threatened. "It's not only pilgrims and nature-lovers who are finding the land and water literally pulled out from under their feet," says Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME's chair and Jordanian director. The Jordan River water that feeds the Dead Sea is also being used to irrigate farm crops and provide fresh water for industrial and urban use upstream. In fact, 90 percent of the river's flow is being diverted for those purposes, and as the downstream water falls to a trickle, there are increased calls for more of the upstream water to be freed to follow its original course. It's the upstream diversion that's the main cause of the Dead Sea's decline, so agriculture and tourism have become competing sectors-with little coordination between them. And as the Dead Sea falls, tensions are rising. "Due to destructive development, uncoordinated planning between governmental authorities, and unchecked competition between the various economic sectors that exploit the Dead Sea's resources," says Nader Khateeb, FoEME's Palestinian director, "we are nearing a point of no return."

FoEME is not alone in regarding the Dead Sea's demise as a fast-closing window of opportunity. The shriveling of the Sea has occurred in less than 75 years, as more and more of the Jordan's flow has been diverted for agriculture. In the 1930s, the inflow of water from the Jordan was equal to the loss from evaporation. In recent years, with most of the Jordan's flow diverted, planners in both Israel and Jordan have envisioned replacing the Jordan's input by transporting water from either the Mediterranean Sea or the Red Sea. In the 1970s, an Israeli group proposed digging a colossal canal from the Mediterranean. The idea was not only to refill the Dead Sea but also to take advantage of the more than 400-meter drop in elevation en route, to produce hydroelectric power. A Jordanian group made a similar proposal, but with the canal coming from the Red Sea instead of the Mediterranean. A 1996 study by a Chicago-based engineering company suggested that water could be pumped from the gulf of Aqaba to an altitude of 220 meters, whence it would go through a tunnel in the Rift Valley Mountains for 200 kilometers before dropping through a hydroelectiric plant, and perhaps a reverse-osmosis desalination plant as well, on its way down to the Dead Sea. The idea of being able to restore lost water to the Dead Sea while producing more fresh water for one of the world's most water-scarce regions was hugely appealing. Neither the "Med-Dead" nor "Red-Dead" canal has been built, however, in part because of the political tensions that have crippled most transboundary planning in the region, and partly because of the enormous cost of such a project. And environmentalists have reservations about whether giant engineering projects are the right approach at all. The history of water engineering projects is rife with examples of technological hubris and miscalculation, from the channeling of the Mississippi River to the Great Man-Made River through the Libyan desert. FoEME notes that while a Med-Dead or Red-Dead project might stop the sinkholes and stabilize groundwater, it raises new unanswered questions about how the mixing of two seas, with completely different chemical compositions, would alter the reputed therapeutic values of Dead Sea waters, the main attraction for tourists in the first place. Moreover, even if the canal were to be approved tomorrow, it would take 20 years or so for the water to be raised to its original level; hence the need for a more comprehensive solution.

FoEME is promoting the development of an integrated and coordinated plan2 for the whole region, balancing the needs of all industrial and cultural stakeholders and guiding development in ways that give maximum protection to the ecological assets of the region. A comprehensive economic analysis, it suggests, would show that for the economy of the region as a whole, greater net benefit would accrue from restoring most of the Jordan's flow to the Dead Sea than from digging a huge canal. To arrest the degradation, says FoEME, it is essential to have the Dead Sea declared a World Heritage Site. Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians have all expressed interest, although political complications-particularly worries about how this might impact other development plans-are holding up implementation. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is funding research to determine options for comprehensive rehabilitation, and Jordan has declared the health of the basin to be a national priority issue.

While the Dead Sea is unique, its problems are not. Outcries about the excessive diversion of water from the Jordan River echo very similar complaints heard along the downstream stretches of the Colorado and Nile Rivers, among others. The competition between agriculture, with its huge thirst, and household use, with its politically undeniable one, is worldwide. The tug-of-water between human uses and the needs of the natural world is also increasingly felt worldwide. The temptation to solve water distribution problems by building gigantic, ill-conceived, and cost-overrunning infrastructure projects has been repeated in hundreds of river basins. The geological instabilities caused by falling water tables have been experienced in such diverse places as Mexico City and northern China. The fragmentation of habitat is a problem almost wherever there are people. The jurisdictional problems of a key bioregion that spans national borders are seen along the Rio Grande River, the Great Lakes, the Alps, and the Amazon.3

Also not surprising, under the circumstances, are FoEME's proposed on-the-ground recommendations. Upstream urban centers need to stop dumping raw waste into water that people are paying good foreign exchange to bathe in. A carefully determined balance needs to be struck between the needs for water extraction on the river and the continued flow of at least some of the Jordan into the Dead Sea. Land-use planning needs to stop the linear expansion of resort development along the shoreline and protect substantial areas of shoreline as nature reserves. The sites sought by pilgrims need to be protected from commercial blight and environmental deterioration. The falling sea level needs to be arrested and the water table stabilized so that people and buildings don't risk tumbling into sinkholes.

In short, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan all need to coordinate their management of humanity's most valuable natural resource in ways that address not only their own national needs but the competing needs of farmers and city-dwellers, tourism and mining, and the visitors to Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holy sites. Given the stalling of the Bush-Sharon "Road Map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace, that might seem like daydreaming. But in fact, some of the envisioned Dead Sea cooperation is already happening, in ways that aren't being seen in other areas of conflict. Some of this laying of at least the groundwork for a cooperative stabilization has to do with the immediacy of water-the fact that neither humans nor birds can live for more than a few days without it, and cannot wait through years of political posturing. In this sense, water is just the leading edge of the Earth's resources overall, and the dry Middle East is just one of the first regions being forced to decide between a higher level of cooperation than in the past, and ever-larger repeats of the civilizational catastrophes of the past.

According to an old folk song, "the River Jordan flows deep and wide." But if the ancient antagonisms of the Holy Land don't soon break out of their cycles of pre-modern revenge and destruction, the Jordan will stop flowing altogether-and the Dead Sea really will be dead. FoEME says that with reasonable cooperation between neighbors, the Dead Sea can be very much alive. And if there's hope for that, there's great hope for this troubled region's future.


Gidon Bromberg is director of the Israeli office of Friends of the Earth Middle East.




1 "An Economic Analysis of Different Water Uses Affecting the Dead Sea Basin," Becker, Katz, Qumsieh, Mehyar, Hajeer, and Salinger, in Katz, Bromberg, Khatib, and Sultan, eds., Advancing Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Dead Sea Basin-Broadening the Debate on Economic and Management Issues, FoEME, 2004. See www.foeme.org.


2 Let the Dead Sea Live-Concept Document towards the Dead Sea Basin Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Listings, Bromberg, Abu Faris, Fariz, Hormann, and Turner, FoEME, 2000. See www.foeme.org.


3 FoEME has registered the Dead Sea as a member lake of the Living Lakes Network precisely to learn from the lessons of and share experiences about other lakes and wetlands around the world. See www.livinglakes.org.


EP174B.pdf807.56 KB