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Israel and Water Conference Examines Critical Issues

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Water Conference
Heather Speight, MA international peace and conflict resolution '13, spoke about transboundary water projects as peace-keeping tools.

For Israel, water scarcity is not just a problem; it is a way of life. Located in one of the driest regions in the world, the country has historically suffered from a continuous shortage of water, exacerbated in recent years by droughts and a steadily increasing population. While lack of water is certainly a pervasive problem throughout the region, Israel is better recognized not for its water scarcity, but for its creative and innovative approaches in addressing this challenge. 

These approaches—as well as their potential for facilitating peacemaking in the region—were the focus of Israel and Water: Scarcity, Innovation and Cooperation, an intensive one day conference organized and sponsored in part by AU’s Center for Israel Studies. Held at AU on March 4, 2014, the conference brought together academics, scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy-makers to learn and reflect upon diverse Israeli methods of water management and collaboration. “What was particularly meaningful to me was the opportunity to bring together these inter-disciplinary professionals in one room and put all their work in context,” says Laura Cutler, managing director of the Center for Israel Studies and organizer of the conference. “This is one huge advantage of hosting this type of gathering at a university. Working with such a fantastic team was a wonderful experience.”  

Referred to as the “Silicon Valley” of water technologies, Israel’s water management is based on two approaches: desalinization (the process of converting salty water into drinking water), and waste water re-use. The country’s technological infrastructure reflects a commitment to these approaches, sustaining one of the largest desalination plants worldwide and the largest wastewater treatment plant in the Middle East. One reason for Israel’s continued success in water management innovations is its tie between public and private sectors. “The Israeli government is committed to working with entrepreneurs advancing the water industry, which helps to position Israel as a country to help others globally,” says Meital Stavinsky, shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, LLC, and a speaker at the conference. “These advances in technology are truly the most valuable resource we can provide for addressing water shortages.” 

While Israel’s developed water technology has helped alleviate water shortages, the region continues to face challenges affecting water availability and consumption. One pressing issue is the shrinking Dead Sea, which is losing water at a rate of about one meter annually. The terminal lake of the Jordan River system, the Dead Sea receives much of its water supply from the Jordan River. In recent years, however, water that would have flowed into the salt lake is being diverted from the river due to critical water shortages in the three-country region. This, in combination with successive years of drought and an increasing population, intensifies the need for continued innovation and action.  

Though further technological advances are necessary to address the drying Dead Sea and multiplicity of other issues, progress cannot be sustained without collaboration among all parties involved. Because water resources are shared between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, cooperation is key in ensuring the region is able to provide an adequate supply of water. “Water is a matter of both technological and governance innovation,” says Eric Abitbol, an AU professor and a speaker at the conference. “In the Middle East, water is a trans-boundary resource that crosses borders between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Even if water is produced in Israel, it is then sold to the Palestinians and Jordanians, impacting the politics and economics of water governance. Water related innovation is therefore deeply enmeshed in the regional political economy.”  

Abitbol points out that this intertwining of technology and governance has the potential for conflict, but also holds a great potential for peacemaking. The need for continued collaboration surrounding water issues forces all three countries to set aside their differences and work together, opening the door to regional cooperation for current and future generations. “To facilitate peacemaking, it is not enough to simply increase quantities of water in the region, even with the most sophisticated technologies,” says Abitbol. “That is part of it, but it cannot be divorced from water governance and building relationships of trust and equity between conflicting parties.” 

A major peacemaking development recently initiated in the region is the Red Sea Dead Sea Water Conveyance, an endeavor that both addresses the drying of the Dead Sea and drastically bolsters the area’s water supply. The first ever regional project endorsed by Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, the initiative aims to create a pipeline between the Red Sea at the southern tip of Israel and the Dead Sea in the Arava Valley. Water will be pumped from the Red Sea to a desalination plant in Jordan that will process and disseminate drinking water to the region. The saline by-product will be piped into the Dead Sea, helping to replenish the ailing salt lake. This undertaking marks a historic collaboration between the three authorities, demonstrating a joining of efforts to better their shared environment. Jordanian water minister his Excellency Dr. Hazim El-Naser signed the project agreement on behalf of his country and was Skyped into the conference to discuss the endeavor. “The initiation of this project was successful because of the urgent need for water by all parties,” says El-Naser. “It opens the gates for major regional cooperation.”  

While the AU conference marked an important opportunity to collect ideas and discuss issues, the topics discussed are part of a much larger global conversation. Abitbol hopes the conference will add to this bigger conversation and encourage continued peaceful collaboration, discussion, and action. “My hope is that it expands the conversation around regional hydro-politics and promotes discussions on Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian trust-building,” Abitbol says. “I hope the conference can be a catalyst for forming new water-related partnerships and dialogues and inspires parties to engage in peaceful and equitable cooperation.”  

A special thanks to the partners in and outside of the AU community who helped make Israel and Water: Scarcity, Innovation, and Cooperation a success:

AU partners: Center for Israel Studies (CAS), Kogod School of Business, AU Global Environmental Politics Program (SIS), Department of Environmental Science (CAS), William K. Reilly Fund at Center for Environmental Policy (SPA), Center for Environmental Film-making (SOC), AU Office of Sustainability.  

Non-AU partners: Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, American Associates, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Additional Support was provided by the Embassy of Israel, Maryland/Israel Development Center and Richard * and Lois England (*deceased)