Interview: Dr. Clive Lipchin
We were delighted to have had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute to talk about the major challenges involved with providing fresh water for the region. Here are a few of his thoughts:
It is so dry here. I drink water constantly but always my throat feels scratchy. My eyes feel as dry as the barren riverbeds of the region, and it seems no amount of eye drops can remedy the situation.
Water is scarce in the desert. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. The problem is, it is rapidly growing scarcer. So far the situation has been managed through much negotiating between nations, rampant siphoning of freshwater from lakes, streams and rivers, and drilling of wells to tap deeper and deeper into the aquifer. But with population increasing exponentially, rivers running dry, lakes shrinking to puddles, aquifers being unsustainably depleted, and climate change bringing less rain and snowmelt than ever, the region is destined to thirst more and more for water with every passing year.
Israel uses nearly four times more water than Palestine. And neighboring Jordan has one of the lowest amounts of available freshwater per capita in the world. Access to water rights therefore is a crucial part of any regional peace agreement. And yet even Israel’s domestic water consumption in cubic meters per capita is less than half that of North America (see chart below). In addition, Israel is one of the most efficient countries in the world in terms of wastewater usage, repurposing treated sewage to irrigate fields.
Regional Water Consumption Level
Cubic meters/person/year, domestic-urban and rural usage
Palestinian Territories: 26
North America: 221
(Source: Schlutter, 2005 and Lipchin, 2006)
However, Israel’s current leading freshwater strategy is desalination. Dr. Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies took the Expedition: Blue Planet team to see a desalination plant on the shores of the Mediterranean. We couldn't go inside due to security concerns, so we stood outside to film. But even there, a guard quickly approached, and demanded that we leave. Clive and Pablo tried to convince him to allow just a few shots, but he declined. So we ended up conducting the interview from a nearby beach, a cool wind blowing off the sea, with the power station that provides energy for the desalination plant in the background.
Thanks to Israel’s long coastline along the Mediterranean, the country has ample supplies of salty water available for conversion via reverse osmosis into freshwater. Desalination already produces 15 percent of Israel’s drinking water. But the process has its shortcomings. First, it is energy intensive. “We’re manufacturing water,” Clive explained. “That takes a lot of energy.” Secondly, desalination has negative environmental consequences. “Israel is using coal imported in some cases all the way from Indonesia to power the desalination plant. This generates massive amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming. In addition, the leftover water, which now has a very high saline content, gets pumped back into the Mediterranean, which can negatively affect marine life in the sea.”
I asked Clive if, given these limitations, he thought desalination is the solution to the region’s water crisis. “It is in part,” he answered. “In the short-term, it can help reduce Israel’s reliance on precious freshwater resources in the region that Palestine and Jordan also want to access, which could free up more surface and groundwater for them and could potentially facilitate the peace process. However, we need a comprehensive policy that is long-term and sustainable to deal with water security in the Middle East. Desalination is not the ultimate solution. It should be part of a larger package that includes increased water efficiency, especially in the agricultural industry; wastewater management; and awareness campaigns to reduce domestic consumption, mostly in Israel.”
As for the issue of whether dealing with water scarcity can serve as a path to peace rather than conflict, Clive was optimistic: “Even though evidence shows that we live in a contentious area, one thing that brings us together is how to solve our water problems. Because without water, there is no life. So we all can agree that we need regional collaboration; individual countries can’t afford to take a unilateral approach. We should separate water from politics. If we make smart decisions now, we can ensure water for the next 20 to 30 years. Water can bring us together because it’s fundamental to all our futures.”
Once we were done with the interview, we drove back through more arid hills and valleys to the Arava Institute campus for a final night at Kibbutz Ketura before returning the next day to the US for a brief break in the Expedition. Our trip there had been eye opening. All members of the team feel we learned a great deal about the issues confronting the Middle East in general, and the role that water plays in the relationships between nations in particular. We can only hope that in this region, as in the rest of the world, people continue to develop awareness of the need to manage our natural resources jointly, collaboratively, and peacefully for the benefit of all.