Too often, the urgent overwhelms the important. Israeli media have recently focused on the Iranian nuclear program, primaries in the Kadima party, the American presidential campaign, and the fiasco of the “Global March to Jerusalem,” worthy topics all. Yet all the attention paid to these urgent matters has crowded out the critically important issue of water. Water is its own metaphor. Just as the unnoticed flow of underground streams can undermine the foundations of a house, unless we organize to manage this vital resource, water may play a destabilizing role in the 21st Century.

This year’s relatively generous rainfall in Israel creates an illusion of plenty. The Lake of Galilee rose a full 113 centimeters above its level of a year ago. While welcome, the abundance of water is temporary. There are no guaranties of good rainfall in the future. Against this backdrop, the Israeli-Palestinian debate over water needs to be addressed more urgently.

Largely ignored by the media, the Water Authority of the State of Israel recently released a report, “The Water Issue between Israel and the Palestinians” (PDF). It follows closely on a piece published in January by Haim Gvirtzman of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, “The Israeli-Palestinian Water Conflict: An Israeli Perspective” (PDF).

The Water Authority publication is largely polemical. It points out that “Israel supplies the Palestinians with 52 MCM of water which is far beyond its obligation in the Water Agreement (31 MCM).” The report alleges repeated Palestinian violations of the Oslo Accords Water Agreement, accusing them of drilling over 300 unauthorized wells and suggesting that the Palestinians lose as much as 33% of their water through leakage and theft. According to the Water Authority, the Palestinian Authority fails to treat its sewage, which then contaminates the environment and the aquifer.

Another allegation is that the PA is not developing new water resources “either through sewage treatment or desalination.” This last is of particular interest, since the technology is readily available in Israel, which treats and reuses about 80% of its wastewater for industry and agriculture, the highest percentage in the world by far. The next most active country in this regard is Spain, with just 12%. Currently, the Palestinians reuse none.

A Palestinian man works at a privately owned water desalination station in central Gaza Strip (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

A Palestinian man works at a privately owned water desalination station in central Gaza Strip (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

While generally backing the Water Authority’s charges, Gvirtzman is more academic and less polemical. He suggests steps the Palestinians could take. Plugging leaks in urban pipes and improving irrigation techniques, he writes, would save 25 MCM/Y (million cubic meters per year). The collection and treatment of urban sewage would produce 30 MCM/Y that could replace freshwater in industry and agriculture, and that freshwater could then be used for human consumption. Why Palestinians neglect the construction of sewage treatment plants remains a puzzle. International funding is available and the project seems to have no downside. Gvirtzman believes that “…the water issue could be transformed from a source of controversy and tension to a source of understanding and cooperation,” and sets forth a plan to provide “sufficient quantity of water needed at least until 2030 and still leave some reserves.”

As the 21st century proceeds, water will emerge as a global problem. The American intelligence community recently stated a consensus view:

During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods — that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives.

It concludes that the key to overcoming these challenges will be “improved water management.”

Writing from a somewhat different perspective, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) makes a similar point. Its recently-released “Environmental Outlook to 2050” is alarmingly subtitled “The Consequences of Inaction.” Noting that world population has grown by 3 billion since 1970, with 2 billion more expected to join us by 2050, the report projects growing deterioration of water quality, with 40% of people living in water-stressed areas. It views the mishandling of water resources as part of a larger picture of inadequate preparation for the management of natural resources as we move toward mid-century. The test we face is that “improving the living standards for all will challenge our ability to manage and restore those natural assets on which all life depends.”

These four reports, all published within the last few months, provide a grim reminder that as we focus on daily crises, seeds of future disaster sprout. The demand for water is no respecter of political boundaries, and the challenge of meeting it must eventually throw friends and enemies together if disaster is to be avoided. Israel has enormous potential to help the international community.

The world leader in recycling gray water, a country that will soon supply 70% of its drinking water from desalination, and a champion at coaxing crops from a water-deprived environment, Israel has the technology and the skilled personnel to confront one of the world’s most pressing challenges.