Pipe dream could avert Middle East water crisis

Israeli entrepreneur Boaz Wachtel.After four years of drought, the Middle East is heading for its most serious water deficit ever. Water economies are beginning to buckle as gaps grow between rising demand and dwindling natural resources. According to World Bank …

Israeli entrepreneur Boaz Wachtel.After four years of drought, the Middle East is heading for its most serious water deficit ever. Water economies are beginning to buckle as gaps grow between rising demand and dwindling natural resources.

According to World Bank estimates, per capita water availability in the region will fall by 50 percent by 2050.

Israel’s main reservoir, Lake Kinneret, is expected to reach a critical low in December 2008, rendering pumping impossible for the first time because pumps will be exposed above the water level.

Water, rather than land, could be the issue over which future Middle East wars will be fought. “Without a resolution to the water problems of the Jordan river-shed countries, all political agreements could fall apart because of competition for water,” says Israeli entrepreneur Boaz Wachtel.

Wachtel is proposing a novel solution: constructing an artificial waterway to carry some 5.2 thousand million cubic yards (four thousand million cubic meters) of potable water from Turkish rivers to Syria, Jordan, Israel and the PA. He claims that the canal would redress the area’s negative water balance and generate tremendous peace dividends – including producing hydro-electricity on the slopes of the Golan Heights. “There is enough water in the Middle East – if you consider Turkey part of the Middle East,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Wachtel foresees a conduit of closed canals and pipelines through western Syria. About a quarter of the water would be redirected to Syrian cities and the Golan Heights (Syria plans to settle tens of thousands of people on the Golan after Israel returns the Heights under a peace agreement, he notes). A wide, deep canal combined with modular tank barriers will allow Israel to safely withdraw to the pre-1967 border.

The water would then fall down the Golan’s western slope to the upper Jordan River, and on the southern slope to the Yarmuk River to be used by Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian farmers.

An extension would supply the Jordanian cities of Amman and Irbid, and in Israel the water would recharge aquifers, including the Gaza aquifer.

Wachtel, 49, served as an assistant military attaché in the Israeli Embassy in Washington before becoming a businessman. “A regional problem requires a regional solution,” he says. “Gaza has the absolutely worst water situation in the region – over-pumping and the absence of a sewage infrastructure has caused a major health crisis there. The Jordanians have no storage capacity and water cut-offs are common, while Syria suffers from water quality and quantity problems in its major cities in the west of the country – Damascus, Aleppo and Hims.”

Desalination, he says, is not the solution. “Israel is rich enough to desalinate, but our neighbours cannot afford it.”

Wachtel estimates that the proposed conduit infrastructure could be completed in three to four years, at a cost of $5,000-$7,000 million. “In terms of energy, the project will be self-sufficient. The hydro-electricity produced will offset the energy required to move the water the 700 kilometres (some 440 miles) from Turkish rivers,” he assures. “It is absolutely feasible.”

An expert on hydro-politics, he lacks political patronage, yet his maverick proposal is starting to make waves. Among his staunchest supporters are the US-based Freedom House human rights NGO and Alon Liel, an influential former Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general and Ambassador to Turkey, now chairman of the Israel Syria Peace Society.

“Turkey and Syria have close relations nowadays, which is why I’m excited by the idea,” Liel tells ISRAEL21c. “Two questions remain: the viability of the project, and how Israel-Turkey and Israel-Syria relations develop in the next few years.”

An additional spin-off, says Wachtel, would be replenishing the rapidly-shrinking Dead Sea. In recent years, political and business leaders – notably President Shimon Peres – have been promoting a canal running from the Gulf of Eilat via the Arava desert to the Dead Sea as a solution to the problem.

“Environmentalists are adamantly against the idea, because no-one can build a model to extrapolate accurately what the ultimate impact will be,” notes Wachtel. “The World Bank and parties to the conflict have to thoroughly examine other alternatives to save the Dead Sea.”

Wachtel presented his idea to a World Bank hearing devoted to the Red-Dead Sea canal proposal held Israel in August last year. “Even though it currently lacks political viability, it beats every other option in technical, social, environmental and economic aspects,” he claims. “We should prepare ourselves for the day of political viability due to peace between Israel and Syria.”