The Middle East has always been dry and salty – literally, and all too often, figuratively.
Supposedly, the great patriarch of all three Abrahamic faiths cut the world’s first historically recorded water deal there 3500-years ago.
The biblical story tells of how Abraham agreed to share his newfound water resources in the heart of the unforgiving Negev desert with King Abimelech of Gerar, in exchange for peace. The location was Beer Sheva, or “well of the oath” according to interpretations.
Kiwi history is etched on the same stretch of sand.
It’s there that the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade (with the First Light Horse Brigade in support) outflanked the Turks at Tel el Saba to secure Beer Sheva’s critical water resources for 60,000 British Empire troops during World War One.
The Battle for Beer Sheva and charge of the Light Horse Brigade went down in history, along with the fall of the mighty Ottoman Empire.
The lesson is simple: access to water in the Middle East is critical. It can bring unpredictable and sharp geopolitical shifts. It can serve peace or conflict, trade or war, be a weapon or a tool.
The scale of scarcity
Water – New Zealand has a lot of it. So much so that it’s hard to imagine a lack.
The Middle East, not so much.
Renewable water resources there are scarce at best. As much as 90% of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) live in areas of high-water stress with serious consequences on health, nutrition and development. The Waterproject.org describes several countries including Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as facing unique problems that require global, immediate attention.
Israel is an outlier in its parched neighbourhood. It produces 20% more water than it needs through desalination plants. It plans to pump this water into natural water reservoirs to support environmental ecosystems during drier years.
It wasn’t always this way. In previous decades, water demand from Israel’s rapidly growing population outpaced the supply and natural replenishment of potable water: so much so that by 2015, the gap between demand and available natural water supplies reached 1 billion cubic meters (BCM).
Necessity – the mother of invention and creator of new friends
Right from the beginning, water shortages demanded creative solutions. Perhaps it all started with Simcha Blass, an Israeli water engineer who established Netafim in the 1960s to commercialise water-saving drip and micro-irrigation technology. Israel has since become a major food exporter by using this technology to grow crops in the desert.
Israel’s water technology is now helping to bring about an era of peace as well.
Israeli organisations and institutions such as the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, KKL-JNF, Start-Up Nation Central and the The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies actively disseminate Israel’s expertise, technologies and policy strategies with geographic neighbours and distant communities suffering from endemic water crises.
There are some 150 early-stage start-ups and established companies dedicated to eco-efficient water infrastructure development in Israel.
Many Middle Eastern countries are recipients of these technologies and incredibly, some of these have not even formally accepted Israel’s right to exist. Notably, an outcome of the Abraham Accords is that former enemies such as Morocco and the UAE now heavily invest in, and work with Israelis to develop world-leading water tech.
Water for peace?
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably the most complex, intractable, and sensitive geopolitical impasse in the world today.
The inability (or lack of political will) to agree on the Oslo Accords’ final status issues, coupled with growing populations, religious fundamentalism, dwindling natural resources and climate change, perpetuates a vicious cycle of hate, revenge, and spasms of violence.
Entrenched positions across the political spectrum have become barriers to pragmatic and centrist dialogue regionally and globally. Thus, acknowledging the lack of space to concede between the right and the left, trade has now a critical role to play in creating an environment of trust, communication, and cooperation. Of Israel’s exporting industries, the water sector is an ideal tool to facilitate détente.
Solving water disparity at a political level is tenuous and fraught with ideological agendas. At a grassroots level, there is more hope.
NGOs such as EcoPeace Middle East bring teams of Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis together to improve infrastructure and develop innovations that enable a more efficient usage of available water resources. An interesting project is the development of new treatment plants along the Jordan river to halt and reverse years of degradation. The diversion of 96% per cent of its fresh water, in addition to the discharge of large quantities of untreated sewage, threatens to irreversibly damage the River Valley. The Center for Transboundary Water Management at the The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies provides a platform for regional water professionals and policy makers to cooperate in water conservation, desalination, wastewater treatment and education. The Center facilitates direct communication between Arabs and Jews in the Arava desert. These initiatives recognise that those who are threatened by water scarcity need to be empowered to develop the solutions that best meet their communities’ needs.
At a corporate level, many Israeli start-ups actively seek to employ Palestinian engineers and scientists to develop capability, others voluntarily impart knowledge on how to develop ideas for commercialisation. Companies such as Laguna Innovation export their wastewater tech to regional Arab communities at a low cost and work with them to integrate that tech into existing infrastructure. Socially responsible Israeli start-ups such as Watergen Ltd choose to install atmospheric drinking water devices in Gaza and Syria to improve access to portable water.
This demonstrates that below the political level, there is another at which corporate stakeholders in water tech can build trust and prepare the ground for peaceful dialogue.
Kiwis – what does this mean for us?
There are many cost-effective Israeli water tech solutions that could have a role to play in solving many of New Zealand’s infrastructure woes. I have profiled a few at the end of this article.
As with any other country in the world, working with Israeli start-ups and NGOs in the water tech space is not necessarily endorsing a political point of view. Having said that, if you would like to support those working towards peace and/or initiatives that help Arab communities maximise existing resources and improve water infrastructure, I suggest getting behind responsible Israeli companies and institutions working towards this end. In doing so, you will be endorsing initiatives that build trust, dialogue and collaboration between the peoples and it will raise the Palestinians’ standard of living by allowing them to access better paying tech jobs that foster egalitarianism and diversity.
We believe that politics is best left to the politicians. While the peace process remains stalled, water is a practical way for the business sector to make a positive impact, today.
Additional examples of cutting-edge Israeli water tech:
1. Kando – wastewater intelligence and big data solution provider.
2. Water Flow Tech – leak-detecting solution that revolutionizes low flow-metering functionality.
3. Ayala Water & Ecology Nature Based Solutions – sustainability experts who treat sewage and waste streams, rehabilitate affected water bodies and rebalance watersheds.
4. ASTERRA – locates leaks across entire water systems at once using satellite imagery.
5. BlueGreen Water Technologies – targets and eliminates harmful cyanobacteria/algae without harming other life forms or leaving any chemical trace in the water.