MIDEAST WATER CRISIS: Making every drop count

For Mideast, desalination is an answer...

Fellows Spring 2000

By Andrew Metz

June 07, 2009

UMM QAYS, Jordan , Spring 2000--  From the top of an ancient bluff where the corners of Syria, Israel and the Kingdom of meet like confidants, Abdullah Ahmad commands a view all the way to the Sea of Galilee and up the steppes of the Golan Heights. When he squints hard and uses a little imagination, he can see the future, and it looks like the salty Mediterranean, lapping blue and tempting at the Israeli coastline, a mere 45 miles west.

Twenty years of fighting to improve water flow to a region that receives but a few scant inches of rain a year, and coming back to his home in Amman at night to police his five daughters' showering and toilet flushing, has led the 61-year-old engineer to the only conclusion any reasonable person could reach.

"There is no way to get more from here,” he said of the rivers and canals unspooling below, wrung dry as dishrags. "The end solution is that there has to be another supply.”

Literally down to their last drops, , Israel and other nations around the region are returning to an idea as old as thirst itself: desalination, the alchemy of turning saltwater to fresh.

With new technology making desalination economically feasible for the first time -- one-tenth the price of 20 years ago -- plans are now being drawn to build plants throughout the Middle East.

The Israeli Finance Ministry recently approved a $150 million desalination facility near a power plant on its southern coast, capable of producing about 35 million gallons a day.

ian experts are seriously considering plans to build a plant in the< southern city of Aqaba and tap Wadi Hisban, a brackish gulch in the kingdom outside the capital, Amman. With officials from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, they are also exploring schemes to desalt Mediterranean water and distribute it to homes and farms and factories.

"Every drop counts ... For the future, desalination will be a major source,” said Ahmad, who works for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "The future water supply of will greatly be augmented by desalination of brackish and sea water.”

An array of other options -- from importing Turkish river water to seeding rain clouds -- is being entertained by leaders who have recognized that unprecedented water problems threaten the peace they are plotting. But desalination seems to offer the most promise; and its idealistic proponents hope it will help avert an impending crisis, as increased supply defuses political warring over who controls what little water is left.

"Israel and the Palestinians must go to the sea," Nabil El-Sherif, the Palestinian Authority's chief water official, said in an interview in Gaza City, where Yasser Arafat has pledged to build a plant that makes saltwater drinkable. "It's only a matter of time.”

On a globe where around 95 percent of all the available water is ocean, the dream of making the sea potable was hatched as soon as humans confronted one of nature's greatest ironies: that there is, as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

"Mankind has been fussing with this problem forever,” said James Birkett, a director of the International Desalination Association and a Maine-based consultant who has worked with countries and companies around the world.

The first desalination recipe was basic distillation, literally boiling saltwater, producing a clean steam that could be condensed. The process has been used through history and has become essential to maintaining life in the Persian Gulf, where facilities have been desalting water in this expensive way since the 1950s. But long the province of the very rich and very desperate, desalting technology has seen tremendous progress in the past two decades.

Today, with water problems afflicting every continent, more than 11,000 desalination plants are in operation. Most use a newer process called reverse osmosis, where water is forced at high pressure through synthetic membranes that filter out the salt.

Advancing membrane manufacturing, participation by eager private investors and piggybacking plants on existing power facilities, as the Gaza plant would do, have cut the cost so much that desalination hardware "are now articles of commerce . . . You can go out and buy one out of a catalog,” Birkett said. Although there are additional costs for transporting water to customers and overcoming different water salinity, today desalinated water is being offered for as little as $2 for 1,000 gallons. Twenty years ago it could have cost as much $20; and even a decade ago it was close to $10, according to figures from Ionics, one of the world's foremost desalination companies, based in Watertown, Mass.

Desalination has moved to the top of political agendas in the River basin, where water stress is most acute. The Israeli plant, at Ashkelon, is expected to produce enough water for more than half a million people. is serious about pumping Wadi Hisban and is considering the options for a plant at Aqaba, though it has yet to find the money. The Palestinians, too, are looking for funding for the plant in Gaza.

And as part of the Middle East peace process' multilateral water talks, a group of countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, have established a desalination research center in Muscat, Oman, now being used by officials and experts from around the world

"Water is the one issue that could take the region to peace,” said Kenley Brunsdale, a water lawyer at the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation in Washington. The group's founder, S. Daniel Abraham, a Long Beach native, and the group's president, former Utah congressman Wayne Owens, have been persistent pitchmen for desalination, raising it with the leaders of Syria, , Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States.

"With water, it's the only commodity you've got where you can make more of it,” Owens said. "It's a financial issue, and you start off with a winning proposition: Either we fight like cats and dogs over what little water there is, or we build like crazy.”

The center's model is based on a plant under way in Tampa Bay, Fla. That facility, which is expected to be up and running by 2002, will be the largest in the United States. Situated alongside a power plant in order to share its infrastructure, it is being built and operated by a private firm that will then sell the water produced to the local government.

Serious desalination proponents foresee as many as seven of these plants in Gaza, Israel and , with sharing arrangements among all the countries. Together, they could provide around 250 billion gallons of water a year or roughly 700 million gallons a day to the region -- the amount some experts predict will be needed to keep pace with increasing demand in the next 15 years. Such a massive plan could cost as much as $3 billion, but proponents believe that if the world community, led by the United States, were to pick up as much as half the cost -- a fraction of what will likely be doled out for final peace accords in the war-torn region -- then international lenders and private companies contracted to build and operate the facilities could finance the other half.

In the way, besides money and politics, is perhaps the most basic impediment of all: skepticism about whether the Middle East's salty water can really be made clean enough to drink.

The Mediterranean Sea hugs the western side of Israel like an old friend, encouraging soldiers on leave to strip off their fatigues, down to bikinis or shorts, beckoning tourists to spread beach towels over hot sand and persuading Israelis to plunge into a water that is about the country's only safe border. The idea of drinking this sea seems far-fetched to a people that has yet to confront its own water crisis.

"There will have to be a lot of education to convince the public to accept desalinated water,” Brunsdale, the water lawyer, said. "The water they will get from these seawater plants will be five times better than what they are getting from these aquifers. And the ocean is a drought-free source.”

The idea is heady: Infuse the region with more water and maybe the tension over who controls what aquifer or river, over who has rights to what, will ease. But it will not solve every problem. "When it comes down to it, there will still be issues of control,” Birkett said. "If you build a desalination plant, whose hand will be on the tap?”

Others are even more skeptical. "We're not talking about how much it costs to pump a cubic meter of water,” said Aaron Wolf, a hydrostrategic expert at Oregon State University and the director of the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database Project, a compilation of conflicts and cooperation over water worldwide. "It is what flag is flying on top of the pump house.”

Wolf, co-editor and author of a newly published book, "Water in the Middle East: A Geography of Peace,” said that before such grandiose efforts are undertaken, issues of national sovereignty and borders must be settled. Indeed, every potential plan ultimately must reckon with the region's delicate politics.

In the 1980s, Turkey's president Turgot Ozal suggested a "peace pipeline” that would deliver water from his country's Ceyhan and Seyhan Rivers to the thirsty nations of the Middle East. The hugely expensive -- estimates range from $5 billion to $20 billion -- and politically incendiary plan, however, has taken many shapes since first being suggested and ultimately has foundered because of the cost and friction with Syria and other Arab countries.

More likely are other plans being negotiated in and Israel to buy tanker-loads of water from Turkey's Manavgat River. Turkey is intent on selling water from the Manavgat to prop up its ailing economy and its role in the Middle East peace process. It has spent millions of dollars to create a facility on its southern coast able to pump, pipe, treat and ship. This, at least, could help slake the thirst in the short term.

"Water knows no borders,” said Ahmad, the ian engineer, as he stood over a culvert in Adassiya near the Yarmouk River, where water is being pumped in from the Sea of Galilee in Israel and mixed into the kingdom's national canal. "If we have a water problem in , then Israel will be affected, and vice versa, and the same with Syria.”

The canal at the side of the road is a modest dividend of the peace treaty with Israel, and the pipes from the Jewish state could deliver a lot more, if there were more to give. But even with additional water from desalination, Ahmad said, there must be massive improvements to infrastructure and management so the country can efficiently use its existing supply and handle an influx of new water.

The same is true everywhere. "It is not only desalination,” said Abraham Ophir, vice president for technology at I.D.E Technologies, a desalination firm outside Tel Aviv. "It is treating wastewater and diverting it to agriculture, plus desalinating brackish water. It is a systemwide solution, a regional solution.”

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian and western water engineers are trying everything, all at once. As they work to improve water quality and management, they are planning a $65 million national, north-south water pipeline, from the ground up, readying for the day when more water will flow into the densely packed slice of land on the Mediterranean, the day when the sea will be a limitless fountain. "We have no choice but to go to desalination,” said Aown Shawa, the mayor of Gaza City. At a park that once was a sewage dump, the mayor said there have been modest improvements in the quality of life, but above all his people are clamoring for water.

"They say, ‘We want better water. More, more water,"' he said. "And I keep saying, ‘We are poor in this respect.'”

Perhaps not for long. With companies offering desalinated water at about half the price of the supply sold by the city of Tel Aviv, the sheer math of it all today is going a long way toward winning supporters.

"All of a sudden the amount ... of water may decide the fate of humanity," Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said in an interview.

"To produce water is always cheaper than to launch wars."