MIDEAST WATER CRISIS: Running near empty

From droughts to dams to drying rivers, Mideast is steeped in crisis...

Fellows Spring 2000

By Andrew Metz

June 07, 2009

JABALIYA, Gaza Strip, Spring 2000 -- A big blue jug in each hand, Mohammad Ibrahim steps over broken bottles, leaps a soggy cardboard box, sloshes straight through a six-foot-wide stream of sewage on the only route there is to the public water tap.

A poison river runs through the faucet, mounted on a wall above the filthy current that soaks the hems of Ibrahim's jeans. But the 21-year-old police officer takes his seven-gallon containers meant for gasoline and fills them to the top anyway, then heads back to his refugee camp so his wife and mother and 11-month-old daughter will have something to drink. "What else can we do?" he said and shrugged. "The water in our house is not water. It is salt."

In the Gaza strip, Samir Mohammad's water is salty from chronic over-pumping of area's only water source.

Two countries to the east, Khaldoun Kiwan, a 28-year-old conservationist, surveys an island of dead vegetation, a wasteland of dry reeds and scorched tree limbs that stand out even in the blistered Jordan desert. All around, sand and basalt stretch away to the horizon -- to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq. Like some prehistoric footprint, this environmental anomaly is a clue to a world that existed before the gray soil and cracked earth.

"For thousands of years, it was a lake, with hippos and rhinos, elephants, cheetahs, lions. It looked like a savannah,” Kiwan said, shutting his eyes as if to conjure up the past, before the thirsty of Amman, the Jordanian capital, had sucked the wetland dry. "It was one of the wonders of the world; it used to be a paradise. Now the land is dying here. I wish the water had never been pumped.”

Three hundred and fifty miles from the dead Al-Azraq, or Blue, oasis, a river in Turkey is flowing more abundant and pure. Even here, every dam and diversion comes with a price. Over the past month, in one of the world's most ambitious and controversial public works projects, the Euphrates River has been rising at the Birecik dam, promising electricity, irrigation and prosperity on the Turkish side of the frontier and stoking a menacing feud with Iraqis and Syrians on the other. Each drop kept from crossing into these water-starved countries is regarded like a shell fired from a Turkish tank.

"The other countries must not be concerned. When the project is complete, everything will be better for them and for us,” said Taner Kose, the 34-year-old Turkish dam manager, standing on a rigging halfway up the 200-foot dam one recent day, tracing the river's six- mile route to Syria with his hand. "God gives this water to us and we will not take all of it.”

Whether scarce or contaminated, misused or hoarded, water is a fundamental source of conflict and the lifeline of the Middle East, a knot of dry nations forced to share the few meager rivers and aquifers that ignore national borders. At the start of this century, though, it is clear there is not enough to go around. From southern Turkey to the Gaza Strip, Damascus to Jerusalem, Baghdad to Beirut, the region's water supply is perilously low, threatened by burgeoning populations, decades of shortsighted management and three seasons of drought -- in some places the worst in 100 years.

"You cannot continue business as usual,” said Jamal Saghir, a World Bank water expert for the Middle East and North Africa, which have the smallest amount of water available per person in the world. "Water is a top priority of every single government.”

Conditions are dire all over the region, but if there is a ground zero, it is likely the Jordan River basin, a densely populated land clinging to a drying river between the Mediterranean and the Jordanian desert. The basin begins in southern Lebanon, with tributaries rushing into northern Israel and the legendary Jordan River. At first the Jordan flows fast in whirlpools and waterfalls, even attracting whitewater rafters. But after the roughly 150-mile river winds south through the Sea of Galilee and then through the maze of pipes to thirsty Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis, it ends up at the Dead Sea little more than a scattering of moist salt. The pain has already begun.

Residents of Amman, a city of more than 1 million, are allowed running water only once a week. The Quwayq River, once the main source of water for Syria's second largest city, Aleppo, has been pumped dry. Seventy percent of Iraq's crops perished last year, according to international observers, and in the southernmost city of Basra, a system of canals from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers has been reduced to polluted trickles. And in Israel, the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake that supplies a third of the nation's water, last year dropped below the red line -- the level below which water quality could be endangered. It is falling fast again this summer, a signal that damage from invading saline water may be near.

The things that make life livable, preparing tea, bathing a child, watering crops, are in jeopardy, particularly in Gaza, an arid 30-mile strip along the Mediterranean. Few places are as grim: 1.1 million people; a sewage system that until recently was six open pits on the beach; and the sole water source, an aquifer, pumped so relentlessly that it now yields mostly seawater. Long before the salty flow reaches taps, it is contaminated by a soup of farm runoff and human waste.

Even now, the daily amount of water used by Palestinians for washing or drinking in Gaza is around 20 gallons a person. Israelis, including settlers literally next door in Gaza have between 70 and 80 gallons, because of a national system that draws water not only from this coastal aquifer but from others beneath land claimed by Palestinians in the West Bank. In the United States, the amount varies depending on the state but experts commonly use 130 and 180 as averages.

"Our life is hell here. I swear to Allah, I tell you, water is a tragedy here,” shouted Samir Mohammad, father of seven, as a pack of curious children gathered around the tap outside his house in the hardscrabble, cinderblock Gaza refugee camp called Shati, or Beach. To the children's cheers, he cupped his hands, sipped the water, spat it out and urged a visitor to do the same and confirm his diagnosis: tepid, salty and ragged in the throat.

Both he and his wife have kidney problems because of the foul water, Mohammad, 42, said, pulling crumpled medical reports from his pants pocket and waving them in the air. And he said his children are often ill, too."I swear, this is the reality. We are suffering.”

In the courtyard outside his two-room house, Mohammad said that when he can afford it, he pays a friend to deliver tanks of clean water. He is fearful of using what comes from the taps even for bathing or washing dishes.

"People are dying because of the water,” Mohammad insisted. "The water is killing our kids.”

At home after home in the beachside camp near Gaza City, people claim that the little water they have is making them sick. Tests by Palestinian and U.S. officials show that nitrate levels in roughly 90 percent of the water supply exceed what is deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Nitrate, a contaminant that prevents the body from absorbing oxygen, is highly dangerous to pregnant women and children. In some places, there are as much as 300 milligrams of nitrate per liter of water, six times the international standard, and 60 times the amount in Long Island water that is considered safe by experts.

"On a day-to-day basis people drink it,” said Charles McElroy, an American government water expert who is leading an international effort to abate the crisis. "It's the only water they have.” U.S. officials here have asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate how the water is affecting health.

But more than individuals could be at risk. The nexus of contamination and scarcity is endangering the entire food chain.

"This is the greenest part of the year,” said Khaireddin Shukri, shaking his head on a recent spring morning as he surveyed swaths of yellowed grape leaves, part of last year's devastation in the Jordanian lowlands north of the Dead Sea.

Shukri is a Louisiana State University-educated grower with contracts to supply supermarkets in England with grapes, beans, zucchini, jalapeño peppers and apples. Last year, he lost 90 percent of his grapes, about $1.5 million worth.

Twenty years ago, Shukri helped start the 250-acre family farm, growing bananas, then citrus, then peaches. Year after year, he has replanted with new crops that require less water. "We've gotten to the point where we can't change any more," he said, echoing complaints of farmers across the valley. Many have given up all together or have gone deeper into debt.

All around him the land is dying. Water coming to the valley, he said, is essentially the dregs from a long line of "upstream users”: Syrians, Israelis and the citizens of Amman.

"I think within a couple, three, four years, we will not have a single drop of water in the valley except for sewage,” Shukri said. "Without good quality water you're finished. Forget it ... We are back to a desert.”

Cleaning the water is only a fraction of the problem. Water leaks from porous municipal systems are wasting precious gallons. As much as half the water destined for Damascus and Amman is unaccounted for and in some places, the loss is even more. People illegally tap public pipes and wells with a gusto reserved for pirating cable television in the West. It often takes ready fists and a shotgun to defend a healthy well.

"Sometimes, when we need water, we steal from other wells,” said Fadel Al-Qara, a 30-year-old Lebanese man who lives with his family on a farm near Abbasiyah, close to the occupied zone that Israel returned last month. He and his 70-year-old father, Roda Al-Qara, guard their well with a padlock the size of the grapefruits they grow.

Roda Al-Qara, a short, weathered man, said it was almost 20 years ago when he drilled a shaft more than three football fields deep to reach water. He proudly showed off the family pumphouse one afternoon, firing up an old diesel generator and waiting 60 seconds for water to begin spurting through a corroded steel pipe.

Few people in the Middle East are this lucky.

"Some days we stay two days without any water. We have to ask our neighbors for water,” said Mohammad Al-Kurdi, a 65-year-old retired electric company employee who lives with his 12 children in a working-class neighborhood in Amman, Jordan -- one of the most water-poor areas in the region.

Seated shoeless on the floor of his one-room apartment, Al-Kurdi said that even with a storage tank on the roof -- the way most people in the Middle East hoard scarce water -- there isn't enough to regularly bathe or do laundry or clean the dishes. Average water use per person here is only slightly higher than in the Gaza Strip, around 25 gallons a day or less.

On Wednesdays, water arrives at the small apartment building that the Al-Kurdi family shares with six others, and there is a rush to perform the most basic human ablutions.

"When we get the water, we try to clean the floors. We try to take a bath, do the laundry,” said Khidijeh Jamdi, Al-Kurdi's wife. But by day's end, when the only water left is a drop suspended in the sink, many things have been left undone.

"Even when we wash five times a day to pray, we have to take care,” Al-Kurdi said, explaining that Islam permits him to clean his hands and feet with sand instead of water in times of need, which seems to be about all the time.

Technically, hydrologists said, the Middle East ran out of available water mid-century. Ever since, countries have been draining aquifers -- like the shriveled Al-Azraq oasis in Jordan and the coastal aquifer in Gaza -- faster than they are being replenished, permanently ruining the sources and amassing, in effect, a water debt that can never be repaid.

Within 10 years, even the most cautious estimates predict a totally debilitating gap between supply and demand for the Jordan River basin countries. The crisis promises to spare no one, even Israelis, who have long enjoyed a more affluent lifestyle and used more water than their neighbors.

"We are at the maximum. We are using all our available water ... And we still don't have enough for our needs,” said Zvi Stukl, the chief engineer of Israel's National Water Carrier. "We are in an overdraft situation.”

The country's National Infrastructure Minister last week proposed emergency restrictions on watering private lawns, public gardens and parks. Washing cars may also be reigned along with irrigated agriculture, which swallows the majority of all available water and as much as 70 percent in many countries.

A third of Israel's water comes from an aquifer it shares with Palestinians on the West Bank. Though some of the water naturally flows into Israel, the vast majority of the aquifer's water comes from Palestinian lands, yet Israel controls pumping and consumes about 80 percent of the supply, a constant political irritant that is one of the main issues to be resolved in the final status peace talks.

Israel's national water authority has long maintained wells in the West Bank and delivered enough water to the highly protected Jewish settlements for verdant lawns and landscapes, cropped hedges and palm trees and families that want for little.

In communities like the Israeli settlement of Dolev, surrounded by parched Palestinian villages outside Ramallah, even the traffic circles are green and overflowing with flowers.

"Isn't it enough that we have a limited amount of water? The situation in Israel is terrible. All the reservoirs are empty,” said Haim Gvirtzman, a Hebrew University hydrologist, sitting on his porch overlooking the rocky valley in the West Bank. "It's a problem for everyone, Palestinians, Israelis, everyone.”

The settlement, and others nearby, often supply the neighboring Palestinians with water. But in the end, unless there is a miracle, Gvirtzman said, unless a lot more water is found in this arid valley, the situation will always boil down to "a fight for our survival.”

Not far outside the settlement gate, in the village of Ein Arik, the fight is now, every day. From hillside homes, children and adults descend to collect water at a spring off the main street's shoulder. There are no pipes or pumps. They make do with empty milk jugs and liter soda bottles, mop pails and push carts.

On a recent morning, one young girl, ankle-deep in the clear stream and bending to submerge a bottle, said she and her sisters fill 30 to 40 containers every day. It has become a fact of life.

With her three children at her side, Nahla Ameen, 26, said she has gotten used to the trips to the spring. The water is clean, at least. And so far there's as much as she can carry.

The Palestinian Authority eventually plans to connect the entire West Bank to public pipes, a fantasy for those like Ameen, who have only known the stooped labor of foraging for water.

"To be satisfied, to get water into your home and not have to collect it,” she said, before balancing a pail on top of her head. "It's a dream.”