An American teenager sees the Jordan River (nearer the Dead Sea) for the first time. His reaction, paraphrased, is: “Is that all? What’s the big deal?”
A hiker around the world passes the village of Nabil and suddenly is in Israeli-occupied territory. His reaction, paraphrased, is: “I felt as if I was in California”, i.e., a land of high-water-use large-scale agriculture.
So what do these two snapshots have to do with climate change?
Let’s start with the available water in the region – essentially, that related to the Jordan River (according to an environmental “case study”. This involves the river itself, running from the border of Syria (where it is fed by four streams) to its terminus in the Dead Sea, and the four aquifers between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, all fed by the water around the upper parts of the Jordan River, and all except a small fraction of this aquifer water running through what is now Israeli-controlled territory.. The Jordan River and its aquifers, pretty much, have been most of the water available in the Holy Land. Right now, and for at least the last 44 years, it has been under the effective control of Israel.
In fact, this water has been a significant reason for some of Israel’s actions over the last 67 years, since 1947. The Jordan River itself is a major part of Israel’s “water supply”, and as such was a priority for the initial Israeli state. In 1967, Israel carried out a short “war” to annex part of Syria’s territory because of a perceived plan by Syria to place a dam on the Jordan within its territory. The 1967 war secured a large portion of the Jordan’s “watershed” on the Golan Heights, and reduced the water available from other sources (such as the feeder streams) to provide water to Syria. More recently, Israeli West Bank settlements apparently draw on one of the aquifers. Over the last 15 years, Israel has chosen at times to withhold water from Palestinian West Bank and Gaza locations. [note: I am not going into detail about the Israeli Jordan-water-sharing agreement, primarily with Jordan, because it doesn’t affect this analysis]
Now we come to the first anecdote. Israeli water use has drawn down the major aquifers far below their “carrying capacity”. Meanwhile, the Jordan River itself has been siphoned off to the point where the Dead Sea, the River’s terminus, is shrinking to almost nothing, and the lower stretches of the Jordan contain less than 10% of the water it had at its start – hence the teenager’s remark.
These neighbors, in turn, find themselves needing to expand their own water use, primarily because of refugees from Israel, Iraq due to an Israel-urged US war, and, most recently, Syria because of climate-change-caused western-province drought leading to warfare, which greater supplies of water probably would have delayed.
What is Israel using that water for? It is providing far more water for drinking and for agriculture – anecdote two -- than its neighbors. These use Jordan-River water inefficiently, but in the service of far less water-intensive traditional agriculture. There seems little doubt that, had they been the only regimes in the Holy Land, then, like Egypt, they would have muddled along at a much lower water-use level than the region presently exhibits.
Finally, we may note the arrival in Israel of desalinization plants as an alternative source of water – up to 35% of Israel’s supply for some purposes, which has finally apparently seen the light of day after being promised for more than 50 years. However, there is no apparent sign that Israel is decreasing its use of Jordan/aquifer water. Moreover, the plants themselves take 10% of Israel’s total electricity, which in turn means a 10% increase rather than decrease in carbon-emissions-causing coal and natural gas.
Climate change says we may expect that over the next 35 years, the upper stretches of the Jordan River will join the lower ones in becoming an “arid desert” with high heat. At some point in next 135 years, it is likely that this heat will bake the soil so that rain bounces off rather than feeding the aquifers, and the flow of water feeding the Jordan will decrease in a major way. At that point, a major decrease in population in the area will result, and the desert will return throughout the Holy Land – death of ecosystems, major shrinkage in habitable areas due to heat and lack of water.
However, Israel’s use of the water resources it controls has resulted in hastening that day. It now requires very little added heat and drought to make today’s California-style agriculture unsustainable if not immediately dangerous. Any increase in heat will only increase the pressure to use more water, and would draw down the Jordan and aquifers more, either through Israeli use or via creation of more “starvation refugees” from immediately affected zones. At the same time, decreasing water use creates more strain on the Israeli agricultural and tourist sectors of the economy, as well as among Israeli disadvantaged. There is, apparently, no sign that Israel is especially proactive in switching massively to solar and wind to supply the energy for increased electricity for air conditioning and for the desalinization plans. In other words, we aren’t talking the next 135 years now, we are talking the next 35 years.
I realize that the actors in this story had their reasons. Climate change doesn’t care about the reasons; it simply notes the results of not understanding that combating human-caused climate change matters more. Israel has had effective control of water-resource usage over this period; this has been the result. And there are very good reasons to say that things would have been in a lot better shape if there had not been these Israeli actions.
You can cite many similar climate-change stories around the world. This one, of course, has particular resonance because of the connection with three of the world’s major religions. It was once remarked of a military effort that it had to destroy the objective in order to save it. With the same sense of irony, I suspect that we may well say that the Israelis had to hasten the death of the Holy Land in order to live in it.