Palestinian and Israeli water managers agree the water supplies their peoples share are strained by population growth, decreasing supply, drought, contamination, cost and political conflict.
Last week, Israeli and Palestinian representatives met at a University of Arizona workshop to explore what they can do about a complex set of circumstances.
At least one, Uri Shani, director general of the water authority of the state of Israel, believes water can be a resource for broader conflict resolution.
"The general method to extinguish fire is to use water," Shani told a public gathering at the Arizona-Israeli-Palestinian Water Management and Policy Workshop Tuesday night at the Westward Look Resort. "I believe water can lead to peace, and this is my hope. Nobody promised us to have easy solutions, but it can be done."
Shaddad Attili, chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority, could not attend the conference in person. He addressed the group by video, and specifically directed some of his remarks at Shani, his Israeli counterpart.
"I don't intend to politicize this speech, but this is the daily problem we face in the Palestinian Territory," Attili said. "We are trying to create a vibrant Palestinian state. Our state will not be vibrant if there is no water enough."
Attili detailed the challenges, the Palestinian allocations he deems inequitable, and his affirmation that water has "a humanitarian aspect" beyond political strife. "In the end of the day, it is a basic human need," Attili said.
"I am extending my hand to my friend Uri," Attili said. "Uri was a great help to me in the past year. … (It's) people like you, Uri, who can really push to resolve the conflict in the region."
"This was like he was talking to me," Shani said when the video concluded. "He was looking at me."
Attili urged a sequenced move toward increased water supplies for Palestinian use, calling for an "equitable and reasonable" share of water for the Palestinian people.
"What's holding it up?" one conference participant asked Israel's Shani.
"If I know the answer, there are Nobel Prizes for peace," he said. "The Israel Palestinian conflict is more complicated than just water. Water issues will not be the major limit to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict."
Ayman Jarrar, director general for the regulatory and water control directorates of the Palestinian Water Authority, was in Tucson for the workshop. He said the solution "needs political will from both sides, which is unfortunately not available at this time. Uri Shani, alone, he will start it yesterday, not tomorrow.
"We are suffering, and the time should come to end our suffering with regard to the water supply," Jarrar said. 'It should end. Enough is enough."
Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians share many of the same water resources, both surface and ground waters. There is not enough for everyone. Populations are growing. Some of the region's groundwater aquifers are being tainted by the lack of sewage treatment. Desalinization of Mediterranean Sea water is available, but expensive and energy-consumptive.
And drought is significant. The Middle East is in an "era of less natural water. We are in the middle of a drought," Shani said, and it's getting worse. "The trend is very clear, and we need to understand it. If we don't work on the future development of water, we don't solve anything. Demand is increasing, and the supply is decreasing, and we are left with no solution."
Aquifers are increasingly brackish. As in Arizona, underground aquifers must serve as the Middle Eastern reservoirs. "If we cannot store water in the aquifers, due to contamination, we need to increase desalinization. Groundwater is very important."
Conservation is crucial, Shani continued. Israel is using advertising to get its citizens to conserve water. One ad campaign shows a young woman's face, her image altered to make her skin crack as if mud drying due to lack of water.
"We are trying to persuade people to save water," Shani said. The ad is "frightening, but it helps." Israeli water consumption decreased 12 percent last year.
Agriculture has decreased its demand for water as well, Shani continued. Allocations to farmers are half what they were nine years ago. Loss to evaporation and leakage is about 10 percent, compared to much higher percentages elsewhere in the developed world. "We aim at 8 percent," Shani said.
Agricultural use of reclaimed water has increased. "In Israel, now, the domestic sector is the largest user of the water," Shani said. "Agriculture is much smaller."
Still, said Shani, "this is not enough." The country is educating its people about water-efficient building construction, parking lot design, even home gardening.
Jarrar said the conflict between Israeli and Palestinian leadership started "decades ago.
"We witnessed periods when there was trust between the two sides," Jarrar said. "Unfortunately, we did not take the opportunity to sign a peace agreement. I hope wise people on both sides, and the assistance of the international community, (can) start building the trust again. I am optimistic there will be trust, there will be peace in the region, because it is the region of peace."
"The challenge is not the present, it is not the past," Attili said. "The challenge (is) to make water available to the future Palestinian generations, the future Israeli generations, the future Jordanian generations. Let's just start talking about the future."
UA worked years to make event happen
The University of Arizona and its partners worked for nearly three years to put together last week's Arizona/Israeli/Palestinian Water Management and Policy Workshop, held last week in Tucson.
"This meeting is a major event for Tucson," said Sharon Megdal, director of the UW Water Resources Research Center, before the event. "We're not sure this kind of meeting could take place in the Middle East right now."
Megdal said the workshop was intended to focus on common challenges – water scarcity, agriculture and population growth – facing people in Arizona, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"We are trying to focus on what can we learn from each other, and how can we work together to develop solutions to these challenges," Megdal said.
Arizona is out of the political spotlight and in "neutral territory," as Medgal calls it. "We know that water in the Middle East is often a contentious topic," she said. "But there is so much potential for collaboration.
"The UA is a great fit for this to happen because the breadth of our expertise in water and issues related to water supplies," Megdal said. "We are assembling a diverse group of researchers. We've got legal experts. We have all of the expertise right here."
Before last Tuesday's public conversation, Ben Grumbles, new director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, thanked participants for "the scientific sharing." There are "many important keys to successful water collaborations," he said, among them the belief that "sustainable solutions transcend geographic and political boundaries."
Conference participants worked long days at the Westward Look. Tuesday night's public event, in fact, was delayed because people were late leaving the room. "It's a good thing," Megdal said.
"The thrust of it all was very positive, a lot of good exchange and communication," Megdal said. "People left the workshop feeling like it left the groundwork for future collaboration."