Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Dead Sea and the Water Crisis

   We drove along the coast of the Dead Sea.
   ‘What was all the checkpoint stuff about?’
   ‘Security. That’s Palestine over there across the water. And Israel. So Jordanian security here is tighter than usual.’
   ‘I thought you were at peace with the Israelis.’
   She looked askance at me, an eyebrow raised. ‘Jordan is.’
   We passed a tall, square metal tower overlooking the flat expanse of lifeless water. I gestured toward it and asked,  ‘Lifeguard?’
   ‘Gun position. They’re not usually manned these days, but when they are they turn the guns away to face inland. So does the other side. Peace, you see?’
Olives, Page 57

It wasn’t until the ‘noughties’ the gun positions on the Dead Sea were turned to face symbolically away from Israel. These days there aren’t even guns on the towers, but there are still military checkpoints as you drive down to the Sea, the remarkable expanse of super-saline water four hundred metres below sea level.

The Dead Sea is almost miraculous, a great expanse of water so saline you just float around in it, a meniscus of mineral oil floating on the surface. You really don't want to shave just before going in, I can tell you from bitter experience. The Jordanian side of the sea is home to a cluster of resort hotels, my personal favourite being the Movenpick Dead Sea. Further down the coast from Amman, the road snakes back up the escarpment, giving a view of the extensive moonscape created by the potash extraction operation, at one time Jordan's principle source of income - the country has never been a wealthy one. At the top you'll find the town of Kerak, home to a great crusader castle - and one of many places where TE Lawrence reported spirited gun battles with the Turks.

But the Dead Sea is under threat. The constant draining of the Jordan has reduced the river to a fragment of its former self and so the Dead Sea is literally dying, its levels slowly dropping to the point where you can actually see moorings something like thirty feet up in the cliffs around the current sea. There has been extensive discussion of remediation measures, including the 'Red Dead' project which would see Jordanian/Israeli co-operation to pipe salt water from the Red Sea.

A similarly visionary scheme is actually under way, seeing water pipes laid from Wadi Rumm right up through to Amman, one of the measures being taken to try and address the very real water crisis Jordan faces - the very water crisis that forms the backdrop to Olives, in fact. Jordan is actually the world's fourth most water challenged country.

In Olives, Daoud’s preoccupation with the water shortage is founded squarely in the story of the regional conflicts born out of 1948 – the Levant (Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Israel, although the term ‘the Levant usually refers to the Arab countries of the Western Mediterranean) is desperately short of water. Israel’s annexation of the Sea of Galilee (known as Lake Tiberius on the Arab side) in the 1967 war (the ‘six day war’) ensured a major source of precious water for Israel – fed by rivers and aquifers from surrounding Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Part of the background to Pauls’ dilemma in Olives is that the book's Daoud Dajani is a wealthy Arab businessman with major business interests and connections across the region who is mounting a bid for the forthcoming privatisation of the Jordanian water network. Daoud’s consortium is being opposed by a British-led consortium which is focusing its bid on conservation and efficient distribution. Daoud’s bid is based on a brilliant and dangerous scheme – to tap the deep seasonal aquifers feeding Lake Tiberius, bringing more water to Jordan at Israel’s expense. Worse, by depleting the fresh water supply into Tiberius, he will ensure the remaining water is more saline – saltier and therefore less suitable for agriculture and drinking water.

Daoud’s bid obviously cannot be tolerated by the Israelis and unites both Israeli and British interests. The question Paul has to resolve is whether Daoud is a businessman acting within the law and meeting unlawful state-sponsored opposition to his brilliant scheme to benefit Jordan or whether he is a fanatic hell-bent on flinging the region into war.

“There can be no peace without resolving water problems and vice versa... it is water that will decide the future of the Occupied Territories and, what is more, whether there is peace or war. If the crisis is not resolved, the result will be a greater probability of conflict between Jordan and Israel, which would certainly involve other Arab countries.”
Jacques Sironneau, quoted in the NATO 2002 Report, ‘Water Resources in the Mediterranean. 

The battle to secure supplies of ‘the universal solvent’ in the Eastern Mediterranean is insoluble. There are too many people living off the land, distribution networks are often creaky and wasteful and the struggle to gain control of resources is constant.

The research on the water crisis that forms the backdrop to Olives is solid – there is, indeed, a major humanitarian crisis brewing in the area and Israel has indeed annexed a large number of water sources by constructing its security wall to encompass them, carving strategic tracts of land from the ‘1967 border’. Each twist and turn of the wall is a bargaining chip at best, a fait accompli at worst. Carving farms in half (as, indeed, the Dajani’s farm in Qaffin has been carved), the wall makes the most of the scant water resources in the West Bank. The source of Lake Tiberius’ wealth (or the Sea of Galilee) is, as outlined in Olives, a mixture of rivers flowing down from Syria and Lebanon and aquifers that rise up into the bed of the lake. According to NATO, 90% of the West Bank’s water is used by Israel and the distribution of water in the area is ‘unfair’ and ‘restrictive’.
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