Helena Flusfeder reports from Jerusalem on cooperation and conflict in the region. By the year 2000, water, not oil, will be the most precious resource in the Middle East, according to a group of experts cooperating on a water research project at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.
Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli scientists are working on the project to develop new methods for treating urban waste water so that it can be used for irrigation in this water-scarce region.
The research, which was launched a year and a half ago, was financed by a philanthropic foundation in Israel (which prefers to remain anonymous), approved by Jordan's King Hussein and coordinated by the Technion's Water Research Institute. Working groups of Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli researchers have already met twice to discuss the programme - in Amman and at the Technion.
"Water has always been a vital issue in the Middle East. Although achievements in water development and use have been among Israel's hallmarks, the country today, along with its neighbours, faces a water crisis of serious proportions. This crisis has deepened in the past decade, regardless of the amount of rainfall," said Uri Shamir, a water expert at the Technion and director of its Water Research Institute. He has been playing an active role in the negotiations between Israel and its neighbours on the issue of water.
"Nearly all renewable water resources are already being used and experts estimate that within two decades, Israel will have to develop an additional amount of several hundred million cubic metres per year to meet its water needs. Other countries, especially Jordan, are facing a similar situation. Israel and the world need to look to science, technology and research to manage water - the earth's most precious resource - and develop new sources," Professor Shamir said.
The project was launched after the philanthropic foundation proposed a Jordanian-Israeli project to Jordan's King Hussein and Crown Prince Hassan, and Professor Shamir suggested bringing in the Palestinian Water Authority. The scheme recently received Pounds 150,000 from the proceeds of an evening in London sponsored by the British Technion Society, where King Hussein was awarded the Churchill Award for his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
Research on the project includes developing technologies for treating waste water for re-use in agriculture; irrigation with saline and brackish water; and the desalination of sea water and brackish ground water.
"We need to treat the waste water before disposing of it," Professor Shamir said. "Municipalities are bound to treat the waste water to levels which allow safe disposal into the environment . . . into the sea, rivers, lakes or return it for re-use. In water-deprived countries, such as in the Middle East, waste water should be re-used in agriculture."
Special technologies have to be developed for the treatment of waste water, especially for small communities (of between 2,000 and 20,000 people), where the methods should be cheap and easy to operate and the recycled water is used for non-edible cash crops such as cotton.
Professor Shamir said that a full-scale desalination project requires "mega-bucks," but work will have to "start at a more realistic level, with labs that utilise our existing facilities."
He compared this project to other international research cooperation schemes, saying that specifics are often influenced by politics, and progress is usually slower than when all the researchers are from one country. "During the closure of the territories, the Palestinians couldn't meet. It sometimes takes longer to cooperate because of a difference in interests, in backgrounds. We are very careful to arrange the project so that everyone can contribute and everyone can benefit."
"The intention is to divide the work so that each person will work according to their strengths. Given the will to cooperate, the mode of cooperation is evident," he added.
This seems to be the case on all sides. Marwan Haddad, a professor of environmental engineering at An-Najah University in Nablus, who represents the Palestine Water Authority in the joint meetings, said: "We encourage such activity. There is a great need for the partners to meet, to discuss the problem, to do joint work."
He is interested in the technology transfer between the three partners in order to solve the local water problems and says they would like to consolidate this in practice. Despite the fact that the project has been going for a year and a half, it is basically still on paper, according to Professor Haddad. He added: "If you invest in peace, you get peace. Peace is not only security, it is socio-economics."