Science, People & Politics, issue four (March-April:24.4.06), volume i, I (2006).

Water turning the wheels of history in the Middle East

by Arie S. Issar

Professor emeritus at the Jacob Blaustein Institute for desert research
at the Ben Gurion University of The Negev



To the reader sure that 'Holey Land' is a spelling mistake I owe an explanation. The land extending from the western shore of the Mediterranean to the Jordan may be regarded as holy, not least because of the blood shed by people claiming to be appointed by the almighty to guard its holiness. Yet to the group of, mostly, secular Israeli scientists and engineers who explore and investigate the water resources of their country, the many holes which were drilled all over the country turned it holey. I am one of these. Now I like them face the task of developing my country's water water resources in a sustainable and co-operative manner with neighbouring nations, and of arguing that this task is intrinsic to successful negotiations with the Palestinian Autonomy, is crucial to the region's stability, and so is of importance for world peace.

Fights over this land and especially over mastery of the holes tapping its water started a few thousands years ago, and are recorded in the biblical stories of the fights between Abraham and, later, between his son Isaac and Abimelech the King of the Philistines (Genesis; 21:33 & 26:19). These conflicts were about the ownership of wells of water in the eastern part of the southern coastal plain, somewhere between Gaza and Beer Sheva. Such fights show how vitally important people consider such groundwater to be to their welfare. Without groundwater semi-arid countries would face an uncertain future.


Physics makes groundwater storage possible. Small rock particles around which the water flows in the pores in the subsurface form natural minute retarding dams and so reduce the flow velocity. This effect is cumulative and, under special geological conditions, may be responsible for the storage over many millenia of vast quantities of water.

Moreover this resource is spread beneath most of Israel and Palestine. That below Israel allowed the modern State to develop its water resources. Initially this was on a small scale that required a low initial investment and made possible the establishment of settlements all over the country.

The special characteristics of ground water storage are important for planning the country's future and that of its neighbours, and are important because the scarcity of water in the Middle East is one of the main stumbling blocks to a lasting peace in the region. The greenhouse effect may make this shortage worse.

Despite such gloomy realities I and others contend that water shortages with the potential to cause conflict can be avoided if experts from all fields make the effort and try a creative course of planning followed by implementation. Such talks must run in parallel with and inform political efforts to achieve peace. And if the danger of overuse and concomitant non-reversible environmental damage is to be guarded against all of this has to be developed within the context of a regional holistic plan based on hydrological investigations and economic evaluations.

What then are the natural resources available to planners?


Take first the case of Israel and the Palestinian Autonomy of Gaza and The West Bank. There are five substantial and a number of less significant sources. These extend in places to the Sinai, are replenished from Syria and impact also Egypt and Jordan.


The springs feeding the River Jordan flow from highly karstified limestone of Jurassic age and emerge from the Hermon and Anti-Lebanon ranges on the border of Lebanon and Israel. Flood waters from these rocks and the Galilee and Golan Heights help feed The Sea of Galilee (known also as Lake Tiberias or Lake Kinneret). During the years 1980-1985 the mean annual contribution of the Jordan River to the lake was about 500 million cubic metres (m.c.m.). Surface run-off and waste water contributed an additional 220 m.c.m.. The rest of the water came from direct precipitation, saline springs (65 m.c.m.) at the lake bottom (20 m.c.m.) and from the Yarmouk River (20 m.c.m.). Of the 825 m.c.m. that annually flowed into the lake, 300 were lost to evaporation, about 500 were pumped for water supply and 40 were allowed to flow out into the southern part of the Jordan River on its way to the Dead Sea.


The Mountain aquifer is built of karstic limestone and dolostone of Cenomanian and Touronian (Upper Cretaceous) age. Its water table is phreatic (no confining layers between the land surface and the water table) along the crest of the Galilee and the Ramalla-Jerusalem-Hebron anticlinoriums where the limestone and dolomite outcrop. It is confined in the foothill region where the aquifer is covered by marls and chalks of younger age. The middle part of this aquifer is divided in some regions in a marly facies, which causes its separation into two subaquifers. This effect is especially pronounced in the Galilee. The Ramall-Jerusalem-Hebron anticlinorium aquifer is recharged by direct precipitation of about 350 m.c.m. per year.

In the past the aquifer discharged to the west, north, and east through freshwater, brackish, and saline springs. The increase in water pumped from the aquifer reduced the western natural discharge to less than 50 m.c.m. of saline water; about 160 m.c.m. still flow east via springs to the Dead Sea, the valleys of Ysra'el and Jordan, southwest below the Valley of Beer Sheva, and north toward Lebanon.


The Coastal-Plain aquifer is built of Pilo-Pleistocene sand and sandstone with inter layers of loam and clay. The aquifer wedges out toward the east and is separated from the underlying formations by shales and marls of Neogene age. The ground water in this aquifer is due to recharge by local rain and backflow from irrigation. Generally, the flow is from east to west, except in over pumped areas where the direction of flow is decided by the subsurface topography of the cone of depression. In its eastern part this aquifer forms one unit and its water table is under phreatic conditions, whilst its western part is subdivided into three to four sub aquifers, and the water table of the lower aquifers is confined. Natural mean annual recharge into the aquifer amounts to about 320 m.c.m per year.


The cretaceous limestone aquiferous rocks, which build the Ramalla-Jerusalem-Hebron anticlinorium, extend beneath the Negev and Sinai. Under the Negev these rocks contain 100-200 billion cubic meters of brackish water, some 800 to 2000 mg of chloride per litre. This aquifer may be regarded as a one time reserve because the water is only partially recharged.


An additional aquifer of importance mainly for the Negev desert and Arava Rift Valley is that of the Nubian Sandstones. This aquifer underlies central and northern Sinai and extends to the Negev Desert. The aquifer is composed mainly of Paleozoic and Mesozoic sandstones. The water it contains - between 100 and 200 billion cubic metres - is brackish to saline and is a few thousands years old. The salinity of this water ranges from 500 to 5000 mg of chloride per litre. The water is fossil, like the water beneath the Sahara and parts of the Arabian peninsula.

In Israel, water from the upper part of the aquifer which is stored in sandstones of Lower Cretaceous age is pumped along the Arava Rift Valley for irrigation, mining and chemical industries. The present annual rate of pumping is about 30 m.c.m., which is only a small fraction of the aquifer?s potential. Water in the aquifer is confined, except for small areas, and is not recharged. Consequently, pumping water from the aquifer is actually water mining.

In addition to these substantial water sources there are local aquifers built of limestone and chalk of Eocene age, basalts of Neogene age, and Quaternary alluvial deposits in the intermountain and Arava rift valleys. Surface run-off is stored in small storage dams, which are usually used also to store reclaimed waste water.


The safe amounts which can be pumped from the Israeli and Gaza aquifers is about 320 m.c.m. per year. Already this aquifer is over pumped and the present pump rate exceeds what is safe by 30 percent in Israel and 50 percent in Gaza. As a result the average chloride content of the water in this aquifer has risen since the early 1970s by 3 mg of chloride per litre per year. The salinity in 1945 was 110 mg of chloride per litre, and it reached 205 mg of chloride per litre in 2002.

The other most prominent process of pollution is that of the Coastal Plain groundwater by nitrates (NO3). The increase is from an average of 10 mg/l in the 1930s to more than 50 mg/l today. In 9 percent of the bore holes it exceeds 90 mg/l. In the Gaza part of the coastal plain the situation is even worse. In 1994 around 44 per cent of the wells showed nitrate concentration higher than 90 mg/l.

As the Coastal Plain is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the process of further pollution can not be avoided. Moreover the rapid urbanization of this region causes wider and wider parts of it to be covered by impermeable concrete and asphalt, which reduces the natural recharge into this aquifer. At the same time the closure of the hydrological cycle of the coastal plain and the re-circulation of the water by pumping and irrigation, which reduces to a minimum the quantities flowing to the sea, constantly increases the salinity. Whether this process can be stopped or reversed is, in my view, doubtful.

In addition to these anthropogenic processes there looms the danger stemming from a series of years of drought and a general decrease of annual precipitation caused by the greenhouse effect. This is the conclusion reached by a series of investigations carried out by several hydrologists and climatologists, including myself, in the Mediterranean region between 1995 and 2003. My current ongoing research suggests that the decrease may reach about 30 per cent below the present annual average by 2030.



Another problem which the planners of the future water-distribution systems will face is the spacious seasonal storage capacity needed for the reclaimed waste water once this becomes an important source for agriculture. This is because the rate of supply of this resource is constant throughout the year, while the demand for irrigation is mainly during the summer. Until now the winter waste water of the Coastal plain was stored mainly underground in areas south of Tel-Aviv. The quantity treated and stored in this region is of the order magnitude of 160 m.c.m. per year and the total quantity of reclaimed wastewater utilized now in Israel is about 280 m.c.m. per year.

Additional storage capacity is needed for water from the desalination of seawater plants which, if they are to be efficient, must run continuously, and during periods of low demand the desalinated water has to be stored to be used in periods of high demand. Thus the need for more storage will require about five times more storage capacity, which in a region so densely populated is difficult and costly to allocate.

Moreover, the location of the present subsurface storage field is a distance of a few thousands meters from the sea and in an area underlain by confining layers which limits the inflow of the recharged water to the uppermost sub aquifer, causing part of the water to flow to the sea - a process which will become even more intensive when more water is stored in the aquifers.


The danger to world peace which looms because of the scarcity of water has brought to the fore many books, each of which offers some kind of solution to this conflict. These can be divided into three categories, namely technical, economic, and, what I call, the ingenuous ones.

In the first category one can put solutions which suggest either the desalination of sea and brackish water or a mega-project transporting water from the eastern Mediterranean coastal area of Turkey, to Syria and Jordan. Plans envisage two pipelines: the western line would extend 2800 km and pump 1300 m.c.m. per year to Syria, Jordan and Western Saudi Arabia; while the eastern line would cover 4000 km en route to the Persian Gulf through Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar.

Those in the second category assume that all problems can be solved once solutions are based on sound laws of economics. Here the basic approach is that water will be traded on the free market at a price determined by the ratio of supply and demand. It is difficult to argue against this approach, but traditional values in the Middle East toward land, water and family make me skeptical that such solutions can be applied.

The philosophy of the ingenuous group of solutions is that once the people of this region recognize that not solving the water problem may lead to war they will do their utmost to avoid war and reach an agreement sharing resources according to the principles set by an international arbitrary committee or jury.

A survey of the various solutions suggested either in the Master Plan Of Israel's Water Economy by Yehoshua Schwarz of TAHAL (Consulting Engineers) in 1988 as well as those commissioned by the World Bank,(Berkoff, Jeremy, A strategy for managing water in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, D.C : World Bank, 1994. xix, 72 p.) show that no consideration was given by them to possible scenarios resulting from the greenhouse effect.

My investigations in the framework of UNESCO's International Hydrological Plan, under the title of "The impact of climate variations on water management systems and related socio-economic systems", show that during all historical periods warming caused by natural events in the Levant has led to a dryer climate, causing flourishing settlements along desert margins to become ghost towns. Combining his obervation th likey consequences of the greenhouse effect means that forecasts for the future based on the records from the past would seem to be rather gloomy.


Here, though, I present hope and ideas. The execution of ideas flowing from and nurtured by brainstorming sessions by the author and colleagues internationally will have to be undertaken stage by stage, and in parallel to the peace process where they may give negotiators new ways of thinking.

This optimistic attitude is supported partly by the history of the development of the water resources of Israel. Experts repeatedly said that the country's limited water resources would be insufficient for a modern agricultural and industrial society. Innovations by water engineers, hydro-geologists and agronomists have falsified this prophecy.

It seems, too, that climate change may have a positive impact on countries influenced by the tropical and sub tropical climatic systems. This is the case for Egypt, which is dependent on the floods of the Nile. My forecast is that the greenhouse effect will cause higher flood rates in the Nile. Yet if precautions are taken in time to reduce the damage inflicted by the floods and to use the water intelligently and co-operatively with neighbours with semi-arid condition - the Sinai, Israel and the Palestinian Autonomy - then the region's future can be positive.




What is needed first is the development of a new long-term storage reservoir in the Coastal aquifer which would be owned and managed by Israeli and Palestinian authorities. According to various estimates annual agricultural water demand by the year 2020 in Israel and Palestine is expected to reach 1,540 m.c.m.. Taking into account that part of this will have to come from reclaimed sewage water, which when fully exploited in both countries may reach 650 m.c.m., and about 900 m.c.m. from natural resources there will still remain an unsatisfied annual demand of about 400 m.c.m. for agriculture.

This - 400 m.c.m. - is the shortfall when no major deterioration of the climate is forecast. Once a pessimistic forecast is adopted, the fall in the natural supply may amount to 25 - 30 per cent of the present average amount, which will result in a deficit for agricultural demand to 500 m.c.m. per year. If this forecast is correct one can not escape the conclusion that water supply from natural resources for irrigation will have to be reduced drastically by the year 2020 and during dry years may need to be cut totally. At the same time a major part of the urban demand of the Israeli and Palestinian population will have to be met by the desalination of brackish water and of seawater. It is beyond the scope of the present paper to deal with this issue and my opinion is that any forecast is debatable, because it involves too many variables of a political and socio-economic nature. One can only hypothesize that because of the relatively high income per capita in Israel a big portion of the supply for the urban sector will have to depend on desalinated water. At the same time the increase of demand for agriculture will be mainly by the Palestinian population and for this purpose the use of reclaimed sewage will increase. Taking these general assumptions into consideration the two main problems that will have to be dealt with are: the storage of surplus of water during years when precipitation will be above the average; and the storage of reclaimed sewage during the winter months when supply exceeds the seasonal demand for irrigation.

Examining the various aquifers from the point of view of storage it seems clear that the greatest potential for further augmentation of storage is in the Coastal Plain. This is because the sandstone layers from which this aquifer is built results in a relatively low flow rate of 1 metre per day and thus the water has a longer residence time in the aquifer.

Another fact which has to be taken into consideration is that in the eastern part of the Coastal Plain a large volume of this aquifer is as yet unsaturated and this volume can be recharged and filled artificially and be utilized for additional storage. In future five times as much storage will be needed as exists today. Rebalancing of the storage locations in this aquifer from west to east would take political trust, but if that could be fostered and differences set aside then planning and implementing such a policy on the basis of increased water storage in the east would offer the best hope for the occupants of Israel and Palestine. And it would do so taking intelligent account of the current differences in agricultural and industrial stages of development of the two peoples, whilst allowing for future development.

Today, water storage is carried out beneath a densely populated region where the demand for and cost of land is increasing. Moreover treated sewage is presently stored beneath the central Coastal Plain (the Shafdan) in a location close to the sea. This is an area underlain by confining layers, which limits the inflow of the recharged water to the deeper aquifer and causes water to flow to the sea. If the proximity to the sea remains once the quantity stored is increased these losses will become even more pronounced.

Taking these basic assumptions about desalination and agricultural use into consideration as well as the hydrogeological characteristics of the Coastal Plain then only if the Israeli and the Palestinian authorities collaborate they will be able to close the gap between water availability and demand.

The Coastal Plain aquifer would have to become the conjoint storage for Israel and the Palestinian Autonomy. Once the recharge of reclaimed sewage and storage areas shifts from the western to the eastern region of the aquifer it will be possible to recharge and store also the flood water coming from the Palestinian territory. Israel would have to rethink where it stores reclaimed sewage and floodwater. The relocation of primary storage sources is needed because of the paleo-environmental conditions which existed during the Quaternary period which means that natural sites for storage dams are very rare in the central and western parts of the Coastal Plain. In other words need and geology argue that the best places for storage and later gradual recharge of stored water is in the eastern parts of this region close to the foothills of the Ramalla-Jerusalem-Hebron anticlinoriums. This plan would enable recovery of the over pumped aquifer of Gaza. But this can only be done if the gap between supply and demand in the Gaza is supplied by the water stored in Israel: water both for drinking purposes and reclaimed sewage for irrigation.

If all these projects were accomplished the total quantity of water recharged annually to the Coastal Plain would be about 600 m.c.m. The quality of this water supply would be as follows: one-third locally recharged from precipitation and returning irrigation water, and would contain roughly 300 milligrams per litre of chloride; another third coming from the Jordan River would contain about 100 milligrams per liter of chloride; and one third would come from reclaimed waste water and would contain an average of 400 milligrams per liter of chloride. This would eventually combine to give an average water quality of about 270 milligrams per litre of chloride. These levels will not be uniform all over the Coastal Plain. Differences due to local conditions might be 10% below or above this average. The nitrate content would then depend on decisions regarding the treatment processes. Nitrate content is not a constraint if the water is not intended for drinking.

The reclaimed sewage will be recharged in the eastern part of the Coastal Plain, enabling filtration as well as a sufficient interval of storage time for reclaimed sewage to mix with the natural, cleaner water of this aquifer. These filtration and dilution processes will eliminate pathogens. This conceptual model takes into consideration the re-routing of part of the flow of the Jordan River, diverting it above the Sea of Galilee at about 100 meters above sea level (the original plan for the National Water Carrier). This will enable the use of the Sea of Galilee as storage for Yarmouk River floodwater instead. This would help Jordan store water for its Jordan Valley agriculture without the need for a big dam on the Yarmouk River.


A series of problems related to the more technical aspects of recharge calls for interdisciplinary brain-storming, in which geologists, environmentalists, water engineers and economists attempt to devise solutions to problems of recharge in a region with a very high population density. A special emphasize has to be put on the reclamation and storage of water from built up and paved urban areas, either by the development of porous concrete and asphalt, or by devices to collect run-off.

The brainstorming team will need to examine the planners' assumption that it is best to maintain one general-purpose water supply system in urban areas. The human ingestion of water comprises only about 10 percent of the total water consumption of a modern household. This brings up the question of whether it is sensible to maintain at a drinking quality level the water in the Coastal plain aquifer from which most municipalities get their supply. If this constraint were eliminated the flexibility of storage and management options for this aquifer would expand. Innovative approaches would be needed assure separate supplies of drinking and non potable water. One possible solution is the installation of local de-salination plant, either on a township scale or even units for an apartment.


Studies by myself and colleagues between 1973 and today have shown that a few hundred million cubic meters per year may be pumped out from the Judean Limestone and Nubian Sandstone aquifers underlying the Negev and Sinai. This pumping is guaranteed for at least the coming two centuries. The actual quantity and duration would be a function of the management policies and various economic factors. In principal, however, such a project is technically feasible, and the water is of adequate quality. Although this water source is not replenished, it may be regarded as any other non-replenishable resource (e.g. oil, coal, and iron ore). In other words, the evaluation of whether or not to use it should be based on long term economic considerations. The water may be used in the region of the Negev Desert to the Beer Sheva Plain as a replacement for industry's non-potable water needs.


The twenty-first century is going to be different in many aspects from the twentieth. It will bring with it a different climate, which will most probably have an impact on the hydrological cycle. At the same time the new century will make evident the unfurling of the Information Age. Most probably the results will be to promote the trend started already in Israel in which income from high-tech industries replaces that from agriculture in the national economy. This will further the trend of increasing urbanization and consequently of increasing urban demand for water. Only a few science fiction writers have previously envisaged such dramatic changes.

Such challenges can be met only by an enlightened population enjoying a modern system of education and interested in securing the future of their descendents on earth rather than in heaven. The prayers of rabbis, mullhas or priests cannot accomplish what needs to be done. What are needed are freethinking scientists, engineers, politicians and planners. The ratio between the number of the first group and the second will decide the future of this region and, quite possibly, the world.

This essay may be printed for scholarly purposes. Please acknowledge author and publication. Water and World Affairs, comprising mainly this essay, with first and second editions, is deposited with and is now catalogued by the British Library. A hand made softback copy of the second edition made to order may be ordered directly from the publisher. Price £12 including post and packaging. A bibliography is available directly from the author.

Arie Issars' voice is a respected one in international hydrogeology. It has won him awards and
international plaudits such as the Prize of the President of the International Association of Hydrogeologists for Outstanding international Contributions toward the Advancement of Hydrogeology in 2003. He held the chair in Hydrogeology of Arid Zones at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev between 1980 and 1998.

Issar's current research focuses on the impact of climate change on the hydrological cycle and socio-economic s ystems and on developing conceptual models in order to mitigate the negative impact of global change on the water resources of the Middle East, including long term policies of sustainable development of the fossil aquifers of the region.

In other words he has the knowledge needed to promote his aspiration of a rational solution to the Middle East's water problems.

He also has the personal background that gives him insight from within as to the human cost of not solving problems rationally and into the passions that compete with rationality.

He was born in Jerusalem in 1928. His family had emigrated from Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. By being ill with mumps rather than staying with friends of his family he avoided being massacred during the Palestinian riots of 1929. Thirteen years later at the age of 14 - in 1942 - he joined the Zionist movement that wished to see Jews no longer dependent on a host nation for their security. Many of his friends were killed, wounded or became prisoners of war of Trans Jordan.

Times have moved on and the balance of power has shifted. Issar's argument now is that by recognising the common need for well managed water and the dire consequences of not managing that water it might be possible to make progress in peace talks.

As an Israeli he has been an active soldier in some of the defining conflicts of the twentieth century, but spirituality and a yearning for rationality perfuses his work.

I would like to thank Susan Watt for her editing suggestions and her critique of this piece. See http://www.sciencepeopleandpolitics.com/sppwatt.html.
Editor, Helen Gavaghan.

When the magazine first published this article on line, the article had the following introduction by myself, the edutor.
Introduction Beyond politics there is science --- not scientists, but science, in the sense of incontrovertible hard facts that cannot be altered no matter how much passion and intellect is spent on their denial. The sea is the sea and a mountain is a mountain. Not for ever but for the moment one sees them. Facts are not easy to recognise. It can be argued that a fact ceases to be a fact when one steps back and sees a bigger picture. Then it becomes an interpretation of a limited data set. Or another fact becomes known which, whilst not altering the first fact nevertheless changes its significance or its meaning in the context of a greater whole. In the article that follows Arie Issar strives to give cold hard geological realities. Those that would exist without differing levels of education, industrial and agricultural capacity, opposing faiths or political systems. Cold hard fact that exists whether people trust one another and work together or believe one another or not. It is those, he argues, which must be the bedrock of the political process and of negotiations for any kind of peace or land usage or development in the Middle East.


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