Pundits have warned for decades that water — or the scarcity thereof — may be the issue that brings the Middle East to the brink of war, more than ideology or territory. Israel, Jordan, and Syria and the Palestinians are united by common, fast-disappearing sources of water, and a desire to control those sources.
Aaron Wolf, a professor in the department of geosciences at Oregon State University who spent his childhood in California and Israel, spends his time thinking about water scarcity, applying a conflict resolution model to water issues. His doctoral research focused on the Jordan River’s role as “a flashpoint and a vehicle for dialogue,” and is the author of a new, “dry” book, “Managing and Transforming AHA Water Conflicts (Cambridge University Press).”
Q: Water problems — fights over wells — are as old as the Bible. What’s changed in 5,000 years?
A: In a way, not much. We still have a tendency to compete over water, there’s still too many people and too much need for water resources.
Will Israel and its Arab neighbors make war or peace because of water?
Water has certainly been an underlying subtext in the Arab-Israeli conflict; it has helped define the shape of the political boundaries – but has also been an excuse for conversation. This goes back to the 1950s; either implicitly or explicitly there have been negotiations and accommodation over shared water resources, even as terrific tensions and conflict were happening over other issues.
Experts have been predicting for years that the water supply in the Middle East is drying up. Is the situation getting worse?
The amount of water doesn’t change. The amount of water we have now is basically that same amount we’ve had since time immemorial. What has changed is that our needs are going up. Populations go up, economies require more and more water, and the water that we have we pollute more.
Israel’s hydrological focus is in the Dead Sea. How close is the Dead Sea to really dying?
The Dead Sea has always been dead. Ecologically, there’s not much of an eco-system there. What’s been happening because both Israel and Jordan have been diverting water upstream, the level of the Dead Sea’s been dropping. It will never entirely disappear. More serious is the health of the Jordan River Valley.
How does an academic from the Northwest get so interested in water problems of the Middle East?
I grew up in San Francisco primarily, where water is also subject to politics. I went back and forth to Israel several times; there it was much clearer, a sub-issue in the [regional] conflict. As I got more and more involved in the Middle East, it became clearer and clearer that this was a new and better way to talk about politics. If we focus on the tangible issues, like water, we are often able to find creative solutions.
Jews in shul pray for rain every year at the end of Succot. Is that the answer?
I think all we do, we do with God’s help. Praying for rain, praying for peace, praying for a healthy planet are all noble causes.