Ramzi El Houry

Desalination can have significant repercussions on the environment, and much of those are not fully understood yet.

Regional water politics has once again featured Israel, this time with South Sudan, where Israel Military Industries Ltd., on behalf of the Israeli government, signed an agreement with the South Sudanese government to provide the latter with water infrastructure and technology development. The two countries agreed to co-operate on areas of desalination, irrigation, water transport and purification.

It would appear that one of the strategic advantages for Israel in pursuing such a deal, aside from a potential oil deal, is to be able to play a part in the hydro-politics of the Nile, creating a potential point of leverage over Egypt. Israel clearly has much to offer within the water infrastructure and technology sectors. And it leads one to ask questions about how the strides Israel has taken domestically in areas such as desalination will impact the Israel-Palestine water issue.

In my previous Al Jazeera op-ed, I argued that the realities on the ground concerning the water issue necessitated a one-state solution, if there is to be a just and equitable resolution to the situation. Yet some posed the suggestion that Israel’s highly ambitious desalination master plan, largely enabled by the discovery and exploitation of substantial gas reserves off the coast of Israel can potentially remove the water issue from the list of major stumbling blocks to attaining equitable terms for peace within a two-state framework.
The Middle East’s water war

Aggressive desalination project

Israel has indeed been pursuing an aggressive desalination project. With the aim of providing around 600 million cubic metres/ year (MCM/yr) through desalinated seawater by 2015, Israel has constructed three major desalination plants, with a fourth and fifth slated for completion in 2013. The Hadera plant, completed in 2010, has a present capacity of around 130 MCM/yr, making it the largest reverse osmosis plant in the world. The Sodek plant that is to be completed next year will surpass Hadera with a capacity of 150 MCM/yr.

In all, desalination should provide 22.5 per cent of all potable water demand by 2015. And in the long term, between the years 2040 and 2050, Israel has plans to invest around $15bn to reach a capacity of 1.75 billion cubic meters/ year and provide 41 per cent of Israel’s potable water demand. Such ambitious targets are not unrealistic for Israel. They have been pioneers in the water sector for decades. Attributable to them is drip irrigation technology, a method for irrigating crops that uses dramatically less water than the traditional flood irrigation method.

Israel also treats the vast majority of their wastewater and effluent, using 80 per cent of it for agriculture, by far the highest in the world. And in desalination, the Israelis have largely pioneered reverse osmosis technology, a method that is environmentally cleaner and less fuel intensive than the traditional multi-stage flash method. With recent discoveries of offshore natural gas fields, the prospect of running these desalination plants become both more feasible and more secure.

But even with Israel meeting these ambitious targets, the notion that this will allow for any change vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the ongoing exploitation of their water resources is highly unlikely. There are several reasons this is the case:

For one, desalination is simply too expensive and even in the long term the most it can do is cover Israel’s growing demand, rather than eat away at the share of natural resources that Israelis consume. Israel uses about 40 MCM/yr more than the natural replenishment rate of the ground and surface water they exploit, and it is assumed this will continue into 2020 despite the construction of more desalination plants, as population and economic growth will offset the increase in capacity.

In the short and medium term, desalination can only supplement existing sources and allow for Israel to meet demand in times of drought, which are becoming more frequent with climate change. Anything in excess will likely be used to rehabilitate existing aquifers and lakes, rather than replace them as a source. Many experts have already pointed out that far more effective, immediate and economically feasible results can be attained by tackling consumer demand, improving wastewater use and improving infrastructure such as leaking.

Repercussions on the environment
Gulf desalination plants harming the seas

There are also environmental considerations that need to be taken into account by the Israelis. Desalination can have significant repercussions on the environment, and much of those repercussions are not fully understood yet. What is known is that desalination plants, even those that use reverse osmosis, emit high levels of air pollution and greenhouse gases, can potentially damage marine life with the discharge of brine and residual salt back into the sea and can damage valuable coastal land areas.

As environmental awareness grows and the ramifications of marine and air pollution are better understood, we can expect some sort of backlash from the population that may limit the extent to which the Israelis will turn to desalination.

Furthermore, greater reliance on desalination presents security risks that Israel is unlikely to overlook. Relying heavily on such massive structures that are vulnerable to attack decreases the likelihood they will be allowed to become the main or only source of freshwater.

And lastly, greater desalination capacity will not cause the Israelis to alter the status quo vis-a-vis the Palestinians for one key reason; Israel does not have to. The leverage that the Palestinians and their advocates in the region and around the world have over Israel’s water policy is unfortunately minimal. And even the soft power that is exerted by NGOs, activists, and even governments rarely translate into any shift in policy by the Israelis.

Like most states, Israel subjects itself to the tenets of power politics, and one can assume Israel would not voluntarily give up the hegemonic position it enjoys over its neighbours’ resources, even if it did begin utilising alternate sources. The growing uncertainties in Syria and Lebanon make this even more unlikely, as both countries are riparians to Israel. Ironically in fact, Israel may find its negotiating position weakened on the water issue the more its desalination capacity grows and the reasons for restricting Palestinians’ access to water becomes more blatant and less justified.

This logic can possibly explain why Israel has ardently supported plans for a desalination plant in Gaza. Not only would this undercut Palestinian claims to their aquifers, it would also make Gazans even more vulnerable to Israel, as the Israelis have a notorious history of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in the area.

And so considering all these factors, I see no reason to assume that in the coming decades gas and desalination will play a role significant enough to reduce Israeli dependence on water originating in Palestine, and the issue will continue to be one of the many barriers to achieving a just two-state solution.

Ramzi El Houry is a PhD candidate at Freie University in Berlin. He is currently based in Kuwait as an Adjunct Professor and Programme Coordinator for the Centre for Gulf Studies at the American University of Kuwait.

Follow him on Twitter: @RamziHoury


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.