“The Middle East is drying up,” says Osnat Gillor, a professor at the Zuckerberg Institute who studies the use of recycled wastewater on crops. “The only country that isn’t suffering acute water stress is Israel.”
That water stress has been a major factor in the turmoil tearing apart the Middle East, but Bar-Zeev believes that Israel’s solutions can help its parched neighbors, too — and in the process, bring together old enemies in common cause.
Bar-Zeev acknowledges that water will likely be a source of conflict in the Middle East in the future. “But I believe water can be a bridge, through joint ventures,” he says. “And one of those ventures is desalination.”
Driven to Desperation
In 2008, Israel teetered on the edge of catastrophe. A decade-long drought had scorched the Fertile Crescent, and Israel’s largest source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, had dropped to within inches of the “black line” at which irreversible salt infiltration would flood the lake and ruin it forever. Water restrictions were imposed, and many farmers lost a year’s crops.
Their counterparts in Syria fared much worse. As the drought intensified and the water table plunged, Syria’s farmers chased it, drilling wells 100, 200, then 500 meters (300, 700, then 1,600 feet) down in a literal race to the bottom. Eventually, the wells ran dry and Syria’s farmland collapsed in an epic dust storm. More than a million farmers joined massive shantytowns on the outskirts of Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and other cities in a futile attempt to find work and purpose.
The Ashkelon plant, in 2005, provided 127 million cubic meters (166 million cubic yards) of water. Hadera, in 2009, put out another 140 million cubic meters (183 million cubic yards). And now Sorek, 150 million cubic meters (196 million cubic yards). All told, desal plants can provide some 600 million cubic meters (785 million cubic yards) of water a year, and more are on the way.
The Sea of Galilee is fuller. Israel’s farms are thriving. And the country faces a previously unfathomable question: What to do with its extra water?