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Date: March 2, 1999
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Middle East Should Preserve Ecosystems
To Maintain Adequate Water Resources

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority should work together to preserve aquatic ecosystems in the region to ensure that an adequate supply of fresh, high-quality water is available for future generations, says a new report resulting from a groundbreaking collaboration of scientists from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the United States, and Canada. Without these natural ecosystems, it will be extremely difficult and expensive to sustain high-quality water supplies.

"Freshwater supplies in the Middle East now are barely sufficient to maintain a quality standard of living," said Gilbert White, chair of the study committee and professor emeritus of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "As the population in this region continues to grow and economic development increases, water supplies will be strained even further. Fortunately, there are many tested, effective measures available for conserving and protecting water and its sources. These countries must work together to ensure that ecosystems are preserved and adequate water supplies are sustained, not only for the near term, but also for generations to come. "

The study was a joint activity between the U.S. National Research Council -- the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and Institute of Medicine; the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; the Palestine Academy for Science and Technology; and the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan. In this first collaborative activity of the scientific societies, the problem of sustaining freshwater resources was identified as one of the most pressing concerns facing the Middle East. A committee of scientists -- most from the region -- with expertise in hydrology, the environment, technology, and water policy was appointed to examine the issues and provide guidance. The committee reached unanimous consensus on the report, which also was extensively reviewed by independent scientists and experts on water management.

Approximately 12 million people live in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- the area identified for study by the Academies. Although it is difficult to predict future growth rates, the population in the region currently is increasing by an average of 3 percent or more each year. The region is largely arid and receives less than 250 millimeters of rainfall annually, typical for a desert climate. But total water use was estimated to be about 3,183 million cubic meters in 1994, and has been increasing steadily as economic and agricultural development continues. This increased water use, the committee said, guarantees that "the area's inhabitants will almost assuredly live under conditions of significant water stress in the near future."

Many important sources of high-quality water in the region are deteriorating with encroaching urban development and agricultural use, the committee said. Some 97 percent of the region's wetlands -- important for purifying water and minimizing damage from floods -- have been drained to support human activity. Ponds have been drained to provide more land for development. And rivers, aquifers, lakes, and streams are being polluted with runoff containing fertilizers and pesticides.

Preserving natural ecosystems is essential to the future availability of fresh water in the region, the committee said. Vegetation helps to control runoff, filter water, and reduce erosion and the amount of sediment that makes its way into water supplies. Streams assimilate waste water, lakes store clean water, and surface waters provide habitat for many plants and animals. Without these natural ecosystems, it would be extremely difficult and expensive to sustain high-quality water supplies.

The Jordan River basin should be evaluated as a whole to examine the effects of water management options on wetlands, lakes, the lower river, and the Dead Sea coasts, the committee said. Damage to ecosystems and loss of animal and plant species should be weighed against potential benefits of developing land and creating new water resources. For example, large river-management projects that divert water to dry areas have promoted intensive year-round agriculture and urban development, but available river water is declining and becoming increasingly polluted. Water managers should take stock of renewable water resources that might be lost if land is developed, and identify precise objectives for maintaining water-dependent ecosystems.

Priorities for Development

In addition to preserving ecosystems, the committee identified four other priorities that guided its analysis. These priorities should be used by scientists and policy-makers for maintaining water resources:

A regional approach should be taken in water resources development. Such an approach would ensure that the possible consequences of water policies are anticipated and examined. For example, before tapping into ground water that underlies Israel and the West Bank, water managers across the region should first plan the location of wells to enhance efficient and equitable water distribution.

In addition, scientists should work together to acquire regional data on water availability and use, monitor the quantity and quality of water consistently, and openly exchange research on water science. Because of historical and political constraints, data on population, hydrology, and economic conditions often have been difficult to collect and analyze in a consistent matter. This information is critical for making informed decisions about how water should be used and managed in the region.

Water quality and quantity are interdependent and should be considered equally important. Maintaining water quality ensures that enough water is available for almost any use. If water quality continues to deteriorate, then it will be unsuitable for many purposes and total freshwater supplies will decline.

The needs of future generations should be taken into account. Managers should explore a variety of measures to ensure that adequate water supplies will be available, such as monitoring water quality, assessing long-term implications of various water projects, and maintaining investments in dams, sewage treatment plants, and water systems.

Water resources managers in the region should jointly examine all options before taking action. Attempting to meet current demands solely by withdrawing more and more ground and surface water could result in widespread environmental degradation and depletion of freshwater resources.

Options for Water Use

Several criteria should be considered in evaluating water use options, the committee said, such as ability to enhance available water supplies, impact on the environment, technological soundness, and cost.

The committee examined an extensive array of possibilities for more efficient water use. Most of these involve better use of existing technologies. Innovative new technologies also should be explored cooperatively, but more research is needed before they are ready for large-scale application.

Conserving existing water supplies is an essential component in water resources management, the committee said. Water use can be reduced through repairing leaks in distribution and sewer systems, metering water connections, rationing, and recycling. Voluntary measures include installing water-saving plumbing fixtures in showerheads, toilets, and washing machines; and limiting lawn and garden watering to restricted periods.

The role of the agricultural sector -- the biggest user of water in the region -- may need to be reevaluated as nonagricultural demand increases and the cost of additional water supplies grows more expensive, the committee said. Conservation efforts should be continued and expanded. For example, by adapting modern farming techniques such as computer-controlled drip irrigation methods and improved hybrid seeds and seedlings, farmers in the West Bank were gradually able to increase land use by 60 percent and irrigate nearly 10 times the land area with the same amount of water. To improve conservation, farmers can harvest local runoff and floodwaters to increase water supplies. Water loss through evaporation could be reduced by planting many crops close together in controlled environments. Abundant brackish water could be used to irrigate some crops such as tomatoes and melons, and using treated waste water for subsurface irrigation might dramatically increase production.

Moreover, policies that emphasize economic efficiency and reduce overall water use send signals to consumers about the true cost of water. Charging higher rates for water use in peak periods and surcharges for excessive use would encourage conservation.

In addition to conserving available water supplies, new sources of fresh water also will probably be needed. Additional water can be obtained by using watershed management techniques and capturing rainfall through rooftop cisterns, catchment systems, and storage ponds. Reusing waste water, importing water, and using desalination technologies are other options.

The project was funded by the Casey Program Fund, the Arthur Day Program Fund, and the National Research Council Fund. The U.S. National Research Council, National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine are private, non-profit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Water for the Future: The West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, and Jordan for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).


Committee on Sustainable Water Supplies for the Middle East