The Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, along with nine other other campus organizations, held a conference on water in the Middle East and Africa on May 7 at the Faculty Center. Dozens of students, faculty, industry professionals and even several foreign dignitaries attended the day-long event.
The program consisted of three expert panels on food security, health and environment and hydropolitics. Each panelist gave a 20-minute presentation on his or her research, followed by questions from the moderator and the audience.
Dr. Rita Colwell, a professor at the University of Maryland, gave a keynote address entitled “Climate Change, Oceans, and Human Health.”
The first speaker of the day started off with a rather patriotic opening slide, with a big animated Israeli flag covering most of the screen. Professor Eilon Adar spoke with pride about Israel’s achievements in water use efficiency, both from technological and policy standpoint.
Adar, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, spoke about seeing a flood irrigation system in Arizona. He observed that in the U.S., farmers are allowed to use as much water as they like because they own the subsurface water rights beneath their farms. However, Adar said, groundwater does not recognize boundaries between farms any more than it does boundaries between countries. If the upstream farmer wastes water, there will be none left for the downstream farmers. By treating water as a national commodity, Adar noted, Israel is able to encourage efficient irrigation.
Drip irrigation, invented in Israel, is the most water-efficient method of irrigation that is widely used throughout the world. The latest development in drip irrigation, Adar said, is the ability to irrigate just the root zone, the part of the soil near plants’ roots, so the upper soil remains dry. This slows evaporation, and it also prevents weeds from growing in the dry upper soil.
One of the goals of the conference was to start conversations between people working in different countries to collaborate on solving water resource problems. In addition to the Middle East and Africa, the topics discussed at the conference may be helpful for addressing water issues in the western U.S. For example, evaporation losses from uncovered reservoirs and aqueducts are responsible for billions of gallons of lost water annually in California.
Facing a similar, arid climate, Israel covers its reservoirs to prevent evaporation. The latest method to slow evaporation loss involves white plastic balls floating on top of the water. The presence of the balls cools the water surface by several degrees C, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in evaporation loss compared to an uncovered reservoir. California recently tried a similar tactic, dropping millions of small plastic balls into the Los Angeles Reservoir in 2015.
Of course, the conference was not only about Israel. While the three Israeli professors spoke about Israel, the other six panelists spoke about water issues in Africa and in the Middle East more generally. Professor Hussein Amery, who has authored two books on water security in the Middle East, spoke about how drought in Syria created more than a million refugees, contributing to the political instability that led to the current civil war. The refugees affect neighboring countries, as well. In Lebanon, for example, about 20 percent of the population is now Syrian refugees, Amery said.
There was some hopeful news for the Middle East: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are collaborating on a project to restore the Dead Sea, which has been losing water as fast as 1 meter per year. Dr. Doron Markel, head of monitoring and management of Lake Kinneret in Israel, presented the results of a feasibility study for pumping water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to raise Dead Sea water levels. The project would cost $10 billion dollars and take many years to implement, but the study found that the restoration could be done without destroying the ecosystems of either body of water.
The African Studies Center, Center for International Migration, Luskin Center, the Center for Middle East Development, the Anderson School of Management, the Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Water and Technology Research Center, the Water Resources Group and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science co-sponsored the event, along with the Nazarian Center. The diversity of sponsors reflected the universal importance of water as a resource, Professor Yoram Cohen said in his opening address.