for National Geographic News
Desalination has long been considered the technological holy grail in the Holy Land's water shortage crisis, but regional experts say relying on this solution is not quite so clean-cut.
Energy-intensive desalination plants, which turn salt water into fresh water, could create more problems for Israel, experts warn. A diverse, long-term water treatment and management plan is the only way to guard against dwindling supplies and increasing tensions, said Israeli and Palestinian analysts at a recent water conference in Amman, Jordan.
More than ten million Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in one of the most densely populated areas of the planet. And their water is running out, due to pollution and drought.
Just two main aquifers and one river system provide for Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. The Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)-Jordan River system is also tapped by Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. (See also "Water Deal Elemental to Mideast Peace, Experts Say" [June 3, 2008].)
Rain—traditionally scarce in this arid region—is even more infrequent these days due to several years of drought.
Desalination, the process of removing salt and other minerals, in this case from the Mediterranean and brackish sources, has popularly been seen as the best solution to the water shortage, and most efforts—and budgets—are aimed in this direction.
With five large state-of-the-art facilities already built or in the works, and 31 smaller facilities in the country's south, desalination will soon form the backbone of Israel's water system. Some experts believe half of Israel's potable water supply will eventually come from desalination.
But Israeli and Palestinian engineers, economists, and political scientists at the Water Wisdom conference, convened in April by Professors Alon Tal of Israel's Ben-Gurion University and Alfred Abed-Rabbo of the West Bank's Bethlehem University, raised serious questions about the potential environmental, geopolitical, and social impacts of desalination.
As the world is seeking to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, desalination plants are factories like any other—generally dependent upon unsustainable energy sources. Experts fear large-scale use of desalination would exchange one environmental problem, freshwater shortages, with another: burning fossil fuels.
"Desalination's energy demand—especially when this energy comes from fossil fuels—is one of the more worrying aspects," says Dr. Yaakov Garb of Ben Gurion University's Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.
"While desalination helps reduce vulnerability to water constraint and climatic variability, it does so through increasing vulnerability to the carbon emission constraints and fluctuations in fuel prices of coming decades."
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