Water and Peace: For Clues to Resolving the Middle East Conflict, Consider the Case of the Embattled Dead Sea

By Bromberg, Gidon | World Watch, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Water and Peace: For Clues to Resolving the Middle East Conflict, Consider the Case of the Embattled Dead Sea


Bromberg, Gidon, World Watch


Headlines in the Western press depict a seemingly hopeless cycle of violence in the Israeli-Palestine sector of the Middle East. An Israeli warplane destroys the home of a militant Palestinian. A retaliatory suicide bomber blows up an Israeli bus. In both instances, innocent people die and the anger escalates.

Missing from the media coverage is any clear sense of what is going on in the day-to-day relationship between the two countries other than the sporadic violent exchanges. Between the missiles and bombs, people are--under great duress, and at great risk--continuing to trade services and goods, drive cross-border trucks, commute through checkpoints to their jobs or schools--and manage a range of transboundary natural resources that are essential to the livelihoods of all the peoples in the region.

There's a theory gaining adherents among some of the more thoughtful observers of this troubled land, that it is in those essential day-to-day activities that the real chance for achieving peace can be found. In the common resources essential to all life, and especially in fresh water, the conflicting cultures share a universal interest. Water is extremely scarce in this region and getting scarcer. Human desperation is never greater than when water is no longer in reach. If the people of this region can find viable ways of cooperating in the management of this most valuable of all resources, there's no other challenge they can't meet.

A leading proponent of this theory is the grassroots group Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an international NGO that has recently brought new attention to one of history's most storied bodies of water--the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is not fresh water. In fact, it is the saltiest large body of water on the planet. But water is not a static asset, as the Earth's hydrological cycle keeps its water moving through evaporation, rain, streams, and rivers before it flows to the salty seas and begins the cycle again. Along the way, there are subordinate cycles, both natural and man-made: the diversion of river water for agriculture, industry, and household use; the dissemination into plants and animals, as sap and blood. Water is a complex system, of which both freshwater and salt are integral parts. While the water we drink is fresh, the blood it forms is as salty as the sea. In the Middle East, the Dead Sea is the very heart of the larger system. If people can learn to manage this sea as a system rather than as a something to be plundered--so goes the theory--they've got a good model for peacefully managing everything else.

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The name of the place is both accurate and misleading. It's true that there are no fish in the Dead Sea, and that the surrounding Judean Desert is bone-dry and hot. And that geographically, it is known as a "terminal lake"--because it is where the Jordan River comes to its end. All that might suggest a place of great desolation and morbidity. But the reality is that the Dead Sea has been a place of abundant life--natural and human--since prehistoric times. Its shores are dotted with springs and oases, which provide water for 90 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 24 species of mammals, as well as more than 400 species of plants.

For humans, it has been an important locale since the beginning of civilization, and over the millennia it has become one of the most mythic and storied places on Earth. Some say that where the River Jordan flows into the Dead Sea is the place where Jesus Christ was baptized. It's where the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are believed to have been located, although no evidence of them remains. It's where the city of Jericho, believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth, still stands. It's where Masada, the fortress in which Jews martyred themselves and their families rather than become slaves of the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, stands on a mountain overlooking the western shore. …

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