Shifting Sands: Land and Water Management in the Middle East
Tal, Alon, Harvard International Review
While the Middle East is frequently in the news because of political volatility and violence, there is an underlying lack of environmental equilibrium that poses a comparable threat to regional stability. Israel's neighbors--Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine--are arid countries with limited natural carrying capacity and burgeoning populations. Providing food and employment in what were traditionally agrarian economies has contributed to significant depletion of soil and water resources. Israel's experience as an innovator in technologically intensive dryland agriculture and forestry is entirely different. Yet it is not clear whether the grand Israeli experiment in water management and combating of desertification offers a compelling alternative model to its neighbors should diplomatic breakthroughs pave the way for transboundary cooperation. Not only are the socioeconomic and cultural circumstances entirely different, but the sustainability of some of Israel's unique management practices remains questionable.
There was a time when the region was considered a break basket whose fanners produced crops beyond local demand. The natural ebb and flow of the Nile provided a steady supply of water and nutrients to Egyptian farmers. The Fellah--the Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian peasant--although taxed and exploited by colonial rulers for centuries, managed to produce food beyond subsistence levels. Yet decades of geometric population growth push today's farmers beyond past equilibriums with soil degradation and water quality contamination threatening the very sustenance of people across the region.
Food shortages in Egypt are manifested by a new culture of consumer hoarding, with long queues commonplace for basic staples like bread and vegetables. In the five years following 2007, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that Egyptian cereal imports increased by 60 percent. Dwindling wheat stocks are front-page news stories, with remaining reserves now measured in days. Helpless to provide reasonable levels of commodities, the government began telling citizens to cope with malnutrition and hunger by not "overeating."
Desertification in Jordan grows worse: Local ecosystems show signs of degradation, with chronic top soil loss and reduced vegetative cover threatening farmers' livelihoods. Direct drivers of Jordanian desertification include improper tillage, overgrazing, and mining ancient fossil groundwater.
Just over the border, Israel has taken a different path that ostensibly avoids many of these ecological pitfalls. After 65 years, the country can boast impressive statistics: at a time when farm productivity in many countries of the region is static or falling, official figures show that since its inception, Israel's agricultural yields have increased eighteen-fold. In the early 1950s, a full-time agricultural worker supplied food for seventeen people; by 2010, that figure had risen to 113. Most remarkably, fresh water consumption has actually dropped during recent years due to genetically superior, drought and salt resistant plants, effluent reuse, and drip irrigation. The country consistently produces more "crop to the drop."
Ecologically, Israel's drylands are anomalous. After millennia of deforestation, overgrazing, and primitive farming practices, erosion was extensive and the natural woodlands that formed Biblical landscape were decimated. When Israel gained independence, less than 2 percent of the country's lands were forested. Today, 260 million trees later, over 8 percent of the countryside is afforested; canopy cover should reach 10 percent before leveling off in twenty years. Palestine and Jordan also started the second half of the twentieth century with a denuded geography. But today, woodlands only cover 1.5 percent and 1.1 percent, of their countrysides respectively.
Yet all is not well in the Holy Land. …