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Water-sharing accord wont solve overpopulation issue

Mideast observers were happily surprised to hear about a water-sharing agreement signed at the World Bank headquarters earlier this month between the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments.

Amid the media fanfare, it is important to distill what this new accord delivers and what it doesn’t.

The centerpiece of the agreement is a new desalination plant to be established on the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan, that will provide water for the city and its vicinity, including the neighboring Israeli city of Eilat. In addition, an estimated 100 million liters of the high-salt brine produced by the desalination plant is to be pumped annually via a conduit in Jordan and discharged into the Dead Sea, which has been shrinking steadily for decades. Farther north, Israel agreed to sell some 80 billion liters of water each year from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordanians and Palestinians.

The projected price tag for the entire initiative — $400 million — is a fraction of a much more ambitious, multibillion program to refill the Dead Sea that recently was endorsed by the World Bank.

As the first new agreement in many years that coordinates natural resource use between Israel and its neighbors, its very existence constitutes good news — as does the introduction of additional desalinated water into an increasingly parched region.

Yet, the 100 million liters of brine that is to reach the Dead Sea is only a 10th of the 1 billion liters that used to reach it naturally, flowing via the River Jordan. (During the past 50 years, most of the waters were diverted by Syria, Israel and Jordan.) This agreement in no way saves the Dead Sea from dying. The unique saline lake, located at the lowest place on Earth, will continue its alarming retreat each year with or without the new pipeline.

The essence of the agreement, therefore, involves providing additional water to Jordanian and Palestinian communities to ameliorate their chronic shortages. House-holds throughout local cities typically only enjoy water delivery a few times a week.

Any relief will be welcome to residents who have watched their per capita allocations steadily erode. But it is important to temper enthusiasm with realism. Like the other water-supply strategies recently proposed in the Middle East, this one will not provide meaningful improvement, because the relentless increase in population undermines any real hope for progress.

For example, in 2009 Jordan reported that its citizens had access to only 145,000 liters of water per year, making the country one of the most water scarce in the world. Even without hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq, and another half-million from Syria, Jordan’s natural population growth rate is extremely high, averaging six children per family. Between 1980 and 2010, the population grew from 2.2 million to 6.5 million people.

This constitutes the salient context in which to evaluate the present agreement and the implicit supply-side strategy it represents. By the time the new agreement becomes operational, there will be 1 million additional people in Jordan — more if the Syrian refugees do not return home.

In other words, Jordan has to run to stay in place.

The situation is hardly different in the other countries partner to the agreement. The United Nations estimates that Palestinian and Israeli annual population growth is 2.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively. Even expanded desalination does not change the burden created by geometric population growth on infrastructure, food security and ecosystems.

This supply-side approach to water management is not unique to Israel and its neighbors. A report released this month by the United Nations Development Program points out that the average person in the Arab region accesses one-eighth of the renewable water that the average global citizen enjoys.

Nowhere does the agreement address the real issue: If population levels do not stabilize and even come down, the shortages will grow worse. Government leaders and the agencies that subsidize them need to admit that manufacturing more water has limits and brings with it enormous environmental consequences, from prodigious greenhouse gas emissions to overpumping and salinization of fresh water sources.

If Middle Eastern leaders are serious about a sustainable water strategy, they should start by setting sustainable demographic objectives to ensure that demand  tapers off as soon as possible. The phenomenal success of family planning programs in Iran proves that there is nothing inherent about Islamic society that prevents responsible population policies.

Encouraging replacement-level fertility, empowering women and delivering free contraception to all citizens is a far more cost-effective, long-term strategy for solving the Middle East’s water shortages than building hugely expensive infrastructure that upsets natural hydrological flows and balances. ­

Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a visiting professor at the Stanford Center for Conservation Biology. He is the past chairman of Israel’s Green Party and founder of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.