Report from the Field: Perceptions of Water Use in the Arava Valley of Israel and JordanSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In the Middle East, severely limited water resources and rapid population growth pose a continuous risk to the availability of high quality water for personal use. Annual precipitation in the Arava Valley, which runs through southern Israel and Jordan, averages only four millimeters, compared with 31 millimeters in Los Angeles. Israel's consumption of fresh water has exceeded sustainable yields since the mid-1970s, while Jordan's extraction of water from highland aquifers is almost 80 percent above the annual recharge rate. As available surface water becomes over-exploited, groundwater is fast becoming the most important source of fresh water for domestic use in both countries. All available fresh water in the Arava Valley comes from groundwater, primarily from non-renewable aquifers.
Water management policies in the Middle East have traditionally focused on agriculture, industry and governmental allocation rather than on personal use of water. National policy and research on alleviating water scarcity have emphasized increasing supply in the face of rising demand rather than on the more obvious solution of conservation programs for existing supplies.
Implementing such programs requires linking the needs of local communities with those of national policy makers. There is potential to create such a link in the domestic water use sector, where components of society, including agriculturists, industrialists and policy makers, interact as consumers of high quality fresh water for personal use.
The Arava Valley provides a unique opportunity for exploring community involvement in water conservation and policy in the domestic arena. Communities on both sides of the border share common groundwater sources for domestic use, but differ in livelihood and water supply infrastructure. My research explored the ways in which attitudes towards water of the residents of communities in Israel and Jordan are shaped by their livelihood and by water supply infrastructure. In my study I interviewed people in the cities of Eilat and Aqaba, and the rural communities of Rahmeh, Yotvata and Lotan.
Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in Jordan are the only large cities in the Arava. Both lie close to agricultural settlements and both base their economies heavily on tourism, which requires vast amounts of water for swimming pools, laundromats and spas. By contrast, Rahmeh, a rural Jordanian village near Aqaba, is plagued by poverty, high unemployment and a poor system for supplying water regularly to its residents. Different yet are Lotan and Yotvata, communal kibbutz settlements in Israel that have well-managed water supplies with green lawns and swimming pools.
Aqaba, currently the largest urban center in southern Jordan and the country's only seaport, has strategic significance and is a regional center for tourism, industry and infrastructure. Composed mostly of Jordanian Palestinians and Hashemites, the city has attracted a large number of migrant laborers; some 20 percent of the population are from Egypt and Gaza. I spoke with residents frequenting the central market place, which supplies local produce, meat and bread. Those interviewed expressed little concern about water shortages because they receive a constant water supply of high quality from the Disi aquifer, a deep sandstone fossil water deposit that underlies most of Jordan and parts of Saudi Arabia. Annual domestic water consumption in Jordan is approximately 38 cubic meters per capita, as compared with 259 cubic meters per capita in the United States (one cubic meter equals 1,000 liters or 264 U.S. gallons).
Although Rahmeh is only 40 kilometers from Aqaba, it lacks telephones, electricity and basic plumbing for cooking and sanitation. Many of its residents are members of indigenous Bedouin tribes settled there by the Jordanian government, which supplies meat and milk. Unemployment is high with a few men working as migrant workers in Aqaba or serving in the military. A handful work near the village in a joint Jordanian-Israeli agricultural project.
The people I met in Rahmeh greeted me with the warm hospitality for which the nomadic people in the area are known. Sitting down over cups of strong, hot tea, they were very willing to talk about their water problems. A single well supplies water for the needs of the entire village, severely limiting the amount of vegetables grown for local consumption. Although the official estimate of water consumption is 85 liters a day, well above the basic water requirement of 50 liters required for sanitation, cooking and cleaning, shortages are frequent because of generator breakdowns resulting from fuel shortages. As a result, residents are acutely aware of water scarcity and seek to conserve water wherever possible. There is a certain irony in the fact that the traditional nomadic lifestyle which the Bedouin people have been forced to relinquish was ecologically much less invasive than that resulting from the settlement program.
The situation in Israel is strikingly different. Kibbutz Lotan, 55 kilometers north of Eilat, was founded in 1983 by settlement groups of Israelis and North Americans. The community is highly educated with many members having completed university degrees in Israel and abroad. Lotan's economy is based on agriculture, including field crops, date orchards and milk production, an activity that uses excessive amounts of water. Historically, dairy production in Israel's deserts has been viewed with pride as an example of agricultural expertise over harsh environmental conditions. Although Israel could import milk and dairy products, the strict dietary laws of Judaism (kashrut) prevent importation of most milk products.
In the past two years, however, Lotan has become increasingly involved in ecological issues such as exploring sustainable agricultural practices and waste composting. The residents I spoke to, like those in Rahmeh, were concerned about water scarcity, given their interest in environmental issues. But unlike Rahmeh, Lotan has a functioning water supply system and its residents tended to use water less sparingly despite their awareness of potential water shortages.
Kibbutz Yotvata, 45 kilometers north of Eilat, was established in 1955 specifically for the development of underground water resources in the Arava. Today, Yotvata is the largest and wealthiest kibbutz in the region and is primarily involved in milk production. Yotvata's members are primarily native Israelis with some new immigrants from the United States, Europe and the former Soviet Union. Those I interviewed expressed concern about water scarcity, but tended to think that current supplies are well within demand.
All water used by the kibbutz settlements of the Arava is pumped from local wells. Mekorot, the Israel National Water Company, maintains different well networks for varying grades of water. Agricultural crops such as dates are irrigated using saline water tolerable to date plants. Water from the local wells is pumped into the main water line known as the Pharan line, which begins in the Pharan basin 60 kilometers north of Lotan. Lotan uses 25,000 cubic meters of desalinated water per year. Because of the political sensitivity of water management practices in the region, the cost of desalination is not made public, but 1.5 kilowatts are necessary to desalinate one cubic meter of water.
In Eilat, I interviewed shoppers at the downtown shopping mall. In the past few years, Israel has been involved in a flurry of building shopping malls in all the major population centers, Eilat being no exception. These malls are based on American designs with one or two anchor stores and many smaller specialty stores, food courts and cinemas. Residents of Eilat are extremely aware of the importance that tourism plays in their economy. Eilat's domestic water consumption is the highest of any Israeli city at approximately 200 cubic meters per capita, compared with 72 cubic meters per capita for Israel as a whole. The population is a diverse mixture of native Israelis, many of North African and Middle Eastern descent, as well as new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and migrant labor primarily from Europe. The city also attracts Israelis from other parts of the country to work in many of the temporary hotel jobs.
Eilat is the only community in the Arava that locally desalinates its water. The cost of desalination is reflected in the high price people pay for water, a concern for many residents. Although residents are aware of the high use of water in their city, like those from Yotvata, they seem confident that supplies will always meet demand. In a way, supplies need to be constant if the tourism industry, so crucial for the city, is to continue to flourish.
As these surveys indicate, the residents of all the communities were well aware of the problem of water scarcity, but unless they felt this scarcity directly at the tap, they were mostly confident that supply would always meet demand. Only in rural Rahmeh, where lack of infrastructure makes water scarcity acute, were people troubled by demand not always meeting supply. In the other communities an efficient water supply infrastructure buffered people's concerns about water scarcity despite livelihood differences, and this was reflected in their attitudes toward water. Even on Lotan, where people are concerned about ecological issues, they did not actively conserve water. It seems, therefore, that an efficient water supply system can mask the reality of scarce water resources.
Awareness of scarcity was greater in rural than in urban areas. Although most respondents agreed that they use more water than they need for domestic purposes, in the urban centers of Aqaba and Eilat most people felt that it would be difficult to reduce the amount of water used in their households. Conversely, people in the rural communities of Rahmeh, Lotan and Yotvata responded that they could reduce their household water consumption. Only in Rahmeh, however, did I actually observe this reduction.
It is important, nonetheless, to seek opportunities for conservation and water reuse in urban regions. The major uses for domestic use of water where internal plumbing is present (all the communities except Rahmeh) are flushing toilets, showers and baths. Simple technologies, such as low-flow faucets and showerheads and minor changes in habits can result in significant conservation. It is worthwhile therefore to pursue conservation programs in cities, where most of the population lives and domestic water consumption is high, by making water saving technologies available to the public. Nevertheless, a program that incorporates the degree to which people are willing to conserve water, rather than simply informing them on water saving options, will likely have a greater chance of success in reducing residential per capita use.
The surveys also revealed that Eilat and, to a lesser extent, Aqaba may be responsive to a progressive water pricing and recycling policy. As in many other parts of the world, the failure to value water as anything close to its true worth perpetuates the illusion that water is plentiful and makes it uneconomical to apply water saving measures. Residents of the kibbutz settlements of Yotvata and Lotan were neutral regarding price. These responses are most likely consistent with the socialist lifestyle of kibbutz communities where individuals do not pay directly for utilities. All those surveyed, regardless of livelihood, believed that programs incorporating community concerns are more likely to succeed than those which ignore local community contexts and residents' concerns.
As a result, the starting point for locally instituted community programs and eventual successful policy implementation for water conservation is awareness by people that water scarcity is a problem and that there is at least some willingness on their part to affect a change. This awareness, together with understanding the linkages among livelihood, water infrastructure and water use, can provide a starting point for successful water conservation, even in such a water-limited region as the Arava Valley.
Clive Lipchin is a doctoral candidate in the U-M's School of Natural Resources and Environment. During the spring of 1999, he was based at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel near the Jordanian border. His dissertation research on water resource management and conservation includes interviews with residents of various communities in the southern Arava valley on their attitudes toward water scarcity.