Last December Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a three week siege on the Gaza Strip that left over 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Over the past two weeks activists around the globe have commemorated the conflict, resulting in clashes between activists and Egyptian border officials. While it is true that ethnicity, religion and history are all key players in the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories, a shifting global climate is increasing pressure in this flashpoint.
During the Copenhagen climate conference, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told delegates “within the context of occupation…Palestinians are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change…Our vulnerability stems not just from the very real impact of climate change on our environment, but from the constraints we face under occupation.” Palestinian people face a double edged sword, a shifting world climate and a hostile government with their hand on the resource faucet.
Gwynne Dyer coined the term “Climate Wars” with his 2008 book of the same name discussing the political shift of world governments to look at climate change in terms of national security. In scenarios that would seem more at home in a Tom Clancy novel, he outlines how changes in regional climate will change resource chains, igniting competition in those regions facing scarcity. Politicians and military strategists around the globe have established potential scenarios where competition for basic needs such as food and water will fuel military conflicts. Water is already a scarce and precious resource in the Middle East, fueling the flames of conflict.
Scientists have hypothesized and recorded evidence that as global climate shifts, the hydrological cycle will be disrupted around the globe. Reduced flows, changing precipitation and increased salinity will all tighten the noose, which has led hydrologists to predict that demand will soon outstrip supply in the Middle East. At the start of the 21st century Meir Ben Meir, Israel’s Water Commissioner, predicted that any sort of prolonged water scarcity would “doubtless lead to war.”
Hydropolitical brinkmanship is nothing new in the Middle East. In 1964 a summit of Arab leaders drafted a plan to divert the headwaters of the Jordan Valley, leading to high tensions and military exchanges between Israel and Syria. During the 1990s Israel’s then deputy defence minister, Ephraim Sneh, stated that Israel was prepared to make land compromises in the Golan Heights, and “all we want [from Syria] in return is security and water.” In 2000, a small pumping station on the same river, designed to supply drinking water to a small Lebanese community just north of the international border, was proposed. Construction began a year later and by mid 2001, the issue had reached crisis level, with Israel threatening punitive actions against the Lebanese government should they start pumping. Ironically, at that time Israel was operating two similarly sized pumping stations within Lebanese territories.
On average Israelis use around 350 liters of water per person per day while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza use around 70. The World Health Organization cites 100 liters per day as their bottom line for health water consumption. Straining the Palestinian communities further is the fact that many Palestinian settlements are not hooked up to the pumping grid, requiring wells or outside deliveries of water. Restrictions on the travel and movement of Palestinian peoples within the Israeli borders makes even getting sufficient water to some settlements a monumental task.
Tied to water resources and global climate change are issues of agricultural and food stability. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization stated in 2008 that 56 per cent of Gaza and 25 per cent of the West Bank’s populations are facing food insecurity, defined by the World Health Organization as when people at any time do not have access to sufficient safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. Droughts has long been an issue in Israel and the Occupied Territories, often straining food resources and leaving many to rely on international food aid, which is regulated by the Israeli authorities. As water resources dwindle, agriculture will face limits on irrigation and other water uses, further tightening the food resources of the region.
Last Thursday an Israeli bomber killed three Palestinian civilians in a run through Gaza. While thirst and hunger may not make the same bang as a payload of ordinance, they are still effective at crippling a population, and sew the seeds of desperation in any animal, human or otherwise. In Copenhagen, Fayyad implored the international community to look at the climate crisis in relation to the needs of communities like Palestine and view climate aid as a part of achieving “key goals of human development and the construction of a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state.” The current Israeli control over Palestinian resources is a time bomb, and climate change is speeding up the countdown. Whatever your view on the Israel/Palestine question, it is hard to deny that as resources become increasingly scarce, violence will increase, and the casualties will be the mother, fathers and children. It is too easy to look at headlines and see world issues in black and white dichotomies, choosing one or the other for our hearts to bleed for, but these issues all tie to one another, and so too must the response.