Water in the Desert: Penn Professor Leads International Effort

Jordan Basin

Water may be considered an inexhaustible resource because the total supply of water in the biosphere is not affected by human activities. Water is not destroyed by human uses, although it may be held for a time in combination with other chemicals. To be useful, however, water must be in a particular place and of a certain quality, and so it must be regarded as a renewable, and often scarce, resource, with recycling times that depend on its location and use.
--The Encyclopedia Britannica

Penn water specialist Dr. Thomas Naff thinks about water ... a lot. "Imagine that the total supply of water in the world amounts to a cubic meter," says Naff. "Consider all the humans, animals, and plants that depend on water every day. Now imagine taking about five teaspoons of that cubic meter of water and setting it aside. Those teaspoons represent the amount of water that is actually in a usable form for life on earth. Now this amount is renewable and, if used properly by everybody, there need not be a crisis that threatens the existence of life on our planet. You see, water is not only scarce, it's maldistributed, and the effects of this are as pernicious as scarcity."

Naff is associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University. In the early 1980s he was the originator and director of Penn's Middle East Research Institute, for which over $900,000 was raised for advanced basic and applied research. Naff says that it was during this time that he came to realize how fundamentally important water was to the Middle East.

"Let's take the Jordan basin, as an example," he said. "This is an area that is drained by the Jordan River. There are five parties who depend on that basin for their water supply -- Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians. Jordanians and, to a lesser extent, the Lebanese. The total supply of water in the basin is 22 million cubic meters per year.

"Recently seven Israeli and Palestinian scholars and I analyzed the basin's water resources and determined that it can sustain a population of about 14 million people.

"Then we looked at the population growth rates of the various peoples that depend on the basin and determined that the average annual growth rate is 3 percent. This means that if this growth rate continues, the region's population will double in less than 25 years. By the year 2050, unless the population growth is not reversed, the area's population will reach 19 or 20 million people, far above the numbers of people who can be sustained by the water in the Jordan Basin.

"Other conservation steps may increase the water resources to be sufficient for 16 to 17 million inhabitants, but that's still not enough to meet the needs of the population in 50 years, unless the population growth rate declines or is reversed."

Naff says that all the leaders in this area know about these figures and are concerned but, not unexpectedly, the issue is politicized. "Consider these factors," he said. "There's currently a consumption disparity in the Basin where the Israelis use three times as much water as the Palestinians. Or think about the Occupied Territories, on whose aquifers the Israelis rely for one-third of their national water supply. And, of course, the important question is 'Who's going to control that water?'"

That question, and the fact that water scarcity and poverty go hand in hand led Naff to form MEWIN (Middle East Water Information Network).

"Those of us who began to think about and study water issues realized that we needed a clearinghouse to share information and data," said Naff. "This was particularly important because water as a resource is used sequentially. You can't solve water problems in sections, or even on a country-by-country basis. Any problem-solving has to be approached comprehensively, and it was important to share our information. So I put together a proposal and charter that led to the founding of MEWIN."

MEWIN (Middle East Water Information Network) is an international, non-profit, professional association founded with the assistance of the Ford Foundation in 1994 by a group of leading water specialists from nations of the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Naff is executive director of the group, which has grown to about 250 members from the 24 original co-founders. The original members were leading figures in the field of water study and management.

MEWIN's purpose is to improve the management and conservation of water resources in the Middle East, to promote the peaceful, cooperative use of this vital resource, motivate sound environmental planning in the region, and to encourage the sharing and exchange of information and data which is deemed essential to the achievement of all of MEWIN's goals.

MEWIN's membership includes water specialists in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, India and Japan. "After all," says Naff, "These regions have very similar water problems to those in the Middle East." According to Naff, the people who study water and water-related issues and can be scientists, humanists and even clerics, probably a good thing given political and religious issues that enter into the conflict over access to water.

One of the organization's main tasks in the next year is to create a "meta" information network that electronically links several data bases, so that someone can find specific water-related information quickly.

Another MEWIN goal is to facilitate accurate collection and analysis of available data through such activities as the development of uniform standards for the measurement, reporting and analysis of water data. "Water is measured in many different ways," says Naff. "We are working on a global standard that will allow us to be precise in our research work."

MEWIN is tackling one of the biggest problems we face globally and in the Middle East -- water scarcity and an unsustainable rate of population growth.

Water, water, everywhere

Nor any drop to drink.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Originally published on January 21, 1997