THE BLOG

The Global Water Challenge - Science for Diplomacy as Well as Development

10/07/2015 11:25 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

Early in my time here, sitting in an ordinary office block on the east side of the disputed city of Jerusalem, I took part in a stark briefing from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA): the aquifer in Gaza was close to collapse. A combination of factors, including the continuing occupation, had led to contamination of over 90% of Gaza's fresh-water source with sewage, chemicals and seawater. The UN estimated that, as a result, Gazans were spending around one third of their income on premium-priced bottled water. OCHA's most recent briefing raised the risk of a public health crisis in Gaza following the 2014 conflict, which wrought further damage and destruction to water and sanitation facilities as well electricity generation.

Water is not only an issue in the Middle East. From the world's biggest economy to its most populous countries, Governments are struggling to deal with access to clean water. The UN estimates that around 1 billion people do not have access to potable water and are therefore, subject to daily risk of poverty, disease, famine and, in some cases, war.

We have two over-arching priorities in Israel. The first is to enhance all aspects of the bilateral relationship. The Prime Minister recently launched over three million pounds of new stem cell research by labs in Britain and Israel funded by some of the UK's most important research foundations and delivered by the British Council. Our other priority is the search for peace. Britain wants Israelis and Palestinians to find a way to make peace, based on the creation of a Palestinian state sitting alongside Israel in peace. We believe this is the only way to give both sides the security and justice they deserve.

Over the course of the last two-and-a-half years we have been looking at what small part we can play in the need to address water issues in this region and whether science can work hand-in-hand with diplomacy; water doesn't recognise national borders and it needs regional solutions. The 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty is the basis for existing regional cooperation in water. Earlier this year both countries signed a further agreement to share water from a future desalination plant in Aqaba and to work together to funnel Red Sea brines into the shrinking Dead Sea.

Alongside this political collaboration, scientists in the Middle East are working together - quietly and away from the headlines - on the quality of rivers and tributaries in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan and the region; into the sources of salinity in Gaza; and on portable water purification systems for developing countries. Israel has become a world leader in water technology and much of this excellent research is centred at Ben Gurion University's Sde Boqer campus in the Negev desert. For all of these reasons we have launched a trilateral water research programme for researchers in the UK and the Middle East.

We are asking researchers to work across national boundaries and subject disciplines bringing experimental, natural and social science together for the benefit of some of the world's most water poor societies. Our projects may not save the Gazan aquifer but we hope others will.

Working in this way has risks. Scientists must resist the call to participate in an academic boycott and focus on a long-term goal to put individual and environmental needs above today's political problems. It is, I believe, incumbent on all of us to find ways to support these researchers who see a future based on peace. For hundreds of years scientists have worked across national boundaries and conflicts taking their knowledge where it was most needed. In 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars, eminent British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy took his wife and Michael Faraday to Paris with the consent of Napoleon himself to meet scientific counterparts and continue their study of new elements and electricity. Brave and curious minds always have the potential to change the world. We must do all we can to help them.