TAPPING THE OCEANS – THE DESALINATION CONTROVERSY AT SCIENCES PO
PARIS SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS (PSIA)
On May 4, 2019, twenty six students enrolled in the different Masters of the Paris School of International Affairs (Environmental Policy, Human Rights, International Security, International Energy, International Public Management, etc.) took part in a twelve hour simulation exercise. The latter was written and organized in the framework of the course « Desalination – Understanding the problem of water scarcity in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) » lectured by Isabel Ruck.
Desalination is increasingly widespread in the MENA region, where water is said to become a « scarce » resource by 2040 according to the projections of the World Resource Institute. This scarcity, which constitutes in fact an increase in demand is partly explained by the water intensive agriculture and industries, as well as continued urbanization. To address the growing demand -which undeniably carries a high potential for social unrest- most Middle Eastern and North African governments have responded by a water supply increase, with the help of technical solutions such as desalination plants. Yet these plants are not the most sustainable and eco-friendly option to respond to climate change. The students involved in the simulation thus explored the controversy around water scarcity in the MENA region.
8:45am – the sound of the Moroccan TV journal Al Aoula fills up the room where twenty six students are waiting for the simulation to be launched. After twelve weeks of intensive coursework on desalination and the writing of two position papers on the actors they are to embody, the students are well prepared to face the controversial debates around the practice of seawater desalination in Morocco and Israel. « I wanted an exercise which allowed the students to put into practice what they had learned in the previous course sessions », says desalination lecturer Isabel Ruck, « The actor-based simulation exercise was therefore an interesting tool, as it made the various controversial points around water desalination visible. In a normal class setting, it is difficult to make students understand all the constraints to which the actors are exposed on the ground, and which deeply influence their decision-making. The simulation experience has made the latourian idea of ‘following the actors’ possible. »
Debate over Morocco’s Douira Deslination Plant Project
The simulation, launched with the TV journal, projected the students into the Douira desalination plant case for the entire morning. The desalination facility, which is to be built in the middle of Morocco’s Souss Massa National Parc with the goal of delivering water for both, the local agricultural sector and drinking water for the Greater Agadir region, is surrounded by a number of controversies that the simulation exercise has allowed to unravel. Parallel debate sessions were organized throughout the morning and ranged from a press conference with the Mayor of Agadir discussing the benefits and limits of the project for the Greater Agadir area, over side meeting of environmental experts and members of the civil society (i.e. Amazigh) on the environmental impacts and the socio-spatial inequalities that such a plant could trigger, to a side meeting of the donor agents and the project partners over project finance (PPP) and technologies (debating which type of desalination technology is preferable). Indeed the Douira desalination plant is a Reverse Osmosis facility constructed by the Spanish company Abengoa. The plant is said to be the biggest combined desalination plant in Africa with a daily production capacity of 275,000 cubic meters and a foreseen capacity expansion to up to 450,000 cubic meters. The plant is to be powered by solar energy from the Noor Ourrzazate thermo-solar power station, an energy production that however pumps the water from the El Mansour Eddhabi Dam.
After a series of informal negotiations and set-up side meetings, the students simulated a Public Information Meeting organized by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Organisation régionale de mise en valeur agricole (ORMVA) of Souss Massa and Abengoa. The meeting aimed at presenting the desalination plant project to the farmers and civil society actors attending the meeting. They shared their concerns with regard to the environmental impacts this plant could have (i.e. deforestation for construction works, noise, brine rejection, etc.), as well as the socio-spatial inequalities that the project would trigger, especially for the Amazighs. Thanks to a press release prepared by Isabel Ruck, the debate also came to address the important issue of the melkisation (privatisation) of the soulaliyate (collective land), most of which belongs to the Amazighs, and which the government would like to render available for private investments. Indeed, there is an inherent tension between land tenure and water use regimes, especially regarding traditional or local water allocation rules, that the exercise was able to unravel.
The Water-health nexus under debate in the Israeli arena
In the Israeli arena during the afternoon, the debate shifted to what health issues desalinated water consumption would imply. Indeed, Israel has known in recent years an increased number of scientific publications that brought up a link between nutrient-poor desalinated water and ionic deficiencies and heart diseases, especially risky for children, pregnant women and the elderly. The debate opposed the Israeli Ministry of Health and the Israeli Water Authority over the question of replenishing the desalinated water before injecting it into the national water distribution network. But the costs for this action are a matter of debate between the two institutions.
The students who endorsed the roles of Israeli government representatives, as well as civil society actors and public health experts, economists and lawyers specialized in water issues, simulated several debate formats, including an inter-ministerial crisis meeting, a public consultation meeting and a final press conference. Parallel actions were also organized in order to render the simulation exercise more lively. For exemple, in the frame of a civil society side meeting, students prepared a protest movement to voice their opposition to the government’s desalination strategy, calling for the replenishing of desalinated water.
The Israeli arena was also a propitious occasion to bring up the question of water privatization, water justice and transboundary water management, which the students representing the regional NGO Eco-Peace made their primary topic. Indeed, Israel is selling desalinated water to neighboring states, which also contributes to increase the water demand of the Jewish state. But the Israeli government officials in the simulation reminded us of the strategic security aspect underlying the water trade with the neighboring states. The students, who played the role of legal advisors nevertheless stood up against the Israeli’s state duty to inform, if there was a presumption of public health risk due to desalinated water consumption. This point reveals another important legal loophole, when it comes to water regulation. The Israeli Water Law of 1959 stipulates indeed that Israeli groundwater is a public good, but there is a legal void when it comes to the tapping of the ocean, which the simulation exercise emphasized properly. Seawater desalination is therefore a matter of private law, which has rendered the commodification of it possible. As a consequence, the state’s duty to inform should be transferred to the private sector, but the profit-driven private companies do not always live up to this duty. This runs entirely counter to the principle of the UN resolution 64/292 of July 2010, which promotes a human right to safe water and sanitation for all, as reminded us the public health experts of the simulation exercise.
It is precisely around the matter of « safe water » that the controversy revolved in the Israeli arena. The Israeli Water Authority together with the National Water Carrier, Mekorot, and the Israeli desalination plant operator, IDE Technologies, argued that the water they provided was « safe to drink ». Based on IDE Technologies risk assessment studies, industrial actors were able to push their strategy further. They were helped by two factors : First, the existing scientific doubt, created by the impossibility for scientists to deliver conclusive evidence of a direct link between desalinated water consumption and an increase in particular diseases; second, by the World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality (GDWQ), according to which adding magnesium to desalinated water remains a simple recommendation, not an obligation. Indeed, the Israeli Water Authority (IWA) argued that it was not willing to bear the financial burden of replenishing the desalinated water neither at the source, nor at the municipal level, as suggested by the mayor of Ashkelon and the Mateh Asher Regional Council Representative at the consultation meeting. The IWA was nevertheless willing to subsidize consumer tablets for individual replenishing. Water consultants and public health experts vividly objected to the proposal, arguing the cost would fall to the consumer. Invoking a scientific study conducted in the US on a similar trial, the simulation’s water consultant was able to convince the public opinion that the risk of people not using (correctly) the tablets is too high, given the importance of magnesium in the daily dietary intake.
The Ministry of Health, together with public health experts, nutritionists and farmer associations pleaded in favor of replenishing the desalinated water with magnesium and calcium at the desalination plant level. Indeed, magnesium is required for energy production, oxidative phosphorylation, and glycolysis. It contributes to the structural development of bones and is required for the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and the antioxidant glutathione. Magnesium also plays a role in the active transport of calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes, a process that is important to nerve impulse conduction, muscle contraction, and normal heart rhythm. According to the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) Indicator, developed by the American Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine of National Academics, the daily magnesium intake of an adult aged between 19 and 30 years lies between 310mg and 400mg and water caters for an important part of this dietary intake, though not exclusively. However, the remaining magnesium intake comes from food, which allowed farmers to have their say in the debate. Indeed, Israeli farmers mainly irrigate with reclaimed water (treated wastewater), whose feed water is desalinated water from the water carrier system. Hence, the question of a nutrient-poor irrigation water was also a matter of debate. Currently, the desalinated water produced by Israeli desalination plants is only replenished with calcium, in order to avoid corrosion in the water pipe system. Fluoride has also been added -off and on- for better dental care. Several Israeli public health experts, such as Yona Amitai are however concerned with the lack of magnesium. Several scientific studies show a link between an increase in heart diseases caused by magnesium deficiency and desalinated water consumption. Others still, show a link between desalinated water causing ionic deficiency and infant malformation or maldevelopment. All those studies have been thwarted so far by the Israeli Water Authority, but retained the attention of the Ministry of Health.
Indeed, during the simulation exercise the tensions between these two government authorities were visible and audible, to the point where the representative of the Israeli Water Authority decided to give a separate press conference to clarify its position. In the final press conference, organized by the Director of the Cabinet of the Prime Minister, in which all actors participated, the Israeli government presented their strategic white paper and recommendations with regard to the « magnesium controversy ». Amongst the major proposals presented was the decision to proceed with water replenishment at the plant level, a measure for which the financial burden should be equally shared between the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Finance and the desalination plant owner, imposing only a slight increase of the water price, mainly due to the rising energy cost – another controversial matter, which was also briefly debated in the inter-ministerial crisis meeting.
Communication during the simulation exercise
An important point of the simulation exercise was the high quality of news releases published by the students, who played the role of journalists. Indeed, their interventions allowed to give rhythm to the simulation experience, as well as to render it more realistic. Several interviews with various actors were conducted throughout the day. The journalists were helped in their work by an online collaborative plateforme (Slack) especially set-up for the simulation exercise. This platform created an online negotiation space for alliance formation, beyond the formal imparted negotiation time.
Furthermore, the simulation greatly benefited from the material prepared by Forccast. Indeed, several Royal communiqués caused some stir in the Moroccan arena, as well as the petition of the inhabitants of Inchaden against the Souss Massa desalination plant, which revealed the construction of high voltage lines from the Douira plant through the national parc to a subsource station in Tiznit, raising concerns for the parc’s wildlife. Similarly, the Israeli arena was launched with a Forccast-made news journal announcing the death of a little boy from Ashkelon. The consumption of desalinated water was pinpointed as the potential cause of his passing away. Following this news flash, an interview of the boy’s parents accusing the Mayor of Ashkelon for inaction was made public, spicing up the meeting of Mayors with the Israeli Water Authority at the beginning of the afternoon. Further content was handed in throughout the exercise, such as a communiqué of the « Jaffa Orange Mouvement », a fake Israelo-Palestinian civil society movement which militates against Mekorot’s (Israeli water carrier) water apartheid policies.
Debrief in the presence of two water experts
Our simulation welcomed two experts from the water sector: Mrs. Julie Trottier from the French National Research Center and Mr. Xavier Leflaive, Principal Administrator and Head of the Water Team at the OCDE. Both shared their comments and insights with the students at the end of the exercise. The debate over « water need and water demand » was of particular interest to students. Many found it fascinating that the water required for agriculture constitutes in fact a demand and not a need, because agriculture is policy-driven and therefore, a political decision. Julie Trottier, who lived for several years in Israel and worked on the Israelo-Palestinian water issue, shared her insightful field experience with the students. Xavier Leflaive presented students with the works on water resource allocation regimes and blended water finance carried out by the OCDE.
The debrief was also an occasion for the students to take a step back and critically reflect upon the simulation experience. Most students found the difference of the two cases interesting and stimulating. Indeed, in the Moroccan arena, the positionalism of actors was mainly induced by the constraints derived from the political regime. On the contrary, the Israeli arena gave the participants greater leverage in negotiation. « In the Moroccan arena, I sometimes had the feeling that the debate was closed before actually opening it. Government decisions were imposed top-down and the civil society actors were put in front of a ‘fait accompli’ and had little room to make themselves heard, which is probably reflecting pretty well the reality on the ground », said Dominique Eberhard, who played the role of the Union of Fruit and Vegetable Producers. The Israeli area left greater place for debate and the setting-up of civil society movements. According to Sebastien Ponsford, who played the role of the Israeli Water Authority spokesman, there was freedom to debate and the possibility for the actors to let their position evolve with regard to the new elements that unravelled throughout the exercise. During the public consultation meeting, the role of civil society was more valued and included into the final considerations presented in the white paper.
The exercise was a frank success amongst the students, despite being very demanding and time-consuming. « It was an active and challenging way to acquire knowledge, that we will surely not forget so easily », concluded Wael Al Daghari, class representative of the course.