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At Tu B' Shevat, the Endangered World of Water

January 28, 2010 By:
Mike Weilbacher
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As the Jewish calendar heads toward Tu B'Shevat, the New Year for the trees, we'd do well to remember that water flows through their lives and ours: We drink, bathe in, cook with and flush some 100 gallons each and every day.

Water pours through the Torah, too -- it floats Noah's ark, drowns Pharaoh's army, gushes out of rocks, follows Miriam across the desert, sinks Jonah's boat, purifies high priests, inspires prophets. "I will open rivers in high places," cries Isaiah, " ... and make the wilderness a pool of water."

And water powers Tu B'Shevat as well. The winter rains have finished, tree roots are well-watered, and the rabbis said on this day trees are a year older. It is a birthday, courtesy of rain.

Incredibly, when God begins creation, water is inexplicably already there, so important it predates even creation. Since humans die in three days without water, the rabbis said the same is true of Torah, which we now read every three days.

Given a sere Middle East, maybe it's not surprising that water is so central to Judaism, it's appearance almost always a miracle. Water actually is a miracle: each drop as old as the earth itself, each drop on a perpetual journey into rivers, into glaciers, into -- and out of -- each of us. Somehow, the water we drink today tastes as fresh as when God separated it in the firmament all those millennia ago.

But this miracle is in trouble, the looming freshwater crisis fully as critical as, and exacerbated by, global warming. "All the rivers run to the sea," wrote Ecclesiastes, "yet the sea is not full." In the 21st century, water has been rearranged so much that this simple declarative statement no longer holds.

Big rivers like the Yellow, Danube, Nile, Colorado, the mighty Jordan itself are tapped-out muddy trickles when they "empty" into the ocean. They are literally emptied, drained for cities, irrigation, feedlot cattle, even fountains. Well-watered Las Vegas casino fountains gushing in a brown desert are one reason that the Colorado runs dry.

Worldwide, 1.1 billion people -- that is, one in five of us -- lack access to safe drinking water; 2.6 billion, almost half, lack access to sanitation. In fact, 25 million of us die from poor sanitation every year, which is equivalent to the population of Canada. Water use increased six-fold during the 20th century alone -- more than twice the rate of population growth; and by 2025, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world's population, about 5.5 billion people, almost as many as live today, will inhabit areas facing moderate to severe water stress.

"Whisky is for drinking," wrote Mark Twain, "but water is for fighting."

And fight we will. The ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is deeply connected to water.

In 1964, the PLO's very first action was a failed attempt to stop the National Water Carrier, the project that diverts the Sea of Galilee into Israel; in the 1967 war, when Israel took Golan, it also got the headwaters of the Jordan. Control of the Jordan and water is on the long list of Arab complaints -- one very large obstacle to reconciliation.

Exacerbating this, the Mideast is locked in a severe multiyear drought; both Israel and Syria's recent wheat harvests have been down 50 percent. "You know the worth of water when the well runs dry," wrote Benjamin Franklin as Poor Richard.

Too many wells worldwide are too dry. While Isaiah's God would turn the wilderness into water, we are doing the opposite -- turning water into bleak wilderness, making it disappear from where we need it most.

Water pours through the Torah, and through us. As we gather on Tu B'Shevat -- and as increasing numbers of Jews participate in special seders -- we must consider the state of water.

Just as it is a New Year for the trees, we need a new year for our relationship to water. We need to know -- and honor -- it's worth, and take radical action to allow each person on the planet access to safe and affordable water. As we eat fruits and drink wine brought to us courtesy of water, we must consider the ways each of us can initiate actions that restore the world's many waterways and help rivers again empty into the sea.

Mike Weilbacher is on the board of J-SPAN, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, and blogs at: www.mike weilbacher.blogspot.com.

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