Nor any drop to drink: Cornell faculty and students to meet in Cairo on water shortages in Mediterranean region

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It took a humanist to lasso the talents of Cornell lawyers, engineers, development sociologists and others to teach a new graduate course, "Water and Culture in the Mediterranean: a Crisis?" Offered for the first time this semester, the course aims to develop practical suggestions to ease the worsening shortage of fresh water in the region by uniting several disciplines in a cultural perspective.

The first of four planned workshops to be held in connection with the course takes place March 18, when Cornell faculty and students will meet with colleagues at the American University in Cairo and with the Egyptian minister for the environment.

"Conflicts in the 21st century will be fought over water, not oil," says Gail Holst-Warhaft, a poet and musician who directs the Mediterranean Institute in Cornell's Einaudi Center for International Studies and who originated the course. "My engineer colleagues said that without considering culture, we can't begin to solve the problem. If we don't understand how people can actually help themselves, it's useless to try to impose technical solutions."

Always in short supply in the Mediterranean region, water is celebrated in song and verse and is linked to culture, politics and religion. Water scarcity is a factor in Africa immigration to Europe, and poor water management policies have worsened the situation: Making Israel's Negev desert bloom has depleted groundwater; building the Aswan Dam in Egypt displaced the Nubian people and wasted water through surface evaporation. Freshwater lakes adjacent to the Mediterranean, fed by the Nile, are more than 50 percent saline.

Environmental lawyer Keith Porter, director of the New York Sate Water Resources Institute and a senior extension associate in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, co-teaches the course. "It is vital to understand and assimilate the roles of law, religion, institutions and even the arts as technical remedies to the increasingly desperate water shortages are sought," he says.

At the Cairo conference "we'll have presentations and discussion on the cultural approach to water and what could be done to ease conflicts over water," says Holst-Warhaft. "We'll suggest improvements to environmental laws that might encourage cooperation between the contending parties."

Holst-Warhaft hopes to publish students' case studies of research projects as chapters in a faculty-edited book. "Through these case studies, we will talk about the Mediterranean as it is: a highly polluted sea with highly polluted water systems flowing into it," she says.

"We want to focus world attention on what's going to be the most volatile of water conflicts in the 21st century unless pre-emptive measures are taken. We'd like to do something that uses Cornell resources to leave a lasting mark."