JERUSALEM — When you experience the weather here, you start to understand how the biblical prophets found such great material for their doomy prognostications. Last week high temperatures had locals wearing T-shirts in midwinter, then a blanket of dust settled over Israel, only to be washed away by two freezing days of thunder and lightning.
It’s the latest dramatic chapter in what might be called the real crisis of the Middle East — the chronic water shortage affecting much of the Levant.
"This has been an extremely dry winter, with the lowest recorded rainfall since Israel started keeping track,” the country’s National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said at a recent cabinet meeting.
Israel has seen less than half its usual rainfall. Some towns have cut off supplies to certain neighborhoods for limited periods. In Jerusalem, nature’s fecund bounty has been in particularly short supply — only a third of the average. Last month the Israeli Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon advocated changing all the national Water Authority’s mezuzot — scrolls of parchment attached to the doors and containing a Jewish prayer — in the hope of encouraging divine intervention in the water shortage.
The weather — or, one might say, the lack of it — isn’t only Israel’s problem. In Syria, faucets ran dry last summer, after four consecutive winters without adequate rainfall. Worse is to come, however, as precipitation this winter has been about 45 percent of the average.
The water shortage might seem like the least of the region’s worries, given all its apparently more explosive issues. But it’s more than just a problem for Zionists, whose claim to have “made the deserts bloom” with new agriculture is one of their proudest boasts. Academics have been warning for years that a Middle East war could one day be fought over water, rather than land.
Syrians have been forced to buy water for their homes on the black market, because of rising industrial demand combined with falling supplies. The government of President Bashar Assad is trying to persuade Japan to fund a $2 billion project to bring water from the Euphrates River in the east of the country to the populous regions in western Syria.
The Japanese already gave $50 million five years ago to rebuild Damascus’ aging water system. But those were different economic times and the Syrians are concerned that the money might not be forthcoming.
Israel has considered various ideas for solving its own shortage from filling oil tankers with water from Turkey to floating a massive balloon of water across the eastern Mediterranean. Those plans were probably going nowhere even before the recent diplomatic spat with Ankara, sparked by Turkish anger at the Israeli attack on Hamas in Gaza.
That leaves Israelis facing their freakish weather alone. On a drive from the coastal city of Herzliya to Jerusalem on Thursday, I found myself encased in a khaki-orange cloud of dust, blown up from the Sinai Desert. Visibility was a little more than 100 yards.
Arriving in Jerusalem, my blinking eyes were instantly filled with painful grit. An asthmatic friend wheezed with more than a touch of desperation.
Yet 24 hours later, the dust was gone on a tide of rainwater. “The dust dirties, the rain cleans,” read the breezy headline on the back page of Yediot Aharonoth, Israel’s biggest newspaper. But this was no ordinary rain.
During the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday, the only people on the streets of Jerusalem were worshippers rushing home from synagogue in the torrential hail downpour, illuminated by lightning and monumental bursts of thunder from the cloud that scudded low over the city in the 50 miles-per-hour winds.
Heavy rain in Jerusalem meant floods on the road alongside the Dead Sea as the water washed down through the deep desert wadis to the lowest point on earth.
On the coast, thousands of Palestinians remained in tents in Gaza, because their homes were destroyed in the fighting there at the turn of the year. Gaza was never exactly a pretty picture in the rain, with its inadequate sewerage system. After the damage inflicted during the Israeli operation against Hamas last month, conditions are even worse.
Critics say the problem is less to do with lack of rainfall and more a matter of ill-used resources. Israeli academic studies show the country wastes 35 percent of its water through leaky pipes. The priorities of Israeli agriculture are questioned, too. Haifa University Professor Dan Schueftan criticizes the massive Israeli watermelon industry for “putting all our scarce water into their product, then exporting it. It’s crazy.”
Maybe deserts just weren’t meant to bloom.
More dispatches from GlobalPost correspondent Matt Beynon Rees: