And [Isaac] had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and a great household; and the Philistines envied him. Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac: ‘Go from us; for you are much mightier than we.’ And Isaac departed thence, and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there. And Isaac dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them. And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water. And the herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying: ‘The water is ours.’ And he called the name of the well Esek; because they contended with him. And they dug another well, and they strove for that also. And he called the name of it Sitnah. And he removed from thence, and dug another well; and for that they strove not. And he called the name of it Rechovot; and he said: ‘For now the Eternal has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’ And he went up from thence to Beersheva. (Gen26:14ff)
The story is one of Isaac finding his role both in the Land of Israel and as Patriarch of the family tribe– after a problematic childhood with two parents who each had powerful and somewhat overwhelming personalities. Isaac is clearly a different character, often described as the son of a strong father and the father of strong sons, he seems gentler, less “alpha”, less willing to take what he wants, although admiring of those who can. But the story is also of the problem of how – and even if – to share resources, in particular the water which has always been a fragile and essential resource for life.
Water stress is a constant problem in Israel, the land which is watered only by the rainfall and should the rains not come, or not come at the right time, there will be drought and famine, and death.
We read in Deuteronomy 10ff “But the land…is a land of hills and valleys and drinks water as the rain of heaven…the eyes of God are always upon it….and if you obey my commandments…I will give the rain of your land in its season, both early and late rains, so you may gather your corn, wine and oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied… Take care less you …turn aside and serve other gods, for the anger of God will be against you and God will shut up the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield her fruit and you will perish quickly from off the good land which God gives you”
The Land of Israel has always known water stress; The people Israel have built a theology around it, a routine of mitzvot in order to avert punishment by water, a choreography of teshuvah and fasting when the rains are delayed. It is in the DNA of rabbinic Judaism following the biblical exhortations – lack of rain follows the disruption of our relationship with God
But water stress is also a problem – and a growing one – in the rest of the world, and we know that there the causes and solutions are quite different.
New data reveals that 17 countries – home to one-quarter of the world’s population—face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, where irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80% of their available supply on average every year.
Twelve out of these 17 most water-stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region is hot and dry, so water supply is low to begin with, but growing demands have pushed countries further into extreme stress. Climate change is set to complicate matters further: The World Bank found that this region has the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6-14% of GDP by 2050.
44 countries – one third of the world’s population, already face high levels of water stress. On average in these countries, more than 40 percent of the available supply is withdrawn every year. The World Bank also estimates that by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will live in regions or countries without enough water. Many other factors contribute to water scarcity – such as weak political will, climate variability and groundwater pollution – but climate change makes all of these challenges worse. When threats combine to lead to rapid water stress, the poorest suffer the worst consequences. (https://www.wri.org/news/2019/08/release-updated-global-water-risk-atlas-reveals-top-water-stressed-countries-and-states)
In the past decade floods, storms and fires, heatwaves and droughts have been increasing in frequency and in intensity. It is clear that this is a consequence of climate change. The top 20 warmest years on record have occurred in the last 25 years, with 2017 the hottest without the contribution of El Nino. The effect of this warming climate is an increasing impact on the water resources available to populations, and the effect of that drought will of course be famine, mass movement of desperate populations, potentially even war.
Isaac tried to reclaim the resources his father had used and presumably owned, but was no match for the resident population and each time moved on. It is a story of tribal struggle, of becoming a resource migrant, of learning that one cannot behave as we have been doing earlier, we must find new solutions to the problem of managing our resources alongside all who need to share them.
Abraham was insistent Isaac should never leave the land, but we know his descendants were forced by famine to go into Egypt where ultimately their fate was that of oppression and slavery. Returning to their own land after so many years away was a journey fraught with danger, but also requiring them to acknowledge that they would not take any of the resources of the land through which they were passing. (see Moses’ appeal to the King of Edom Numbers 20:17): “Let us pass I beg through your land, we will not pass through field or vineyard, nor will we drink of the water of the wells, we will go along the King’s Highway and will not turn right or left till we have passed your border” But Edom said to him “you will not pass through me, I will come out with a sword against you. And the children of Israel said: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of your water, I and my cattle, then will I give its price; only let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘Thou shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.”
This is the reality to this day. “Economic migrants” has become a term of abuse – how much more so when thousands of people fleeing water shortages, drought and famine will beg to come through or to our land? And what will our fate be when the floods wash away soil and crops, damage or destroy our houses? We are already seeing the effects of what rabbinic Judaism terms “judgement by water”.
We could go the route of ancient Israel and make teshuvah. Not by fasting and praying necessarily but by changing our behaviour, becoming more mindful of the wastage of water in our own lives. Whether it be use of water in our homes – leaving taps running, long showers etc., or awareness of the way the products we buy are using water )it was a shock for me to discover that the making of one small chocolate bar is takes 21 litres), whether it be smarter plumbing (or simply a brick in the toilet cistern) , we all need to learn how to conserve our water supplies. It may seem an odd thing to read in rainy and flooded England currently (other countries too), but the floods here are the other side of the coin of drought there, and they wash away infrastructure, soil and crops leaving agriculture and transport vulnerable.
Isaac moved to Rechovot – the broad place where there was space for him and his family to live and to thrive. We don’t have that option. Climate change and water stress is a global phenomenon, a global emergency. We are all responsible for each other, we are all responsible for the earth and her resources. It is time for the tikkun, to help heal the world and to treat her with the respect she deserves. As the psalmist writes:
The earth is the Eternal’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For God has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods. (Psalm 24)
If you want to read more about water stress and ways to help: