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Passover, Plagues, and the Contemporary Water Crisis

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Drought leads to famine, which leads to migration, which leads to civil unrest and political upheaval, which leads to violence, water pollution, disease and death. As I was studying these issues in my M.A. program at the Army War College, focusing on regional issues with global impact, a light bulb went off – all of these issues that plague us in the contemporary strategic environment sound an awful lot like the plagues of the Exodus.

The strategic importance of water cannot be underestimated. “Water has meant the difference between life and death, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty, environmental sustainability and degradation, progress and decay, stability and insecurity,” write Erik Peterson and Rachel Posner in “The World’s Water Challenge,” an article published in Current History (February 2010).

All of these themes are evidenced in the Exodus story, where water plays a prominent role and undergirds the narrative. The story begins with drought that leads to famine, motivating the Israelites to migrate to Egypt in search of food. We see the same pattern repeated in the contemporary world. A 2009 Global Strategic Assessment reports, for example: “Water shortages are causing rising food prices and forcing migration in some areas of China.” The Israelites, displaced by the famine, are new immigrants to Egypt, where their explosive growth in population is threatening to the native Egyptians.

As an adult, Moses is forced to flee Egypt, and at the well of Midian, he meets his future wife, Tzipporah. Even today, the well is the central gathering place for many communities, and finding and providing drinking water absorbs many hours of many people’s lives. “An obscenely large portion of the world’s population,” report Peterson and Posner, “lacks regular access to fresh drinking water or adequate sanitation. Water-related diseases are a major burden in countries across the world. Water consumption patterns in many regions are no longer sustainable.”

When Moses returns to Egypt seeking freedom for his people, Pharaoh is unmoved by the signs and wonders he performs. God instructs Moses and Aaron to meet him at the edge of the water, and it is there that Aaron brings the first plague – turning the water into blood. This initial plague leads to a series of natural disasters, culminating in the death of the firstborn.

The relationship between war and water continues to this day: “Drought, desertification and food shortage are among the factors that foment conflict within states by tipping some areas, at least, into social collapse,” as noted in “Streams of Blood or Streams of Peace: Rivers and Conflict” (Economist, May 3, 2008).

Even after the Israelites escape, water is a prominent theme. Our ancestors are not safe until the waters of the sea part. Throughout the time of wandering in the desert, the search for water remains a priority. The Midrash suggests that as long as Miriam was alive, there was always a well available to the Israelites. Today, we commemorate Miriam’s well with a special blessing at our Passover seder.

Ismail Serageldin, a former vice president of the World Bank, offers this dire warning: “Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water.” The United States, in collaboration with the international community, must address the critical need for more effective management of this critical resource. At our present rate of consumption, over-pumping of the world’s aquifers inevitably will lead to food shortages, a phenomenon that will be frighteningly destabilizing and will negatively affect the potential for conflict.

In her book of the same name, journalist Cynthia Barnett calls for a “Blue Revolution,” focusing on a new “water ethic” that seeks to overcome what she describes as the “spectacular squander” of water use in America today: “We must change not only the wasteful ways we consume water in our homes, businesses, farms and energy plants, but also the inefficient ways we move water to and away from them.”

As we bless Miriam’s cup at the seder this year, let us take to heart this important lesson of the Exodus story: Water is our lifeblood, and as we as a culture focus on becoming more green, even more so do we need to focus on becoming blue.

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