• Adrian J. Boas

On Resolving the Shortage of Water

Updated: Dec 24, 2018

When in the Middle East the topic of weather begins to be discussed as frequently as in less volatile parts of the world, the case for global warming seems harder, for those who would do so, to write off. But if drought is the main manifestation of climate change experienced in this region, it is also something that has always been part of the climatic cycle. Over the past few years the decline in rainfall in the north of Israel, particularly in the catchment areas in the eastern Galilee, and the consequential steady drop in the level of the Sea of Galilee, has become a major concern. A few years ago the Israeli government introduced, after what can only be regarded as regrettable dragging of feet, a large-scale desalination program that, if it has not resolved the problem, has certainly alleviated its effects on the household water supply throughout the country.

It has always been a mystery to me why measures have not been taken to make better use of the substantial amount of rainfall that falls, briefly but abundantly, during the winter months. Technology has enabled the transmutation of sea water into drinking water, but the much simpler effort of harvesting what comes regularly, naturally and fairly abundantly – rainwater – has been largely neglected. One would think that this is an undertaking that even politicians, who are understandably reluctant to take on any long-term commitments that they might not be able to benefit from in quadrennial election campaigns, might be able to accomplish. It seems that sometimes one needs to turn from those who should be responsible, to private individuals who are willing to help through the goodness of their heart.

At a time of drought in twelfth century Jerusalem, both the administrator and a wealthy private citizen joined forces in an effort to alleviate the shortage of water for the benefit of the citizens. Sometime during the reign of Amalric (1163-1174) the king exchanged a vineyard in his possession for two vineyards belonging to the abbey of Mount Sion [Zion] at the bottom of the Valley of Hinnom where it slopes south below Mount Zion. A dam was constructed across the valley and the area above it was flooded to form what became known as the Pool of Germain (lacus Germani/lac Germains). This probably occurred close to 1169 as in that year the reservoir was mentioned in the account of a German pilgrim, Theoderich, who called it the Nova Cisterna (New Cistern).

The name Germain/Germanus is recorded in the transaction as the owner of a house located adjacent to one of the vineyards.* It is this individual who appears to be the real hero of the story. He was no doubt involved in the construction of the dam. That he played a central role in this endeavour is not only suggested by the fact that it was his name rather than that of the king that was henceforth attached to the reservoir, but by the recording of other measures subsequently undertaken by him elsewhere in the city, for the very same aim of improving the supply of water for the citizens.

As there was little rainfall in the winter of 1185-6, Germain "...very eager to do good for the sake of God", had marble basins set up in the walls at three points in the city "…and at each of these basins he had two cups attached by chains, and he always kept them full of water. Any man or woman could go there to drink."**

In another effort to improve the water supply he brought workmen to clear an ancient well (Ain Rogel/Bir Ayyub) to the south of the city walls, and set an antiliya wheel above it (a large, horse-turned wheel which lowered jugs into the well and brought them up full of water). He supplied his own horses to run the wheel night and day. He also paid to have men and packhorses carry the water from the well to the basins he had earlier set up in the city.

The foremost of Germain's efforts, the reservoir that once carried his name, today functions as an open-air concert venue. Most of the water supplying Jerusalem comes now from several hundreds of kilometres away. Times have certainly changed but the old problems still remain, awaiting perhaps a new Germain to help resolve them.

*Gustav Reinhold Röhricht, Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani, 1097–1291, Innsbruck, 1893 , no. 536 [Revised Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani internet, no. 970]. **The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre 1184-1197, in Peter Edbury, ed. transl., The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade, Aldershot and Burlington, 2007, p. 16.