Our Man at Davos 2001: Prof. Arnon Soffer Meets (And Gives Some Advice to) the World’s Elite

The University’s Prof. Arnon Soffer of the Dept. of Geography, holder of the Chair in National Security Studies, was one of only four Israeli academics to be invited to one of the world’s most elite gatherings, the World Economic Forum, held in Davos, Switzerland, this past January. Focus wanted to know how it was to hobnob with the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, with most of the world’s makers and shakers in almost every field of endeavor. What advice did Professor Soffer have to offer?

Focus: First of all, what were your general impressions of Davos, of this world gathering?

Soffer: I knew about Davos as an important institution. Bibi (former Prime Minister Netanyahu) had gone there as did others. I was there six days, and I want to tell you that it was really a special experience. The Swiss, especially Professor Schwab, who conceived the idea and set it motion, succeed in bringing to a Swiss village for six or seven days nearly, according to the data of the 2001 event, 80 heads of state, which is an amazing feat, something like the Security Council or the UN General Assembly. Also, scores of foreign ministers, and others, like tens of Nobel Prize Laureates, the heads of the world’s largest institutes—in this year’s case, those in the areas of ecology and supervision of natural resources—“first class” people from around the world; in addition to, I would say, some 2500 of the world’s richest people and people from all areas of the media. I spent time in the company of a very beautiful young black woman, by the name of Naomi Campbell, who I later learned is one of the top models of the world. I sat at a table with the well-known Oprah Winfrey; there was a photographer from Benneton there, as well as people from all kinds of activities, and about 230 academics. You would meet all these people every day for a week. This is what made it an unprecedented experience.

I participated in scores of meetings from among the 330 that were held in simultaneous sessions, practically non-stop—an extraordinary experience. For example, one meeting tried to define, Who is a hero? It was led by Elie Wiesel. It was simply amazing—the event and the quality of the people who took part. There was an event at which I was the only Israeli present. I went to a gala luncheon sponsored by the Royal House of Saudi Arabia to hear how they view Saudia in the coming years. No one talked to me but they were all very polite. But for me, it was interesting to sit in this company—the Saudi Crown Prince, the Oil Minister, who replaced Sheikh Yamani.

Focus: Did they know you are an Israeli?

Soffer: They knew about me. I wore this tag that said exactly who I was. They had other means of finding out about me that I’ll tell you about a little later. No, they, the Saudis did not talk with me. In any case, it was a lunch, a magnificent one as you might imagine, and their purpose was to explain their world outlook. Several Westerners who were there, oil company people, got angry at them [the Saudis] for not opening up enough, not sufficiently hospitable. I sat and listened because I wanted to hear what they had to say, to see how they looked. This was an example of the kind of meetings that I attended.

Focus: But you did more than just sit in the audience, didn’t you?

Soffer: I was an active participant in two meetings, one of them as moderator of the panel. To give you an example of the kind of people who were participating: Sitting beside me was Mohamed El-Ashry, an Egyptian, chairman and CEO of Global Environment Facility in the United States. Next to him was Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the CEO of Nestlé. Then Gérard Oayen, chairman of France’s Lyonnaise des Eaux, a kind of billion dollar Mekorot [Israel’s water company]. Digvijay Singh, chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh in India. One other panelist was Maritta R. von Bieberstein Koch-Weser, director-general of the Geneva-based World Conservation Union. Although I was moderator of this discussion, whose formal title was “A Glass Half Empty,” about water management, I saw that I had much to contribute as someone who comes from the Middle East. We here see things from a very special viewpoint, and I was quoted. I am proud to say that, for there were perhaps some 300 professors at Davos, and no more than twenty were quoted in the official publications issued by the Forum, and I was one of them. To my surprise, I must admit.

Focus: Let’s talk a little about this resource—water. They quoted you as defining the issue of water shortage as a “mental problem.” What do you mean by that?

Soffer: It’s a myth. They all agreed with me on that. The so-called shortage of water is a myth. The woman from India, who is one of the biggest fighters for equality, said, ‘Our Ganges, for us it’s holy.” In other words, water is doesn’t have economic value as Shechter [Prof. Mordechai Shechter of the University’s Economics Dept. who set up its Environmental and Natural Resources Management Center] has argued. It’s not a commodity. It has sacred value. Just as you don’t sell the Temple Mount [in Jerusalem] because it has a sacred value. The world relates to water as something holy, not as a subject for discussion in terms of money and how much it costs. In the Middle East, too, we relate to water in this way.

Focus: As something holy, a sacred commodity?

Soffer: Yes, as something holy. As a result, there are all sorts of considerations when it comes to the matter of ‘compromises.’ This doesn’t work when you are dealing with something sacred. An Orthodox Jew, for instance, doesn’t find it difficult to relate to his religion: there is only one God. That’s a given for him. It’s the same idea [with water]. Therefore I told the audience that whenever we speak in terms of water having economic value—in other words, applying a rational approach to this subject—we don’t understand that most of the people around the globe see water as having mythical value.

Focus: Does this mean that there is no shortage of water?

Soffer: That’s one thing. Let me backtrack a second. You have to understand that the panelists in these meetings were given only six minutes each to talk. As moderator, I actually had 13 minutes, between my opening, closing and summary, and comment or two when introducing a speaker. Everything worked according to the clock—a Swiss clock. There were no foul-ups. Every one of the 300 meetings began on time and ended on time. This was great organization, but it hardly allowed development of an idea.

Now, as to your question. Look, in Israel there is in effect no shortage of water. None. If Israel decides on a rational approach and shuts off all of Israeli agriculture, then we will have an abundance of water at that precise moment. It’s a matter of one thing coming at the expense of another. This is true of India and other countries as well as of the large cities around the world. I am talking, of course, about drinking water. The problem is not a shortage, but how to deliver the water, how to maintain its purity for drinking. This is a big difficulty in the Third World. Here I might add, and this is often mentioned, the expense today of bringing water very large cities, like Calcutta, Bombay, Mexico City, and so on, is so great, the projects involved in this are so dear, that we might perhaps ask ourselves whether it is not worthwhile to save first of all. If 50% of the water is presently wasted, let us make an effort to take care of what exists. This is an example of the kinds of problems that exist with water. I informed the audience—and we had a big crowd at this meeting; standing room only, in fact—I told them of a frightening forecast: in another twenty years, there will be two billion people without access to drinking water. Today, because people take water directly from a stream, from a canal, a well, and this water has of course not been boiled, four million children die every year from unclean water from these sources.

Focus: Isn’t this a contradiction? On theone hand, you said that there is no shortage of water, that the problem is in its delivery. On the other hand, you are now saying that soon many people will face a shortage.

Soffer: I will give an example. We have [here in Israel] the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the Jordan river. If there is no more agriculture, then there will plenty of water. But in the Israeli reality, who needs so much drinking water? The Greater Tel Aviv region. There is need to bring more and more water to the residents of Greater Tel Aviv, and this water delivery is expensive. When we look at the overall picture, there is water. The Third World has water, except perhaps for those states crossed by the Sahara; they truly do not have water. The large problems, however, like Mexico, like India, China, may be even Egypt, do not have to do with water per se. The problem has to do with clean water and how to deliver it to the people.

Focus: What about Jordan? They say that Amman has a real shortage.

Soffer: That’s correct. Jordan is one of those states that have a genuine water shortage. Amman has no water. But this is a specific case. I mentioned that. What I was talking about previously, however, was when there is water but no money for delivering it. Millions of people go long distances on foot to fetch water—and what they bring back is dirty water.

Focus: Were there those at Davos who rejected your contention?

Soffer: No. It turned out that everyone on the panel was in agreement. There may have been disagreement on some of the numbers, but not on the facts. The question, then, is, What is the correct policy? Should there be large-scale projects, or is it better to work in the direction of saving? Of population dispersal? On this, there is debate.

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