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Water Cooperation in the Middle East


Amid the gloom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it's a joy to go to a meeting in Jerusalem where hope and cooperation are the keynotes, especially when it's on an issue that usually carries dire threats of war: water.

The warnings exist because water, critical for existence, is in such short supply in this part of the world. A primary reason for Israel holding and annexing the Golan Heights in the north is that it means survival: it's the watershed for more than 55% of the country's fresh water needs. In 1964, Syria began to divert water that flows into the Yarmuk river, a tributary of the Jordan, and then into the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Israel used armed force to destroy the construction works.

Yet behind the scenes Israeli and Palestinian water experts, plus others from regional countries such as Turkey and Jordan and international experts, have been working together for years -- and, belying popular belief, "it's an easy dispute to resolve," says one of them. They have been brought together by IPCRI (Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information). The recent meeting was to mark the publication of their conclusions in a book, Water Resources in the Middle East* with more than 30 articles about the region's water problems. The editors are Professor Hillel Shuval of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and Professor Hassan Dweik of Al Quds University, Jerusalem.

The basic facts are: Lebanon currently has available about 1,000 cubic meters of water per person a year, Syria 800, Israel 240, Jordan 200, and Palestine less than 100. The worst-off Palestinians are angered by the sight of well-watered gardens in Israeli settlements on the West Bank whereas not all Palestinian homes in towns and rural areas have piped water. Shuval told the meeting he estimates that the "Minimum Water Requirement" to maintain a reasonable level of life and for "vital human needs" in the Middle East is about 125 cubic meters per person a year. That would cover water for drinking, domestic and urban purposes for a hygienic standard of living and for commerce and industry. But not for agriculture, water for which could be provided largely by recycled water.

Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank draw water from two main sources -- the Kinneret which is fed by the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers that run from Syria and, to a lesser extent from Lebanon; and the Mountain Aquifer, most of which is in the intended Palestinian state. Israel is often accused of using an undue amount of what is available and of stealing water from the rightful owners, the Palestinians. Yes and no, says Shuval.

He explains that rainwater flows naturally underground from the Palestinian mountains towards the areas of Israel along the coast and "some 80% of it has been pumped up and utilised historically by Jewish farmers within the current internationally recognised borders of Israel for at least 80 years." The Palestinians base their claim for their rights to these shared waters on the fact that some 85% of the water available in the aquifer falls as rainfall over lands that will be included within the proposed Palestinian state and should be allocated to them based on the concept that the water rights should go along with the land.

"The Israelis base their claim on the fact that international water law recognises prior or historic use as a standard basis for water rights regardless of the sources of the water. Israel cites the case of Syrian and Iraqi claims of water rights over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which are derived mainly from rainfall in Turkey." The same applies to Egypt, which has hardly any water of its own but depends on the Nile River from the south."

The Mountain Aquifer can provide a safe yield of 700 million cubic meters of water a year. It is being fully used, with Israel drawing 500 million cubic meters and the West Bank 200. There were no legal restrictions on drilling for water on the West Bank under the successive rules of Turkey, Britain and Jordan. But after Israel's conquest in 1967, it restricted Palestinian water development and has instead drilled its own wells.

In the Gaza Strip, where most of the water for the Palestinians derives from the separate Coastal Aquifer, the problems are more severe than in the West Bank since the aquifer, which is shallow, has been over-pumped. As many as 1,000 illegal wells have been sunk by Palestinians over the years since the Palestinian Authority was established and the rate of extraction is far in excess of what the aquifer can sustain. Brackish water from the sea has entered the aquifer and the quality of its water has been much reduced.

In spite of all this "an equitable solution is possible," says Shuval, "which will involve Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Agreement on the significant reallocation of water can be a motivation for peace."

It's in Israel's interests to ensure that Palestinians get adequate amounts of water, he says. Israel can forgo the 75 million cubic meters a year that it is pumping on the West Bank. It has already given up 5 million cubic meters in the Gaza Strip. And it can afford to forgo a further 75 million cubic meters: desalinated water is becoming available in large quantities (last year, Israel opened a new desalination plant in Ashkelon which is producing about 100,000 cubic meters a year), and more and more of agriculture's needs are being met by using treated waste water. Thus a total 155 million cubic meters, 12% of Israel's current usage, will become available. Indeed, he notes, it's rumoured that at the 2000 Camp David talks Israel unofficially offered to give up 200 million cubic meters to the Palestinians.

The change in policy is made possible because desalination plants like Ashkelon can now provide fresh water for 50c to 60c a cubic meter -- which is fully comparable with the cost of water from other sources. The cost of providing additional desalination plants over the next decade is estimated at $20 to $40 million a year -- virtually meaningless compared with Israel's gross domestic product of $100 billion.

In addition, if Syria and Lebanon reallocate 250 million cubic meters a year from their share of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers -- that's less than one percent of their water resources -- the total amount would meet Palestinian needs until the year 2025. "There's no need for a war over water over trivial issues," says Shuval. "It's an easy dispute to resolve. Water can be replaced by water."

The benefits of cooperation are already in evidence between Israel and Jordan: since their peace treaty in 1994, Israel transfers 75 million cubic meters of high-quality water each year to Jordan and does so regardless of the amount of rainfall in any year.

It's not all plain sailing, however. As others pointed out at the meeting, desalination creates its own problems: it adds to global warming and mass dumping of brine-concentrated salts -- will damage the Mediterranean's ecosystem. The Dead Sea is also in trouble: its level is dropping because not enough water is flowing into it from the Jordan River, endangering the mining of minerals and tourism.

On the other hand, Turkey has an abundance of water and there's a proposal for millions of cubic meters to be floated to Israel in giant plastic tubes pulled by tugboats. Turkey is also interested in building a communications corridor to the Middle East, laying a pipe on the floor of the Mediterranean for oil, gas and water. "The shortage of water is a sensitive issue and is becoming more important in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Professor Alfred Abed Rabbo of Bethlehem University told the meeting. "Water is one of the most vital final status issues."

Another Palestinian academic said: "Peace will solve many of these problems. If we have good intentions."

Benjamin Pogrund

*Water Resources in the Middle East: Israel-Palestinian Water Issues - From Conflict to Cooperation published by Springer, Heidelberg, Germany, May 2007, E129.95/ 100.00 sterling.

An abridged version of this article has appeared in the New Statesman, London.
Published by University of Pretoria Centre for International Political Studies (CIPS). Appears at MidEastWeb by permission.

Benjamin Pogrund is Director of Yakar's Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem. South African-born, he was Deputy Editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, and has written books about Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, and the Press under apartheid.

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