Water In the Middle East Conflict
The Water as a Parable
Arie IssarPresented by the PEACE Middle East Dialog Group
Translated from Ha'aretz June 1998
During the haggling over the percentages of withdrawal, experts have been quoted, who are able to determine, on the basis of maps and mathematical models, what percentage of the nation's security and water resources we are threatening with each half a percent of withdrawal. As a researcher into water resources who tries not to use scientific and economic measures to endorse political viewpoints, let me present an imaginary negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians (with American brokerage) that deals with the problem. These negotiations were drawn up as the background to a computerized model. Economists have a model of "maintaining a bargaining position", that expresses an attempt to quantify, by means of a computer program" the projected profit and loss of trading managers over the exploitation of a joint resource, ownership of which is open to dispute.
This approach is based on the
assumption that water is an economic resource, like any other merchandise that can be
bought and sold through bargaining. There are many who would argue with this
position and would say that, since water is essential to existence, it should be regarded
in the same was as land and not given up. However, in the case of the Israeli/Palestinian
conflict, water is a commodity that can be purchased - it can be desalinated
from Mediterranean sea water for essential consumption at a price every Israeli citizen
The present writer is no economist, but a geohydrologist, that is, a geologist who spends most of his time looking for water resources. Last April, I was invited to give a lecture at a workshop on Middle Eastern water problems, held in Nicosia, Cyprus, organized by an institute affiliated with the University of California at San Diego. The mission of the institute and the workshop was to search for solutions to regional conflicts, based on scientific research and meetings between scientists from both sides of the national divide. Researchers engineers, politicians and managers, from the U.S.A., Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan, participated in the workshop. The exercise in negotiation on the water problems in the West Bank is the outcome of the discussions in the workshop.
After preliminary statements, the Palestinian representative says that, in accord with the Oslo agreements, in which Israel recognizes the rights of the Palestinians to domestic water supplies, and on the basis of predicted population increase and rising standards of living, the Authority requests permission to draw on water from the Uplands Aquifer for the next decade at a rate of 200 million cubic metres per year (mcmpy), and within 20 years, 400 mcmpy. The Israeli was strongly opposed, on the grounds that this water is about one third of the overall water usage of the State of Israel. To replace this source, Israel would have to desalinate sea water-meaning an annual loss of $200 million, even rising to $400 million later on. The American intermediary proposes an economic compromise. He notes that Israel's GNP reaches some $100 billion, so that $200-400 million represents only 0.2 to 0.4% of GNP. He notes that the sum lost by Israel through the theft of motor vehicles and their smuggling over the border, reaches some $400 million per year, and proposes that the Palestinian Authority takes steps to stop the theft, the U.S.A. offers Israel low cost credit to start construction of a desalination plant to produce 200 mcmpy. When the plant goes into production, Israel will allow the Palestinians to draw this amount of water from the Uplands Aquifer. In the first stage, Israel would gain $200 million/year, and in the future, when the Palestinians would want to pump the full amount, the two sides would enter fresh negotiations.
The Palestinian agrees, but claims that since the border between Israel and the Autonomy is highly convoluted, the Palestinian police would be unable to close it off to the smuggling of vehicles. The only way is to shorten the border by the dismantling of isolated Jewish settlements stuck in the middle of the Arab population. The Israeli states that the settlements are important for security and defense of the water sources. The Palestinian replies that their removal and the resultant shortening of the border would also improve Israel's security. Thus, the debate slides into a well known weary pattern.
Prof.Emeritus Arie. S. Issar
J. Blaustein Institute for Desert Research
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Sede Boker Campus
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