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Water In the Middle East Conflict

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Water In the Middle East Conflict

A long time ago, on another planet perhaps, Israelis and Palestinians dreamed of a Middle East where neighbors could share resources to their mutual benefit. It could still happen....

Water: Their Well-Being is Also Ours

Arie Issar

Translated from Ha'aretz 1.1.93

The peace program must include a staged solution to the regional water problem, that will take into account the development of Palestinian society. The means include pumping water from the Sinai and Negev aquifers. The agreement between Rabin and Arafat was an attempt to move the clock back to the eve of the War of Independence, when the Jews in the Land of Israel accepted the idea of partition, while the Arabs rejected it. Today, the Arabs acknowledge their error and accept the principle of partition, but at the same time, they also demand a repartition of resources-mainly those of water. They claim that the source of most of the water in the Uplands Aquifer (containing about a third of the water utilized by Israel) is the water that filters down through the uplands mostly occupied by Arabs, and therefore, this water is "Palestinian". Such a position is practically and legally untenable, just as it is impossible to recreate the population distribution of Arabs and Jews and to adopt the United Nations partition plan of 1947.

Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the Arab contention that because of the facts we have created on the ground, such as the agricultural development and the high water consumption by the urban sector, they have been left without resources to develop that would allow their advancement as a modern society. These claims must be also taken into account, because unilateral determination of water resource utilization prevents discussion with the Palestinians on cooperative water management that would include steps to prevent aquifer pollution by the Arab population. This population is situateded on the exposed rocks via which the rainwater drains to the underground reservoirs.

Therefore, we and the Palestinians have the obligation to draw up a cooperative regional plan for water resources utilization (as part of a regional plan with our other neighbors), that will permit development of our respective agricultural and urban sectors. In their wellbeing lies our own, while their economic deterioration, with its great attendant disappointment in the peace process, is a sure recipe for the ascendancy of religious fundamentalism and the continued reign of terror in the region.

A number of articles have been published in the press by Israeli water experts, containing warnings on the dangers of Palestinian control over the uplands of Judea and Samaria. They claim that this will also lead to seizure of control over the water resources of the State of Israel. To calm the intemperate climate stirred up by these articles, let me present some facts and figures. The quantity of water which percolates down from the uplands region is some 600 million cubic metres per year (mcmpy), of which quantity, about 400 mcmpy flows westward into the YarkonTaninim aquifer. Let us assume that the Palestinians will take about half of this water (they could not take more than this because of the geological conditions) and we shall need to desalinate an equal amount of sea water. The average cost of desalination is $1 per cm. Thus, even in the worst scenario, the cost to the Israeli taxpayer would be about $200 million per year. This is about the sum that the Treasury transfers every year to the pockets of Yeshiva students, "whose law is their faith". However, we have not heard that anyone of those railing against the agreement between the PLO and Israel has suggested we cancel the  agreement with the religious parties because of this sum.

The necessary conclusion is that it is highly important to separate, in the debate on the problem of water, the claims made on a nationalistic basis from those made on a hydrological basis. Nevertheless, we are certainly facing a problem that must be solved together with our Arab neighbors using both wisdom and scientific knowledge.

The hydrological solution lies, I believe, in a long term regional plan for "Water and Peace in Stages", and the first stage is the arrangement with the Palestinians. Since our ability to forecast is too short for me to be able to lay a possible regional plan before the reader, I shall merely present the principles of the first stage, i.e., the Israeli/Palestinian phase of a multistage regional plan.

This plan is based on the development of the following resources:

*  Collection of water-still fresh-that flows to the saline springs  discharging into the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. The potential is at    least 50 mcmpy.

*  Pumping water from the aquifer beneath the Sinai and the Negev,  that contains fossil water, and diverting it towards the El Arish and Gaza  region. This water is fairly sweet (about 800 milligram Cl/litre) and about 100 mcmpy can be pumped for many years to come. This project should be carried out in cooperation with the Egyptians. It would thus be possible to  transfer to the Gaza Strip some 50 mcmpy, which is about what they now lack.

* Desalination-using the relatively inexpensive reverse osmosis  method-from Israeli saline springs such as the Taninim Springs, as well as  from underground saline water found by drilling. Here, too, we are speaking   of some 50 mcmpy.

* Raising the cost of fresh water to the Israeli consumer (both urban  and agricultural-though not to the same extent), as a spur to conservation and the use of Grade B water.

All these steps would be in addition to the setting up of plants for the purification of sewage water in all the urban centers, Israeli and Arab. This should be given top priority in the allocation of financial resources contributed by the international community for the Palestinian Autonomous Authority, both for reasons of public health and to increase their available irrigation water.

In a period of five years, it would be possible to add 200 mcmpy to the Palestinian water economy (about 30% would come from the National Water Carrier as drinking water for the Gaza Strip). All this as phase one of the more general regional plan. As a second phase, it is proposed to bring from Lebanon about 1000 mcmpy in a coastal pipe. Today, this water flows into the sea. In the final phase, it is proposed to bring water from south western Turkey (an alternative to the "peace pipe" proposed by the Turks and totally rejected by the Arab countries). Unless exploited, this water will continue to flow into the sea at a rate of billions of cubic metres per year.

Prof.Emeritus  Arie. S. Issar
J. Blaustein Institute for Desert Research
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Sede Boker Campus
84990 ISRAEL

Copyright by the author and Ha'aretz. Reprinted by Permission

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