Israel's water needs may erode path to peace in region

By , Dr. Stauffer is research associate at the Harvard Center of Middle East Studies.

Israel today, just as in the early 1960s, is running short of water.

And for this reason, the water in the wells of the Israeli-occupied West Bank is fast becoming the most ominous obstacle to any peaceful settlement in the region.

The Israeli press is replete with references to the need to retain the West Bank in order to protect Jewish water supplies from encroaching Arab wells. This problem is real - and transcends the West Bank itself.

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Two aquifers provide almost all of the groundwater for Northern and Central Israel, both arising in the West Bank. The shallower sandstone aquifer is recharged partly from runoff and percolation of rainwater falling on the former Jordanian lands. The deeper and more copious limestone aquifer is recharged largely or, possibly, entirely by rainwater from the West Bank.

Both aquifers drain westward toward the Mediterranean, where they are tapped by an elaborate and expensive system of wells between Haifa and Tel Aviv.

These two aquifers provide about one-fifth of Israel's total water consumption but, moreover, the smooth functioning of that system of Israeli wells and water from Jordan is the linchpin in the entire Israeli water balance. The wells are pumped in the summer but recharged during the winter with water extracted from the Jordan River, a hydrological balance which could be dangerously upset if either source of Jordanian waters were interrupted.

It is therefore critically important for the Israelis to forestall any substantive Arab development of the West Bank, so that these percolating rainwaters continue to flow across into pre-1967 Israel, where they are not only consumed but also serve to stabilize pressure and prevent Mediterranean salt water from intruding into Israel's coastal water wells. This occurred before the 1967 war and before Israel's diversion of the upper Jordan River had been completed. The chains of new settlements, maintained at considerable subsidy cost, are indispensable in preserving these aquifers for Israeli use.

Control of the West Bank thus ensures control of the underground aquifers arising on the West Bank. But access to water is still more broadly part of Israel's territorial interests. More generally the annexation of the Golan Heights, together with the steady accretions of Syrian and Lebanese borderlands to the north, fits integrally into Israel's longer-term water policies.

Control of Golan is the necessary predicate for the final move into Lebanon to acquire the Litani River. Conversely, any return of the Golan area not merely compromises that longer-term objective but also threatens Israel's successful preemption of the entire flow of fresh water from the upper Jordan River basin.

Currently another 25 percent of Israel's water is extracted from the Sea of Galilee, most of which is pumped 370 meters over the mountains out of the Jordan watershed for consumption in central and southern Israel. The National Water Carrier, initiated in 1953 and completed in 1964, is an elaborate engineering triumph; a system of pumping stations, nine-foot reinforced steel conduits, canals, and siphons, all deeply entrenched against attack.

Since the late 1960s it has brought all of the irrigation-quality water from the area north of Galilee to the coastal areas, except for small amounts pumped to the Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights. Only salt water is discharged into the Jordan bed downstream.

Control of Golan is necessary to protect the intake system and the pumping works, embedded in rock cliffs three kilometers south of the ancient city of Capernaum (now Kafer Nahum), well within artillery range of the Golan ridges overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Control also serves to block any Syrian or multilateral Arab effort to recapture the upper Jordan waters by a diversionary canal intercepting Israel's own diversion.

The threat of an Arab counterdiversion, especially of the headwaters arising in the Hasbani River, is quite real. In the early 1960s, as the Israelis' own scheme was close to fruition, Syria spearheaded an Arab project to cut the Hasbani upstream of the Israeli pumping system and divert that water across southwestern Syria into the Yarmuk River.

Israeli military strikes quashed that project and their final seizure of the entire area in 1967 interposed their tanks and fortifications across the proposed route for the Arab canals and pipelines, effectively completing Israel's encirclement of the headwaters of the upper Jordan River.

Control of Golan also ensures that the Yarmuk River cannot be fully developed. In 1967 the Israelis destroyed the site of the Khaled Dam at Mukhaiba in Jordan and later blew up the East Ghor Canal, the sole irrigation artery to the east bank of the Jordan Valley.

Jordan does receive some water from the Yarmuk River, but the untapped waters flow into the Nahariya Pool area at the junction of the Yarmuk and Jordan, where another short Israeli pipeline pumps water into Galilee and thence by displacement for transmission to Tel Aviv and the Negev. Jordan hydrologists claim that Israel now extracts most of the water which had been denied to Jordan , an estimate larger than Israel's official admissions, and US officials remain vague.

Since the destruction of the Khaled Dam the Israelis have successfully thwarted subsequent efforts by Jordan to develop the Yarmuk waters, thus preserving their supplies in the Yarmuk triangle and for diversion to the Mediterranean coast. The most recent project for a Jordanian dam at Maqarin, well upstream on the Yarmuk, has been compromised by the implicit threat to destroy the site as well.

However, the Golan Heights are even more important in the context of Israel's future water policy as a steppingstone - quite literally - to the liberation or occupation of the southeastern corner of the Lebanon and physical control of the Litani. While estimates of the available flow from the Litani differ considerably, Israeli sources argue that a minimum of 400 million cubic meters yearly could be diverted into Israel - or as much as 700 million if the Lebanese dam upstream could be destroyed or its spillways opened.

The Litani River has long been a target (since the early Zionist settlements in Palestine under the British mandate) but that target - essentially academic until recently - now adds an ever increasing urgency to the older designs upon the Litani waters.

Plans for acquiring the Litani were articulated soon after Israel came into being in 1948, and the recently published diaries of Moshe Sharret, reveal such Cabinet-level discussions in the mid-1950s. At a more mundane level, restaurant place mats in the Tel Aviv Sheraton Hotel show the historical boundaries of Israel spanning the area of today's Lebanon well north of the Litani. Historical claims thus correlate closely with economic exigency, and Israeli publications refer tellingly to the ''wasted'' resources of the Litani juxtaposed to Israel's needs.

The waters of the Litani River promise an increase of between 25 and 45 percent in water availability, all the more alluring now that the sewage reclamation projects, the last options for indigenous water, are being completed. Diversion of the Litani into Israel is physically easy, a simpler undertaking than the National Water Carrier, and the engineering studies are reportedly complete.

The Litani runs close to the Israeli border near the western approaches to Golan, just below the Beaufort Castle, now a Palestinian stronghold. There the Litani swings 90 degrees into a deep gorge and flows toward the west. From there a six-mile long pipeline transfers the water to Metulla in Israel. It is understood, however, that an offtake several miles farther north is technically preferable, and other routes - all viewed as routinely easy - have been studied.

At the present time some 300-plus million cubic meters of Litani water flow into the sea, unused. A second dam in Lebanon had been planned in the early '70s to use those waters to irrigate the lower Bekka Valley. Lebanese sources assert this project was blocked by Israeli intervention with the US government and the international financial institutions.

The waters are thus there - technically wasted - and the reality of Israel's interest in the Litani is uncontested. The only uncertainties are the timetable and the question whether the US might again veto the final occupation of southern Lebanon. Several years' lead time is necessary for the civil works to divert the water, suggesting some urgency, given the impending water shortage in Israel.

On the other hand, Israel has the technical capacity already installed to bridge temporary water shortages by drawing the coastal aquifers down over several years and using the water currently. This strategy was used earlier, but it is safe if and only if they can rely upon minimum known volumes of additional water at some prescribed future date.

Israel's water consumption continues to grow inexorably, and would all the more so if immigration were to increase again. Since needs are increasing while existing resources are fully committed, these water requirements constitute nonnegotiable demands. US aid can make up for lost tourist revenues, as in 1975, at least in theory, but water is not substitutable, given that desalinization is vastly too expensive to support the 70 percent of Israel's water which goes into agriculture.

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