Water - the Mideast's Inescapable Issue

By , M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., is a political scientist and director of the Institute for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies in Eugene, Oregon.

AMONG the many burdensome responsibilities confronting the Israeli military government in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and Gaza Strip is controlling water - from drilling new wells to bringing it to dinner tables.

For 25 years the Israeli armed forces have set water policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. Few issues facing negotiators at the current Middle East peace talks perhaps are as important as guidelines for the distribution of water. Water is a precious resource throughout the region, and future conflicts in the Middle East are more likely to arise over water than over oil or land.

The central issue in the peace talks is control of land, but beneath the land is the critical resource that sustains life. Water is essential to the preservation of the state of Israel, and it is essentially the only natural resource possessed by the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

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Water-related matters were largely responsible for the war that yielded to Israel the present occupied territories. Before the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel extracted 300 million cubic meters of water a year from an aquifer (underground reservoir) that lies beneath the hills of the West Bank (which was then within Jordan). The Arabs of the West Bank used only a fraction of this amount, pumping 20 million cubic meters. The proportions remain roughly the same today.

The aquifer provides about a fifth of Israel's water. Arabs have been kept by Israeli authorities from increasing their extractions. Israelis have dug wells to supply West Bank settlements, but most of the aquifer's water continues to be taken from wells outside the West Bank.

Within its pre-1967 borders, Israel was able to tap the waters of the Sea of Galilee, a natural holding reservoir on the River Jordan. Israel's National Water Carrier, a giant pipeline three meters in diameter, can transport more than one million cubic meters of water a day from the Sea of Galilee across country, down the coast, and on to the Negev desert. Israel was able to recreate the River Jordan as a pipeline within its own territory after the Six-Day War, when most of the Jordan and its catchment, including the Golan Heights, fell into Israeli hands.

Israel now meets a full 30 percent of its entire water needs by direct extraction and diversion from West Bank sources. This translates to 80 percent of West Bank reserves.

The influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union could raise annual demand for water by 650 million cubic meters, according to the Israeli Water Authority. Under the Israeli quota system, Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank receive only a fraction of the water allowed Israelis each year: 115-142 cubic meters per person, in contrast to 537 cubic meters per person in Israel proper, and 965 cubic meters per Israeli settler in the West Bank itself.

IN addition, Palestinians have to pay twice as much for their water, and Palestinian farmers receive none of the subsidies given their Israeli counterparts. Permits from the military authorities are required before new wells can be dug or old ones restored; permits are also needed for construction of simple water catchments. Consequently, Palestinian residents of houses or camps that no longer receive drinking water must form queues at a pumping station to receive their ration of water.

In addition, the Israeli agricultural sector is allowed unlimited water, often to produce such water-guzzling crops as tomatoes, cotton, and oranges. This overpumping to produce a green Israel has led, in many cases, to saline intrusion into aquifers and to toxicity.

Of the two aquifers that supply much of Israel's water, one is in the occupied West Bank. That is simple geography. But there's nothing simple about the politics involved. Many Israelis are worried the Middle East peace talks could result in giving the land back to either Jordan, which has less water than Israel, or to an autonomous Palestinian state. The Arab inhabitants of the West Bank would then immediately increase their use of the aquifer by digging new wells. This could siphon off Israeli water su pples.

Water rights and "water security" are on the minds of all parties negotiating for peace. Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis all have water woes. And water is known as a zero-sum game - one party's gain will be another's loss.

Will the peace talks produce a Palestinian state on the West Bank? Will the Arab inhabitants control the water rights there? Can once warring parties cooperate over water use in the region? Unless the politics of water distribution is resolved the region will remain unstable. If the countries in the Middle East do not reach a water agreement by the end of this decade, they will be facing the possibility of major new conflicts.

The West Bank aquifer symbolizes the underlying crisis of the new Middle East. Can governments look beyond old politics to the region's crucial ecology? The long-term survival of everyone requires it.

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