IN the politically volatile Jordan Valley, competition for water, not land, is becoming the biggest obstacle to peace. For 6 million Israelis and Palestinians, the future will be dominated by the question of how to allocate the region's most precious resource.
Israel, whose water-efficient farmers made the desert bloom, is now living beyond its means. With all of its renewable water supplies already being over-exploited by 15 percent a year and with no new sources to turn to, the country is on the verge of one of its most severe crises. With water already being shifted away from agriculture to meet urban needs and with a 30 percent water deficit looming within a decade, Israel's security is at risk.
``Israel is on the threshold of a catastrophe,'' warns Arnon Soffer, a Haifa University geographer who, in a recent unpublished report to Israel's Foreign Ministry, cautioned that the combination of arid lands and exploding populations was a ``formula for disaster'' throughout the Middle East.
For Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, water shortages are not so much a function of nature as of politics. Although the West Bank is the source of 600-700 million cubic meters (mcm) of water annually, Israel has limited West Bank residents to one-fifth of that amount, stunting agriculture and retarding development. In Gaza, meanwhile, overpopulation has produced the most acute water shortages in the Middle East. At stake for Palestinians: the political and economic viability of a state now demanded by West Bank and Gaza Arabs.
``For Palestinians under occupation, time has ceased since 1967,'' says Palestinian economist Ibrahim Matar. ``Palestinians have been prevented from expanding their own water supplies since the occupation began.''
In Israel, the issue of water has become a potent tool in the hands of conservatives opposed to relinquishing the territories.
In a recent advertisement, under a menacing photo of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, the right-wing Israeli Tsomet Party warned that ``Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) means that this man will have the power to determine the quality and quantity of water you and your children drink.''
Palestinians, meanwhile, have their own worst-case scenario: the influx of hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. Whether the 'emigr'es settle in the occupied territories or not, they will strain available resources and leave less water for Palestinian farmers.
Of combined water resources available in Israel and the territories, Israel consumes 86 percent, including more than 80 percent of the West Bank water table.
Meanwhile, competition for the dwindling resources of the Jordan Valley is joined by two other thirsty countries, Jordan and Syria.
Despite United States mediation efforts, an agreement to share the Yarmuk River, one of the Jordan's main tributaries, has proved elusive, leaving officials on both sides increasingly concerned.
Competition over the Jordan River and its tributaries has already prompted the region to take up arms.
Syria protested to the United Nations when Israel began construction of a pipeline during the 1950s which now diverts Jordan River water to its southern Negev Desert. (With water in the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) at the northern end of the pipeline at the lowest level ever recorded at this time of year, its continued use is now in jeopardy). A 1964 Arab League decision to attempt to divert the Jordan's headwaters produced border skirmishes and later contributed to the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. After seizing the Golan Heights from Syria, Israel gained effective control of the Jordan.
Pressure for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip now raises new questions. Palestinians say they have a right to control their own water supplies. They argue that like any two states, ``Palestine'' and Israel can negotiate an equitable sharing of water resources. Israel says if it loses control of West Bank waters, its coastal cities and farmland in northern and central Israel will be at risk.
Whatever the case, unrestrained competition between two sovereign states in the region could prove lethal.
``If there's competition, that means drilling deeper and that means causing an ecological disaster with our mutual resource,'' says Meir Ben Meir, a former Israeli water commissioner. ``Nobody can win this war.''
In the future, Israel plans to use more reclaimed waste water for irrigation, freeing fresh water for domestic use. But such news is small solace for Palestinians, whose water now accounts for one-third of Israel's annual consumption.
After the occupation began, Israel quickly took control of West Bank water resources. Under military order, Palestinians were prohibited from digging all but a handful of new wells for drinking and irrigation, while limits were placed on the amount of water that could be pumped from existing wells. Access to the Jordan River, once the source of 200 mcm of water for irrigation, was completely cut off.
Meanwhile, Israel began drilling the first of more than 40 deep-bore wells with powerful motors that now pull up to 40 percent more water from West Bank aquifers than the 300 shallower pre-1967 sinkholes used by Palestinians.
Some of the new Israeli wells, used to provide water for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, were placed close to local Palestinian springs, causing the wells of many Palestinian farmers to run dry. With no restrictions on pumping and with big subsidies from the World Zionist Organization, the settlers were soon using an average of four times more water per capita than Palestinians.
Responding to international pressure, Israel has agreed to compensate Palestinians for water shortages by providing, and in some cases charging for, limited supplies from some of its deep wells. But the arrangement has deprived local Arabs of their water independence and, in the opinion of many legal experts, violated international law governing military occupations.
``Palestinian farmers are now completely dependent on the Israelis for their water needs,'' says Mr. Matar. ``Their status has been changed from owners to renters of their own water resources.''
The situation is worse in the Gaza Strip, where population growth has overtaxed water supplies at an alarming rate.
Underground aquifers in Gaza are capable of providing up to 60 mcm of renewable water each year for Gaza's 650,000 inhabitants. But 150 mcm are now being pumped annually, lowering the water table and causing seepage of salty sea water into the aquifer.
To allow the water table to replenish, usage will have to be dramatically cut even as Gaza's population dramatically increases. Palestinian and Israeli experts agree that if the present overpumping continues, agriculture and living standards will deteriorate catastrophically.