Turkey Presses New Round of Talks on Mideast Water

On again, off again talks about a possible ``peace-water pipeline'' to link six Gulf countries, Syria, Jordan, and perhaps Israel are again under discussion. Proposed by Turkey, the $20 billion project is being presented as yet another means of providing security to the region.

Turkish President Turgut Ozal has initiated a new round of talks on the subject, contending that such a pipeline would create a new interdependency among Middle East states.

Turkey, the main water supplier in this plan has much to gain economically if it pumps southward, 6 billion liters daily (1.56 billion gallons). Customers would pay an estimated 80 cents a cubic meter, roughly half the cost of water from a desalination plant.

It would be the largest such water conveyance project in the world, according to Texas-based Brown & Root, its proposed contractors. The north-south pipeline would extend over 6,000 kilometers (3,730 miles) from its source in south Turkey into the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and east to Kuwait and other emirates. Western branches would take the water into Lebanon and Israel.

Three years ago, when the project was first proposed, most Arab states rejected the idea of such a Middle East water complex. The potential participants saw it as giving Turkey a strategic advantage.

The threat Turkey could pose through water management was felt as recently as 1990. Syria, along with Iraq, found the timeless flow of the Euphrates River interrupted by their northern neighbor. While the new Ataturk Dam in south Turkey was being filled, Syria's hydroelectric power supply dropped off sharply, alarming official there. The reduced volume of the historic waterway also threatened rich farming regions in northeast Syria, as well as the vast Mesopotamian basin in Iraq.

Trilateral talks to ensure that Euphrates water is equitably shared among nations lagged, then came to a complete halt with the Gulf crisis.

Recently, however, water-sharing has reemerged at high-level meetings involving Mr. Ozal. Iraq is not mentioned. A report from Ankara last month highlights instead threats by oil slicks to desalination plants in the Gulf. There was no lasting damage in Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian plants in the recent war; yet their costly technology is now viewed as insecure.

Turkey is one of the most water-abundant nations in the region. Syria, Jordan, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank are listed in the report as beneficiaries, along with the Gulf states. But a leading hydrologist in Syria says his country ``has sufficient water from local sources,'' although low rain fall in 1989 and 1990 resulted in rationing.

Jordan's local resources could meet its future needs as well, a Jordan Water Authority official says. Experts say that shortages here, as in the West Bank and south Lebanon, result primarily from water diversion to Israel. The Jordan River is almost dry today, and supplies from Jordan's Yarmuk River remain threatened until Syria, Israel, and Jordan can agree to a fair means of distribution.

``Today, 75 percent of West Bank water is consumed by Israel,'' notes Munir Farah, an American-based Middle East educator. Israel also drains off south Lebanon's main rivers, the Litani and Hasbani, for its own needs. Otherwise, says a Lebanese businessman visiting Jordan, ``Lebanon has so much water.''

Regional states are left more concerned about the project than is Turkey. In Damascus recently, a key Syrian economic adviser flatly said of the project, ``It is not in a serious stage of discussion.''

In Amman, Jordan, Deputy Minister of Water Resources Mutazz Belbeisi, who acknowledges the proposed pipeline holds major political ramifications, says his government ``did not reject the scheme when it was proposed three years ago. Jordan is not involved in current discussions thus far, however.''

Israel was not mentioned specifically when the plan was floated three years earlier. Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres met with the Turkish president in Europe early this month, according to a recent report by the Associated Press. (Turkish officials also say they have been regularly meeting with Israeli officials in Tel Aviv and the Ankara.)

When the two men spoke about the water-peace pipeline, Mr. Peres commented that the area ``is a dry bomb,'' because ``the greatest problem the Middle East is facing today is lack of water.''

Peres and Ozal both reportedly believe such a pipeline would increase security and opportunity for all the people in the Middle East.

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