With Israel's new Prime Minister Ehud Barak promising to restart peace with the Palestinians and Syria, the issue of water - often forgotten by outsiders, but all-important in the parched Holy Land - will take center stage.
After all, destroying an enemy's water and its sources has been a strategic aim in every war fought in the Mideast during the past two generations. And severe water shortages here - the Middle East is experiencing its driest spell in 50 years - could complicate any talks.
"If we solve every other problem in the Middle East but do not satisfactorily resolve the water problem, our region will explode," once warned the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of the architects of the Mideast peace process.
As crops shrivel, river and reservoir levels drop, and new dams and competing claims loom, experts are striving to cope with dwindling water resources.
"The Malthusian specter is real in the Middle East," says Thomas Stauffer, a Washington-based Mideast water and energy analyst. Water resources are "fully utilized," while the population continues to grow - ingredients the economist Malthus predicted would lead to conflict. "The consequences are profound. Scarcity means conflict, so oil wars are less likely than water wars."
His concerns are echoed by the results of a two-year study carried out by the US National Academy of Sciences alongside Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian water experts.
"Fresh-water supplies in the Middle East now are barely sufficient to maintain a quality standard of living," said Gilbert White, a University of Colorado geographer who led the team. Increasing water use across the largely arid region, the team found, guarantees that "the area's inhabitants will almost assuredly live under conditions of significant water stress in the near future."
Already, at least 400 million people live in regions with severe water shortages. Within 50 years, that figure is expected to soar to 4 billion. There is no more water on the planet than there was 2,000 years ago, when the population was just 3 percent what it is today. "Our concerns about global warming are trivial compared to the issues that we face over water," a senior official of NASA's Earth Sciences Directorate has said.
Headwaters of strife
Among the first to recognize that water and its sources were strategic assets to fight for - or to target - were the Zionist Jews who created Israel in 1948. As early as 1919, they claimed that the "minimum requirements" for a viable Jewish state were "dependent" on controlling the headwaters of the Jordan River, Mt. Hermon on the Golan Heights, and Lebanon's Litani River. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israeli troops captured most of those sources, and in 1978 and 1982 made bids to control the Litani.
Israel for decades has been pumping 80 percent of the water from the aquifer that was mostly under the occupied West Bank, and Palestinians have been prohibited from drilling any new wells themselves. Today fully half of Israel's water supply comes from territory captured in 1967.
"That represents $1 billion a year in opportunity costs for Israel," says Mr. Stauffer. "That is 1 billion reasons why it is a casus belli [pretext for war]."
The imbalance has been acute, with Israelis using many times more water than Palestinians in the territories. In one reported example, Hebron water officials say that the 5,000 Israeli settlers in the Hebron region receive 17,000 cubic meters of water a day, while the 400,000 Palestinians in the city get a total of just 7,000 cubic meters.
"The problem of dealing with water is that everyone is in crisis now," says Gershon Baskin, the head of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information in Bethlehem, which presented a policy paper to Mr. Barak spelling out how being "generous" on the water issue will "pay off for Israel 10-fold."
"I'm concerned that pressure of the drought could affect negotiators, so that they might miss the forest for the trees and not be forthcoming on water," he says.
Handing back the Golan is a tougher case: "That's the drinking water for Israel," Mr. Baskin says. "It's impossible to give up the Golan without a water rights deal with Syria."
The case of Jordan
Already at peace with Israel is Jordan, which - lacking both water and cash to fund alternatives - is among the 10 most water-poor nations on earth. Water shortages here are chronic, with running water in the capital sometimes limited to one day per week. Other desert nations like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which have even less water, can turn their "oil into water" by paying the high costs of desalination plants.
A series of joint water measures are part of Jordan's peace deal with Israel, and Syria is also providing water to Jordan. Part of the problem is that half Jordan's water is "unaccounted for," 60 percent of that through system leaks.
The government is now moving to curb overuse of aquifers, and a big fossil water deposit has not yet been tapped. Donors - especially the United States Agency for International Development - are making vigorous efforts to rehabilitate the water infrastructure. The $60 million USAID program also rehabilitates springs and wells that will provide for 400,000 people.
For thirsty Jordan, this is good news. But regionwide, high birthrates mean that renewable water resources have dropped precipitously. Jordan is the hardest hit. In 1960, each Jordanian had available 529 cubic meters of water. By 1990, that figure had halved to 224 cm. The estimate for the year 2025 is just 91 cm per person.
"Now we are shouting that we have little water, at 170 cubic meters this year," says a Jordanian water engineer. "Imagine: what will we do when we have only half of that amount?"
The Euphrates and Tigris
The same question is being asked in Syria and Iraq, downstream from the source in Turkey of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The source of tension has been Turkey's massive Southeast Anatolian Development Project (GAP), a $32 billion network of 22-dams and 19 hydroelectric projects that, at a cost of $32 billion, is designed to bring electricity and irrigation water to the poor southeast and cover one-fourth of Turkey's future electricity needs.
But Syria and Iraq are watching their water levels drop. By one account, the flow from the Euphrates has been cut in half since the 1970s. This dip has made Iraq's portion of water, year by year, increasingly salty.
When the largest piece of the puzzle, the Ataturk Dam was being built in 1984, Syria responded by supporting Kurdish rebels of the Kurdistan Worker's Party to show its distaste. Turkey has asserted the right to use its waters as it pleased. And in 1990 there was reportedly high-level talk about cutting off Iraq's flow of water to punish Baghdad for invading Kuwait.
"Water is a weapon," the Ataturk Dam site supervisor has declared. "We can stop the flow of water into Syria and Iraq for up to eight months without overflowing our dams, in order to regulate the Arab's political behavior."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society