The search for peace in the Middle East is never far from the search for water. It was a prime reason President Clinton failed to restart Syrian-Israeli peace talks during a summit last month. Syria demands that Israel return "every inch" of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights - which means access for Syria to the Sea of Galilee, which is now Israel's main water source.
Control of even the smallest water reserves beneath the occupied West Bank still dogs the Palestinian-Israeli peace track.
Water, on its own, is rarely a casus belli. But it has been a key strategic factor in every Mideast war fought for more than 50 years and is certainly a main sticking point for the two stalled Mideast peace tracks.
But now Turkey is offering a solution: to sell off excess water to its bone-dry neighbors - an ambitious "water for peace" project that will boost its economy, which suffered its worst contraction ever in 1999, and help Mideast peacemakers.
"There are many 'water war' scenarios in the Middle East, so we believe this will help attain peace in the region," says Hasan Denker, the chief engineer of the project. "One supertanker of water may cost $300,000, but one smart bomb is 10 times as expensive. This water supply will always be cheaper than war."
Drawn from the powerful blue-green flow of the Manavgat River on Turkey's pine-forested south coast, this water may never make Mideast deserts blossom. But it could slake the thirst and allay fears of future water shortages in the Holy Land just enough to lubricate peace.
In the coming days, Israel is expected to make a decision about buying this water. It would be transported across the Mediterranean Sea in converted oil tankers - a plan that a team of experts has recommended to Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
And Jordan's King Abdullah - who has said that "future potential conflict in our area is not over land, it's over water" - visited Turkey last month and showed a keen interest using Turkish water to ease Jordan's extreme shortages.
Throughout history, civilizations have sprouted around water sources. But in the Mideast - where the three Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity first sanctified water with sacred ablutions, ritual baths, and baptism - severe water shortages have been at the root of conflict for decades, and a barrier to peace.
Anticipating the need of its neighbors - who have all experienced varying degrees of drought in recent years - Turkey has spent $125 million on the project in the last decade. A gleaming set of pumps siphon off river water to a treatment facility, then along a six-mile pipeline to two custom-built sea terminals for tankers.
"Everything is finished," says Kamil Cengiz, regional director for the Turkish State Hydraulic Works, known as DSI. "We're just waiting for clients."
Such a project - and Turkey's intentions - have had mixed reviews. Critics point to the "irony" that Turkey is offering to sell Manavgat water for peace, while it is accused by Iraq and Syria of limiting the downstream flow to them of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which both have their sources in Turkey.
Massive dam and irrigation projects have meant that since the 1970s, the average flow from the Euphrates has dropped by half. And few in Damascus and Baghdad forget that a senior official once boasted that Turkey could stop the flow altogether "in order to regulate the Arab's political behavior."
Still, for Turkey the political benefits of Manavgat are as strong as commercial ones. Long-term plans include listing Syria, Saudi Arabia as well as Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria as clients, and officials hope to eventually earn $300 million a year.
But immediate aims are to convince Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories that Turkish water is cheaper than large desalinization projects. A preliminary Israeli study showed that importing water from Turkey would be cheaper than desalinating sea water, an option that Israel has been considering for years.
"There is a lot of sense in trying to cooperate in this triangle," says Alon Liel, who heads Global Code, a Jerusalem-based consulting firm which encourages Turkish-Israeli projects.
"The calculations show that it's reasonable economically, and important regionally," he says. "The Israeli decision will trigger Jordanian and Palestinian decisions."
The "bottleneck," he notes, is reluctance by Israel's infrastructure ministry to be dependent on another country - despite Turkey and Israel's growing military ties - for such a strategic resource.
Turkish analysts dismiss such fears. "This water will not replace Jordan's or Israel's own, it's supplementary. It will help," says Ozden Bilen, a water expert and former DSI director, in Ankara. "There are a lot of solutions, and desalinization techniques are advancing so rapidly that the price will come down. But Manavgat is constructed, and it's ready."
"In today's world, every country is dependent on another," adds Mr. Denker. "Perhaps this is another aspect of globalization. Today it's not a reasonable idea that you can remain independent of any neighbor."
Global demand for water doubles every 21 years, and experts say that 90 percent of the usable water in the Mideast crosses one or more international borders - meaning that disputes are chronic.
Such political minefields are what eventually doomed Turkey's first "peace pipeline" scheme, put forward in the mid-1980s by then-President Turgut Ozal. That grandiose $5 billion plan envisioned two pipelines that would send water all the way along both sides of the Arabian peninsula - to the United Arab Emirates in the east, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the west.
"No one liked the idea of relying on neighbors who could turn off the flow, and there was Turkey's historical baggage," says a Western diplomat in Ankara, referring to the Ottoman Empire that spread across the Arab world - leaving many Arabs to view Turkey with suspicion.
"For Turkey, 'Hi, I'm here to help' is not the best way to start a conversation in the Mideast," the diplomat says. "The 'peace pipeline' is dead."
Israel, Jordan, and Palestinian territories use some 3.2 billion cubic meters of water a year, but can usually replenish only 2.5 billion. By contrast, Turkey says its total flow into the salty Mediterranean Sea is 16 billion cubic meters a year, and Manavgat spills 4.5 billion of that.
This pilot project - called a "first step" by officials - has a capacity of 180 million cubic meters a year, or ten percent of Israel's entire consumption.
Water deals are not impossible: Calibrated water sharing is key to the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty. Jordan is currently studying how to import 180 cubic meters from Turkey over the next two years. If it does so, it will require a transit or swap deal with Israel.
But while Turkey pushes this project as good for peace, it also makes clear that it doesn't want its water resources to be a bargaining chip in any comprehensive peace deal.
Thinking that a deal was being brokered behind its back in January, Turkey responded vehemently when State Department spokesman James Rubin said that water "is not only between Israel and Syria but has a regional dimension as well, including Turkey, and any solutions could have regional dimensions."
And there is a further issue. "One of the wrinkles for Israel," says Tom Stauffer, a Washington-based water and energy expert, is that any peace deal sets a market price on water. Israel has been siphoning off Palestinian water for a generation from an aquifer beneath the occupied West Bank, and compensation is sure to be part of any peace deal.
"The Palestinians are watching very closely," he says.
Politics aside, the Manavgat project has made the theory of shifting Turkey's excess water to its thirsty neighbors feasible for the first time. And it could enable Turkey to claim the kudos of a traditional Turkish proverb: "May you be as blessed as water."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society