Deadly thirst: Arms for Water
- Deadly thirst
13 January 2003
Last week Israel agreed an extraordinary arms-for-water deal with
Turkey. Whether this goes ahead or not, water lies at the heart of
Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbours and the Palestinians
- and poses some of the toughest challenges for peace in the Middle
East. Chris McGreal reports:
Ask Ariel Sharon about the Six Day war and he will tell you that the
fighting of that momentous week in 1967 really began more than two
years earlier as Israel responded not to Syria's tanks but its
Damascus was constructing a vast canal to divert the waters of two
of the Jordan River's main tributaries away from Israel in an
attempt to squeeze dry an already parched land. For Israel, the
threat to its precarious water supply was as great a challenge to
the existence of the fledgling Jewish state as any Arab army.
Artillery duels and the Israeli air force brought work to a halt.
"People generally regard June 5 1967 as the day the Six Day war
began," Mr Sharon wrote in his autobiography. "That is the official
date. But, in reality, it started two-and-a-half years earlier, on
the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.
While the border disputes between Syria and ourselves were of great
significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of
life and death."
The threat from Arab armies was buried by Israeli victories and the
overwhelming technological weapons superiority it enjoys today,
along with a stash of secret atom bombs. But continued competition
for scarce water supplies continued to dog the Middle East. Anwar
Sadat signed Egypt's peace accord with Israel in 1979 with a
warning. "The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is
water," he said.
Jordan's King Hussein said much the same 11 years later about his
own country's peace treaty with Israel. The former UN secretary
general and ex-foreign minister of Egypt, Boutros Boutros-Ghali,
forewarned of just such a war.
Last week, Turkey agreed an extraordinary plan to ship millions of
tons of water in giant tankers to Israel in a deal linked to hi-tech
weapons shipments to Ankara. A few years ago the plan was to pump
fresh water between the two countries in an undersea pipe, but the
project was deemed prohibitively expensive. The tankers will still
cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate and yet
provide less than 3% of Israel's rapidly growing needs, which has
led the finance minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to rubbish the scheme
Whether or not the deal goes ahead, Israel will continue to lie at
the heart of growing competition for limited supplies of water - and
disputes about ownership - that underpins the conflict with the
Palestinians, afflicts negotiations with Syria and poses some of the
hardest challenges to peace in the Middle East.
The region's three major waterways - the Jordan, the
Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile - serve a few countries well. Turkey,
Lebanon and Egypt do not want for water, although that is sometimes
at the expense of their neighbours: Syria remains bitter over
Turkey's construction of a dam on the Euphrates that disrupted the
river's flow across the border.
Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories are not so fortunate.
Israel has the highest per capita consumption of water in the region
and uses far more than it produces. Since 1967, it has met much of
the demand by drawing it from the occupied territories while
restricting Palestinian access, and by clinging to the Golan Heights
as much for its crucial source of fresh water as any military
strategic advantage from being able to see all the way to Damascus.
"If the world were to work on the basis of rationality, water should
never be a cause for war because for the price of a modern war you
could probably desalinate an entire sea," says Martin Sherman, a
former adviser on intelligence to the Israeli government and the
author of a study on water and security. "But rationality has rarely
been applied to the causes of war and water certainly could be a
cause or an excuse for a future conflict in the Middle East because
Israel has to decide whether to rely on Arab altruism to safe guard
the most important sources of its water supply as part of any future
Israel relies on three key water sources: the Sea of Galilee and two
natural underground aquifers - the "mountain aquifer" in the
occupied West Bank and the "coastal aquifer" in Israel. One or two
dry years has a profound effect on the aquifers, along with Israel
pumping far more water than is provided by replenishment. The Sea of
Galilee, which is pumped as far south as the Negev desert, fell to
its lowest level in recorded history last summer and came perilously
close to exposing the pumps. Winter rains have replenished it to a
degree, but the water level still sits precariously close to the
"red line" at which the national water authority says the sea's
ecological stability will start to erode. However, not many take the
red line seriously, given that the authority has lowered it several
times over the years so that it is always kept below falling water
levels. It is now 2.5m below its original designation.
The coastal aquifer has fallen so low at times that it is in danger
of irreversible contamination by salt water drawn in from the
Mediterranean sea. As the water table falls, sea water percolates
through coastal soil into the fresh water, making it undrinkable and
useless for irrigation.
The chairman of the national water company, Uri Sagie, recently
warned a conference of Israeli farmers that there is a growing and
unbridgeable gap between production and consumption. "The water
sources are being depleted without the deficit being restored, and
there is no choice except to create additional sources in order to
close the gap," he said.
It is not a message the farmers like to hear, but there are some who
blame them for Israel's predicament. The Jewish state has an abiding
attachment to the kibbutz dwellers who colonised the desert. They
provided the foundations for modern-day Israel and shaped the myth
of a brave, small people struggling against all odds. But today
agriculture consumes two-thirds of Israel's water while contributing
to just 2.5% of its gross domestic product. Irrigation, compounded
by a growing number of swimming pools, is a leading cause of the gap
between production and consumption.
But it is the Palestinians who are paying the price. Under the Oslo
peace agreement, Israel retained overall control of water from the
West Bank. The Palestinians now regret the deal. "The defect is in
the Oslo agreement," says Amjad Aleiwi, a hydrologist at the
Palestinian Water Authority. "The fact is we can't even drill a well
without approval from Israel, while they pump all the water they
like into the settlements."
More than 80% of water from the West Bank goes to Israel. The
Palestinians are allot ted just 18% of the water that is extracted
from their own land. Palestinian villages and farmers are monitored
by meters fitted to pumps and punished for overuse. Jewish settlers
are not so constrained, and permitted to use more advanced pumping
equipment that means the settlers use 10 times as much water per
capita as each Palestinian.
"This has caused us huge problems," says Aleiwi. "Palestinians get
less than 60 units a day when the international minimum is 150. The
Israeli domestic use alone is 300 to 800 units. It's worse in Gaza.
Much of the water is not potable. That's why they have a lot of
health problems, a lot of diseases in knees and kidneys. How can it
be that Jewish settlers get unlimited amounts of pure water and that
just across a fence children have to drink polluted water?"
The Palestinians accuse Israel not only of plundering their water
but polluting it. Some Jewish settlements pump raw sewage straight
into the streams of neighbouring Palestinian villages, contaminating
water once used for drinking, cooking and irrigation. Others pipe
waste into the ground, which inevitably feeds into the aquifers.
Palestinian villages also dump their sewage into the ground. Aleiwi
blames the Israelis for both problems.
"They took this land in 1967 and they con trolled it completely
until 1995. During that period they built a lot of settlements but
they only built one waste treatment plant for all of us, Jews and
Palestinians," he says. "Most of the sewage goes back into the
ground. It's the same with pollution from their agriculture. There
are very high levels of nitrate and chloride in the aquifers. It's
very dangerous to health."
Israel also replenishes the groundwater with treated sewage that
some critics say has too much salt and is contaminating the water
Sherman does not deny that there are problems. "It's certainly true
that Israel's management of water resources over the past three
decades has been anything but flawless. There have been a lot of
mistakes made," he says. "In settlements across the green line,
treatment of waste water leaves quite a lot to be desired and I
think there's quite a lot of truth in the Arab criticisms. As far as
it goes for the Arab population, I think there are quite a lot of
mitigating circumstances. Israel was not free to establish water
treatment plants without being accused of establishing sovereignty."
The situation is most critical in Gaza, where the Palestinian
Authority controls water sources. The drilling of hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of illegal wells in backyards has greatly reduced the
water supply and led to contamination by the sea. The Israelis say
it is the result of Palestinian mismanagement, and evidence of why
they cannot be trusted with such a crucial resource. The
Palestinians see it differently.
"Israel drilled hundreds of wells out around the edge of Gaza,
tapping the fresh water before it gets there," says Aleiwi. "I agree
the problem was compounded by drilling many more wells since the
Israelis left. It's illegal, but people thought that because the
Israelis had gone it's their water. That caused the pollution to be
severe, but the main reason is the Israelis stopped the fresh water
reaching the aquifer."
Compounding the Palestinians' problems is the steel and concrete
barrier carving up the West Bank. The Israelis call it the security
fence, the Palestinians the apartheid wall. "The wall will cost us
30% of the wells and water in the western area," says Aleiwi. "It's
not just a land grab, they are after the water too. If you look at
the route of the fence, it is planned to ensure that many of the
wells now fall on the Israeli side."
Boutros-Ghali recently told IslamOnline that he believes water is
now the principal obstacle to an agreement between Israel and the
Palestinians. "Water lies at the core of the problems in Israel.
This is why [the Israelis] are interested in the occupied
territories; not for the territory, but for the water within that
territory," he said.
Then there are the Golan Heights, which the Syrians are keen to win
back, in part to ease some of their own water supply problems.
Opponents of a deal with Syria predict that relinquishing control of
the Heights could cost Israel about one-third of its fresh water if
the flow into the Sea of Galilee becomes contaminated, deliberately
or otherwise. They also say that if Syria follows through on plans
to build homes for hundreds of thousands of people on the Heights,
it could badly pollute the entire sea.
Others see Israel's agreements with Jordan as the model for future
agreements with the Palestinians and Syrians. The treaty provides a
detailed breakdown for maintaining and sharing water resources,
including an agreement by Israel to provide 25 million cubic metres
of water to Jordan each year. There have been tensions, particularly
when Israel said it was unable to deliver the quota because of poor
rainfalls. But Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian hydrologists say
that they have worked well together to try and clean up the Jordan
river and on planning desalination projects and monitoring
But Sherman is not alone in arguing that water is reason enough for
Israel to continue to cling to the West Bank and Golan Heights. "You
really need a giant leap of faith in Arab altruism to believe that
they would behave in a manner consistent with Israel's hydrological
interests when their behaviour would be diametrically opposed to
their hydrological interests. And even if you were to deduct the
ingrained long term hostility between the two sides, I really don't
see how it is going to work.
"The Palestinians see a great number of refugees returning to the
territories with a huge increase in water consumption. The Syrians
would have to reach ecological standards in the Golan far more
advanced than they have in the middle of Damascus, and all this to
protect the water supply of the Zionist entity. This is something
worth fighting for."
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