Avoiding a Mideast Water War

By Mark Zeitoun
Wednesday, February 4, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Last summer was long and hot in the West Bank. It was also very dry. Palestinian summers typically are dry, and water for crops and drinking has always been scarce. But for Palestinians suffering under a double yoke of drought-level rainfall and the Israeli occupation, these years are drier and thirstier than ever. The only permanent surface watercourses in the area are the Jordan River and the Lake of Tiberias. The waters are allocated, under the terms of a 1996 agreement, between Jordan and Israel. The Palestinians living along the Jordan River's west bank are entitled to not a drop of it.

Apart from springs, the only source of water available to Palestinians is the water in underground reservoirs (aquifers) directly under their feet. These aquifers also are a prime water source for Israel -- providing 40 percent of its groundwater requirements. The groundwater of the Gaza Strip is shallow and easy to pump but increasingly contaminated by untreated sewage and seawater. The groundwater in the West Bank is relatively "sweet" (of good quality) but -- as it is often located as deep as 1,500 feet below the earth's surface -- an enormous amount of energy is required to drill and pump it out. Of the aquifers that lie mainly under Israel, Israel draws 100 percent. Of those that lie mainly under the West Bank, Palestinians draw 20 percent, Israel 80 percent. The average Israeli uses roughly 350 cubic meters of water per year -- four times the amount used by the average Palestinian.

Most of this water is consumed for agricultural purposes. The agricultural sector represents 2 percent to 3 percent of the Israeli gross domestic product but 24 percent to 30 percent of the Palestinian GDP. A critical natural resource that is both scarce and unfairly distributed is a catalyst for conflict. And while the root of the conflict here has been over land, water is playing a growing role. The establishment of the Joint Water Committee (JWC) between Palestinian and Israeli technicians under the Oslo Accords seemed a step toward cooperation. But the power asymmetries between the two sides reflected in the JWC's structure contributed to the ineffectiveness of the JWC, and well before the Oslo Accords were dead, unregulated pumping and crippling destruction of the aquifers were underway. The "separation barrier" being built inside the West Bank is testament to just how bad things have become. The wall's effective annexation of the land in this prime water territory has put at least 50 wells out of service, so that about a third of the water once available to Palestinians from the Western Aquifer is now in Israeli hands. The result is felt both by the farmers who lose their crops and by all concerned about the viability of a future Palestinian state.

The illegal settlements, so costly to maintain and scorned by the mainstream Israeli public, make things worse. The construction of settlements and the deep wells necessary to sustain them continues. Private (Palestinian) water-tankers lumber up to the settlements every summer, looking for water to take back to villagers who are immobile in their sealed-off villages -- and thirsty. At a price between five and 15 times that charged by the Israeli government, there is always a settler willing to make the deal. The irony of this lucrative, illegal business is not lost on the Palestinian farmer: Not only is the water "stolen" from under his feet, he is then actually forced to buy it back from the "thief." Many farmers have reverted, in turn, to digging their own unregulated shallow wells. The end result: The aquifers are being pierced and overpumped at rates unparalleled in history. Meanwhile, Palestinian water infrastructure continues to suffer targeted destruction in various Israeli military operations.

While the situation is not sustainable, there is a way out. Israel's great advantage in political, military and economic power actually offers it the opportunity and responsibility to avoid more conflict. Water in this tiny, dry land must be managed by all parties concerned and can no longer be held hostage to destructive military, political or religious interests. Both sides must have rights to their resources, and a reformed cooperating institution must be established to allow for equitable joint water management. The situation could change from one of theft and finger-pointing to one of equal use and responsibility. Unless this happens, a technically resolvable issue will continue toward the sphere of unavoidable conflict.

Mark Zeitoun is a humanitarian-aid water engineer who has worked on assignments in Lebanon, Congo-Brazzaville, Iraq and, most recently, the occupied Palestinian territories.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company