Water-sharing is key to Mideast peace QUENCHING THE CONFLICT

January 28, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

SHUNAT,JORDAN — SHUNAT, Jordan -- Ibrahim el-Adwan has almost everything a farmer in the Jordan River valley could want: good soil, willing workers and modern irrigation equipment.

But none of those does him much good. He doesn't have water.

Jordan has been paying him not to plant 90 percent of his fields, even though winter is the prime growing season. Until this winter's heavy rains, Jordan could provide water for irrigation or drinking water for its cities but not both.

Mr. Adwan's land, like much of the Middle East, is in danger of running dry within a decade. If that happens, many of the issues that plague those trying to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict could become relatively extraneous.

Water is as central as the land itself to the region's disputes. It is considered worth fighting for. Water is what makes land worth having in a region that is mostly desert.

If the Arab-Israeli peace process resuming in Moscow today is to succeed, the parties must decide who rightfully owns certain lands. They must determine at the same time who has rights to the water that lies underground, flows in the rivers and collects in lakes and reservoirs. Then they must decide how to share it.

Failure to reach agreement could leave the region inside a decade with barely enough water to meet the most basic needs of its population, and none left over for growth.

Without an agreement for sharing existing supplies, there is little chance for agreement on obtaining the new, costly supplies that water experts say are crucial.

"Almost everything that can be taken from the system has been taken," says Hillel Shuval, an Israeli hydrologist and consultant to the World Bank. "All the countries of this region are going to be in water stress."

If they are not to go thirsty, states can cooperate or resign themselves to the prospect of another war, one to be fought over water.

Mr. Shuval forecasts: "They will enter a level of water stress that does not allow rational functioning."

Water is supposed to be on the agenda in Moscow. The meeting would be a major success if it did nothing more than solve the problems of Mr. Adwan.

He owns 250 acres of land in the valley that is the richest agricultural area in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. In winter, the temperature is appropriate for a beach resort; in summer, it is furnace-like.

The sunshine is year-round. Given enough water, a farmer could plant and harvest the vegetables of his choice three times a year.

Part of Mr. Adwan's water comes from a government irrigation project, the East Ghor Canal. He is fortunate in that most of his supply comes from several wells owned by his family; fortunate because until the winter rains, the canal was nearly empty. He resorted to pumping more from the wells. Not surprisingly, the water levels began to drop.

He isn't helped by living alongside the Jordan River. Disputes among Jordan, Syria and Israel over rights to its tributaries have left barely enough flow to keep the river looking wet. It already is overused by parties grabbing as much as they can.

Mr. Adwan cannot depend on rainfall because drought has been the rule three of the last four years. He also cannot look to help from Amman, the capital, where drinking water is rationed from late spring to mid-autumn. Jordan has built a pipeline to divert water from the East Ghor Canal to Amman, but rarely has the water to fill it.

Mr. Adwan says he knows who to blame for the problems -- "It's God and the Israelis."

"Rains come from the heavens," he says, pointing a finger toward the sky, "and then Israel takes water from the river."

Israel is on the other side of the river, where people see the problem differently. They blame Jordan's problems on Jordan. Or they blame bad water management by everyone, including themselves.

Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank blame their water problems on Jews who have settled the occupied territory. Everyone, though, eventually reaches the conclusion that serious shortages are imminent.

Water experts have a measure for the region's distress. They define a water-rich society as one with 2,000 cubic meters of water a year for each person. (A cubic meter contains 262 gallons.) That is considered enough to meet domestic, industrial and farming needs for a modern society, plus a comfortable surplus.

By that standard, most of the Middle East is water-poor. Jordan has about 300 cubic meters a person. The figure for Israel is the same. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have 165. In the United States, the figure is about 4,000.

In the past

Shortages used to elicit a simple response. When an oasis went dry in the desert, when rains failed in the hills, when the heat became unbearable in the valley, people folded their tents and left.

"That was our history," says Omar Joudeh, a Jordanian water specialist working for the United Nations. "When there was a drought for a few years, people moved."

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