Two West Bank villages at odds over water supply Yield from aquifer is coveted prize

January 29, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

NA'AMA — NA'AMA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Two neighboring farming communities -- this flourishing Jewish settlement and the withering Arab village of al Auja about a mile away -- illustrate a fundamental source of the Middle East conflict.

It is water. One has enough. The other doesn't. In a region likely to go dry within 10 years, an equitable way to share the water is crucial to the Middle East peace process now under way.

For the Jewish settlers who adjust to the isolation and heat, Na'ama's well-watered fields of vegetables are a testament to hard work and proof that the desert can be made to bloom.

For the Palestinians of the village of al Auja, a mile to the north, Na'ama's greenness explains the browning of the local banana groves and the drying up of an ancient spring -- a testament to the diversion of al Auja's water.

Water will forever link Israelis and Palestinians. The two peoples draw supplies from the same underground source, the large aquifer that underlies the hills of the West Bank and parts of Israel.

Underground water flowing from the central hills toward the Mediterranean has been a major source of drinking water for Israelis since the establishment of the state in 1948. Underground water flowing from the same hills toward the Jordan River is the supply for West Bank Palestinians.

Conditions at Na'ama and al Auja show why each side has reason to consider the water its own, and why no one willingly surrenders a drop.

Na'ama belongs to a string of settlements established by Israel in the part of the Jordan River valley it captured during the 1967 Six Day War, the event that redrew the area's contested borders and reshuffled control of water supplies.

Officials authorizing settlements in the 1970s and early '80s drew their inspiration from the Zionist pioneers of the 1920s and '30s. In both eras, establishing communities of farmers was the easiest way to hold on to land that was suitable for little else.

Farms could be built faster than cities, and fewer people were needed for the projects to take root.

"Agriculture in Israel allowed people to live on the borders -- in the Golan Heights, in the Jordan Valley," explains Shlomo Reizman, head of Israel's Farmers' Federation. "You couldn't send industry there. You couldn't send tourists. Agriculture let people stay."

Na'ama is the newest of the settlements in the southern valley. A small number of young couples, some of whom had never farmed, worked elsewhere in the valley to gain experience and then, in 1980, moved to the site chosen for them.

Even now, the general area looks like utterly worthless desert. Na'ama is a small cluster of flat-roofed houses built on a vast plain of coarse white sand where temperatures in summer regularly top 110 degrees. It is safe to assume that other than nomads who might have made a brief stop between oases, the 19 families of Na'ama are the first to make use of the land in centuries.

Their patch of desert, thanks to special greenhouses and advanced irrigation techniques, produces eggplants, onions, tomatoes, tarragon, grapes, green peppers, flowers for export to Europe, corn, parsely, date palms and dill.

That's all thanks to a fairly bountiful supply of water. Israel's national water company delivers it from three deep wells, two located a few miles to the north, one to the south.

People in al Auja date the worsening of their own problems to the construction of the wells and the settlements they supply.

Capital of bananas

Al Auja used to fancy itself as the capital of bananas. However poor the village looked, bananas were the most profitable crop in the valley and could make a person rich. Al Auja was a sandy green smudge in the

desert, and usually profitable. People worked in their own small groves, or in the groves of landowners who lived elsewhere to escape the summer heat and the year-round mosquitoes.

All it took was water. Banana trees are notoriously thirsty, and each acre of them in an al Auja summer requires 32 cubic meters of water a day. (A cubic meter contains 262 gallons.)

Al Auja flourished because of a freshwater spring that emerges in a palm grove in steep hills to the west. It has been a reliable water source for at least 2,000 years, since the Romans of Biblical times took the trouble to construct more than 10 miles of aqueducts to reach it.

Villagers say that the first time in recent generations the spring went dry was in 1962, a drought year. When winter rains began soaking the hills of the West Bank, the flow of water returned to normal. In 1979 it went dry again. Villagers say that now it has failed every summer since 1986 -- after the deep wells drilled by Israel's water company began supplying the new settlements.

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