BEFORE HE WAS asasssinated by Islamic militants in 1981 for making peace with Israel, Egypt's President Anwar el Sadat predicted that the next Middle East war would be over water.
Fifteen years later, peace may again be in the offing, but water problems still loom large. The election of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel has further decreased the potential for agreement on water issues. For historical, strategic and personal reasons, Netanyahu does not trust his Arab counterparts enough to give them more control over Israel's water.
Israel and Arab parties face two general problems that commonly cause conflict over water and other resources.
First, they have incompatible views regarding access to, control over, and sustainable use of water resources.
Second, they face significant problems caused by the manipulation of river systems, including pollution from industry using water, changed water flow, sewage from cities and soil erosion. These problems require cooperation, but mistrust makes such cooperation difficult.
According to the Israeli-Palestinian agreement signed under the Yitzhak Rabin government but still in effect under Netanyahu, Israel for the first time recognizes Palestinian rights to West Bank water and agrees to double the Palestinian water supply over five years. Meanwhile, the Palestinians promise to recognize Israel's right to exist and to fight terrorism within their ranks. These are positive steps.
However, problems over control of water remain serious. The Palestinians have clearly assumed that they would control all resources in the territory evacuated by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). By contrast, even under dovish former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the IDF recommended that Israel maintain control over at least the western part of the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer that runs across the territories. This is not mere politics.
Israel obtains about 30 percent of its annual water supplies from three aquifers that originate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Largely because of this, Israel refuses to allow the Palestinians to divert water from these three aquifers. Instead, it will allow the Palestinians to drill in the eastern parts of the West Bank.
In addition, Israel and the United States are planning projects to fix leaky pipes, drill wells, capture wasted floodwaters and ensure proper sewage on the West Bank. While such measures sound trivial, they can increase water supply by up to 40 percent.
Water problems, however, are complicated by international politics. To understand them, one must know how actions upstream affect events downstream. Water problems are interlinked with each other, and with economic and security problems. Because 50 percent of the water used in the region crosses international borders, water can be manipulated for power purposes. One party can threaten to decrease or actually decrease water supplies if the other party does not agree to some political concession.
Peace accords between Israel and the PLO, and Israel and Jordan, are affecting Israel's security, because whoever controls the pumps on the West Bank can decrease Israel's water supply. Meanwhile, West Bank Palestinians currently receive about one-third of the amount of water that Israel uses. While Israel has promised to increase this amount, the West Bank aquifer is already near capacity usage.
The West Bank water problem, furthermore, is related to agreements on the Jordan River, which provides Jordan and Israel with more than 50 percent of their water needs. While Israel controls the headwaters of the Jordan River, it does not control the Yarmuk tributary, which feeds into the Jordan River. Syrian dams numbering close to 40 could divert the Yarmuk tributary so that the Jordan River water supply could be reduced by 40 percent. This problem will worsen if Turkey flexes its muscle over the Euphrates River, from which Syria draws some of its water.
Indeed, Turkey's influence over Syria may even disrupt future peace agreements. If Syria can't get enough water from the Euphrates because of Turkey's dams, it will draw more from the Yarmuk, thus decreasing Jordan's water supply and in turn, Israel's. This will, then, hurt the Palestinians. That is the nature of water problems.
The Yarmuk issue is complicated by security concerns. Any Israeli government that returns the Golan Heights to Syria without guaranteeing the water supply from the Yarmuk will likely fall. Even under Peres, the IDF opposed full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and insisted minimally on holding on to the cliffs that overlook Galilee, employing sophisticated early warning systems on Mt. Hermon, and maintaining influence over Golan aquifers. Under Netanyahu, even greater importance is placed on the Golan for water purposes.