Water demand great in Mideast

Drought aggravates West Bank dispute

July 19, 1999

HEBRON, West Bank -- In the heat of summer, when Palestinian water taps run dry, Ibrahim J'bour drives from his village to the outskirts of this city, where he buys water on the black market from a Palestinian who claims to get it from a Jewish settlement.

J'bour makes the trip three times a day and pays $6 for 1,056 gallons. But it's the only way the farmer can ensure that his 200 sheep and 20-member family will have enough water during this summer's severe regional drought.

In the parched Middle East, water is more sought after than oil. It is a commodity in great demand and in short supply in a region where enemies outnumber friends. Summer water shortages are endemic to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, home to about 3 million Palestinians, posing a problem that is fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The dispute turns on questions of ownership, control and historical use of a fragile natural resource.

"Water conflicts in the Middle East have been zero-sum: Water for one user means lack of water for the other," political scientist Amikam Nachmani wrote in a study of regional water conflicts for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The lack of rainfall in the region this year has produced its worst drought in 60 years and aggravated historical water disputes, especially between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Iraq, 70 percent of food crops were lost to the drought, raising concerns of a possible famine. In Jordan, emergency food aid was distributed to a quarter of the population because of the drought. Syria, despite its shortages, agreed to supply the desert kingdom with additional water during the hot season.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets Saturday to protest water shortages. Shouting "We need water," they blocked a street outside a Palestinian refugee camp with burning tires. They blamed Israeli policies for their lack of water.

Since early summer, Palestinians have been without a reliable water supply. The Palestinian Authority, which operates the water system in the towns and cities under its control, rations the water. Palestinians who are connected to the public water system can expect water from their taps once every two weeks. Then it's a mad dash to fill rooftop tanks, bathtubs, buckets and soda bottles.

About 20 percent of the West Bank population, nearly 300,000 people, has it worse. They are not connected to public water and must rely on springs, private wells or water merchants.

In Israeli homes, including the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, water flows freely because Israel controls the sources within its boundaries and along the West Bank, which it captured during the 1967 war with the Arabs.

Israel and the Palestinians derive their water from several sources -- aquifers, rivers, rainfall and desalinated seawater. They share two sources -- the Yarmuh and Jordan rivers and an underground reservoir known as the mountain aquifer. The aquifer stretches from Mount Carmel in the north to Beersheba in the south, the Dead Sea and Jordan valley in the east to the eastern border of a Mediterranean coastal strip on the west.

Rainfall on the mountains of the West Bank feeds the aquifer. The Palestinians consider the aquifer part of their land, but they receive only 20 percent of the water produced from it. Israel takes 80 percent of the mountain aquifer water -- that represents about 30 percent of Israel's water supply for its nearly 6 million people. Israel gets 50 percent of its water from the Sea of Galilee, whose sources flow from parts of Lebanon, Israel and Israeli-occupied Syria. The remaining 20 percent comes from the coastal aquifer.

Israel's water commissioner, Meir Ben Meir, acknowledged that Israelis consume far more water than Palestinians; 1.6 billion cubic meters (422 billion gallons) by Israelis, 250 million cubic meters (66 billion gallons) by Palestinians, according to government figures.

But Ben Meir makes no apologies. Wells dug by Jews before the creation of the state of Israel drew water from the mountain aquifer that straddles the so-called "green line," the 1967 border between Israel and Jordan. Israel claims historical use of that water.

"We started to develop our water resources 100 years ago and they regrettably did not," he said. B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, attributes the disparity in water consumption between Israel and the Palestinians to Israeli policy, beginning with its 1967 decision to declare as public property water resources in the occupied territories.

It also faults Israel for not maintaining the water system infrastructure during its control of the West Bank. A review of the water dispute by B'Tselem blames discriminatory Israeli policies for the water problems confronting Palestinians today.

"What we have in water we have to divide equally," said Tomer Feffer, a spokesman for the group.

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