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Water wars keep Mideast on boil as a long drought continues

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001


George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, is in the Middle East, sent there by President Bush to prop up a fragile cessation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

During the next few weeks, or however long Tenet and European Union security experts remain in the region, the media will follow the attempted re-establishment of the peace process.

But another war, one that rarely makes headlines in the United States, boils over and may eventually determine the very future of the whole Mideast.

This war, one of the world's oldest, is being fought over water.

From Israel to Egypt, to Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, water is the lifeline that interlocks this war-torn region and is the subtext of many of the back-channel negotiations that rarely make front pages or hit the airwaves.

I learned first-hand about the water problem two years ago when I drove with three members of the Israeli Defense Forces to the West Bank town of Jenin, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I saw dozens of Palestinians, some entire families, walking back and forth to a shallow well at the bottom of a hill. The IDF captain explained that they were fetching their quota of potable water.

As an American who only has to turn on a spigot to get all of the drinking water I want, I could not imagine life under such circumstances.

Since the 1967 occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the Jewish state has controlled all the water sources from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Such power gives Israel the sole right to open water sources, establish amounts to be consumed and, perhaps most significantly, distribute allotments according to area and nationality. Nothing changed after the Palestinian Authority was created with Yasser Arafat as its chairman. Even though the Oslo agreement gave the Palestinian Authority limited power to control supplies, Israel still determines Palestinian water sources.

Currently, according to a recent article in Ha'aretz, one of Israel's English-language dailies, the levels of water in the aquifers supplying southern West Bank villages have plunged sharply. Officials in Israel and the occupied territories fear that matters will worsen if the drought holds throughout the summer. Then, of course, the deadly Al-Aqsa Intifada has caused security concerns that prevent Israeli and Palestinian engineers and hydrologists from solving the problems.

A recent report by the joint Israeli-Palestinian water committee states that many important springs on the West Bank have dried. For example, the springs that have been the major source of water for Jericho, Nablus and Ein Uja are parched. Water levels in the wells that supply Ramallah are dangerously low.

Northern West Bank communities, especially those directly dependent on supplies from the Tirtza River near Jenin, are experiencing similar shortages.

Who and what are to blame? Everyone in the region, along with natural phenomena.

The Ha'aretz writer who covers water pulls no punches: "The water shortage has been caused not only by insufficient rain over the past three years, but also by increased Palestinian water use because of population growth and drilling of private wells that waste a lot of water. Another major reason is the growth of populations in the Jewish settlements that are supplied with water according to consumption levels in the rest of Israel. Pipelines that feed the settlements also supply the Palestinians."

Under the cover of darkness, especially in remote sectors, many Palestinians drill holes in pipelines and pirate water for personal gain. In some areas, this practice has killed supplies and has left many families thirsty.

To their credit, Israeli experts from the Mekorot water company have tried repeatedly to solve some of the more serious technical problems. They cannot work, however, because most times when they go out, Palestinian gunmen fire on them. Palestinian technicians cannot work because they fear violence from settlers.

The water war is not just between Israel and the Palestinians.

Lebanon and Israel are struggling to solve their shared water problems. Israeli and Jordanian water supplies and distributions -- with the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret in the middle -- are intertwined.

Then, we have Israel and Lebanon. To help farmers in the south revitalize their businesses after Israel withdrew troops from the security zone, Lebanon wants to build a giant irrigation pumping station along the Hatzbani River. But, fearing wider shortages in its cities north of the Galilee and in the Golan Heights, Israel hesitates to approve the project.

Add another piece to this Middle East water puzzle: Lebanon also depends on Syria for water, but Syria is hurting from its own drought and infrastructure woes. Shortages in south Lebanon increased after Israel withdrew and after Hezbollah blew up pumping stations that Israel had built to support the now-defunct South Lebanon Army. SLA soldiers, who supported the IDF during the two-decade occupation of the security zone, were unscrupulous. They bought water from Israel for 50 cents a cubic meter and sold it for $1.50 to fellow villagers.

Syria has its own water woes and looks to Turkey for help. Turkey, however, is in no rush to pump water into Syria, which already has Turkey's permission to take water from the Euphrates River. Because of a two-year drought, many of Syria's northern farms have folded and see no way of restarting operations any time soon. Other farms are so desperate that they are using untreated sewage water to irrigate vegetable crops, according to Ha'aretz.

Now, Egypt comes into the picture.

Egyptians have never wanted to share their Nile River water with neighbors, which includes Syria. The Egyptians even balk at helping their water-starved Palestinian neighbors in the adjacent Gaza Strip.

The view of former Turkish President Sulemein Demeril sums up the water war in the Middle East by comparing Turkey's water supply to Arab oil: It is not to be shared; it is to be sold.

In the same light and sounding a bit like Hamlet, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's infrastructure minister, recently said that Israel's water crisis is a matter of "to be or not to be, to live or to die."

As the water war rages, Lieberman's words become more ominous.

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