The longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict has as much to do with water, as with land. So scarce are water supplies in west Asia that it may well be water, not oil or land, that will trigger the next war.
Palestinians have accused Israel of diverting water away from their towns to Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. They also complain that, on average, an Israeli uses three times as much water as a West Bank Palestinian.
Israel too accuses Palestinian farmers of using illegal connections to irrigate their fields. For months now, Palestinian refugee camps do not have access to running water. In one camp, 7,000 people depend on water supplied by the United Nations, which since April has run for just two hours a day. Hebron has one water source for 100,000 residents.
In 1998, a drought led Israel to reduce the amount of water it supplied to Jordan. That year the Sea of Galilee, Israelís main source of drinking water which stands between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, fell to its lowest level since 1908. Israel is bound to supply Jordan 55 million cubic metres of water each year from the Yarmouk River, which runs into the Sea of Galilee. The Yarmouk rises from Syria, and though Jordan protested at the reduction in supplies from Israel, both nations together claimed that Syrian actions had affected the quality and level of the river.
Syria too accused Israel of reluctance to withdraw from the Golan Heights, so it could exploit the Golanís resources of water.
Conflict over water in this region is nothing new. Recently, the United States of America was forced to intervene in a dispute over water between two long-standing antagonists ó Israel and Lebanon. Lebanon had long accused Israel of having designs on the River Litani, saying it was one reason the Jewish state maintained a toehold in south Lebanon. The present conflict began when Lebanon embarked on a pumping project on the Wazzani river to irrigate its drought-stricken border villages, ignoring strong Israeli objections.
By the Johnston water sharing agreement of 1955 (which the Arab states did not ratify since they did not recognize Israel) Lebanon was allocated 35 million cubic metres from the Wazzani. Beirut claims that its plans are to draw less than 10 million cubic metres from the Wazzani, which fall well within its fair share by this pact. The Wazzani is a tributary of the Hasbani river, which provides about 20 per cent of the water that flows into the Sea of Galilee ó Israelís main source of drinking water.
To defuse the conflict, the US sent its experts to Lebanon to monitor the laying of pipes to pump water from the Wazzani river for use by nearby villages. Israel too has been keeping a close eye on the work from its side of the border.
Meanwhile, water is becoming a luxury and Israel may soon find itself forced to import it. There is already talk of buying supplies from Israelís new ally, Turkey. But transportation, either through a pipeline laid under the Mediterranean or in converted oil tankers, will be expensive. Turkey already delivers water by tanker to Northern Cyprus, and hopes to sell water to Israel, Jordan, Malta, Cyprus and Crete. But thus far there has been no agreement on the price of such water.
Another, equally expensive, option is desalination. West Asian governments have been talking about it for years, but have not yet committed themselves to the investment needed. Also, there are suggestions about rethinking traditional agricultural practices and jettisoning such water-consuming crops like rice, cotton and citrus fruits.
Israel is not the only country which will have to take difficult decisions regarding water in the years ahead. The region, as a whole, must learn to cooperate or face the crises. Perhaps the only way to ensure lasting peace in the region is to improve water management.