Drought plagues Arabs, Israelis

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Jul 9, 2001

Drought plagues Arabs, Israelis MORT ROSENBLUM of The Associated Press

The Sea of Galilee, the biblical lake where Jesus walked on water, has been pumped almost to its limit. It is so low that salt deposits endanger its fresh water. Broad mud flats and odd little islands deface the placid expanse of blue that until just a few years ago lapped at old stone walls.

Israel's other main sources of water, mountain and Mediterranean coastal aquifers, are depleted by the worst drought in a century. They are being tapped much faster than engineers advise.

``We're worried, very worried,'' said Zvi Stuhl, senior engineer at Mekorot, Israel's water company. He oversees the National Water Carrier, which has supplied homes and made deserts bloom for 37 years.

Water politics here are paramount. Arabs get a fraction of what goes to Jews, which adds immediacy to the slow process of making peace.

Israelis say their advanced society, with its developed economy, needs more water. Palestinians argue that the water shortage blocks their development.

The imbalances are striking.

In the West Bank, some Palestinians trudge long distances for water, at times within earshot of youths frolicking in the swimming pools of Jewish settlements.

In the Gaza Strip, a few thousand Jewish settlers have ample water piped from Israel, while a million Palestinians pump dregs of underground rivers polluted by sea water and sewage.

``You cannot talk about peace while you have this discrimination on the ground,'' said Ayman Rabi, executive director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group. ``Every day, the problem is getting worse.''

Because the Palestinian economy depends heavily on farming, the future looks bleak, he said.

Water authorities say the present is serious enough.

Uri Saguy, chairman of Mekorot, has warned of more drought to come as Israel faces a 30 percent water shortfall.

One stopgap measure is to bring water tankers from Turkey, but that won't begin for a year, said Sara Haklai, who manages supply for Mekorot.

Salvation may lie in desalting sea water, as Persian Gulf Arab states do. But although Israel is a world leader in the technology, it prefers natural water.

Desalination plants are planned, but the first two, not expected on line until 2004, will meet only 5 percent of the annual demand.

Meanwhile, the population booms. A high Arab birth rate and influxes of Jewish immigrants have boosted the population to more than 6 million Israelis and 3.3 million Palestinians.

THE CRISIS HAS deep roots. In 1990, Israel's state comptroller excoriated ``irresponsible management of the water supply for 25 years'' that destroyed reserves and damaged water quality.

In a 2000 report for the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, analyst Steven Plaut wrote, ``Israeli water policy is and has been a nearly unmitigated disaster, producing waste, misallocation, and environmental destruction.''

The National Water Carrier is fed by three huge pumps on the Galilee, or Lake Kinneret, set underground in case of war with neighboring Syria. The carrier conveys water far south to the Negev desert.

Normally, the lake supplies more than 100 billion gallons a year, but pumping is down by more than three-quarters and is being pushed to the point at which saltwater springs might seep in.

If the lake's surface drops 3 more feet, Stuhl said, pumps will draw air and stop dead.

The carrier also taps the coastal aquifer, which lies largely beneath Israel, and the mountain aquifer, which is mostly under Palestinian territory. Both are also at their danger points.

Uri Shamir, head of the Water Research Institute at Technion University in Haifa and an Israeli water negotiator, has said severe shortages forced both sides into a test of goodwill.

``If you seek a conflict, water can provide a plausible excuse,'' he said. ``If you seek peace, water is a bridge for cooperation.''

IN THE WEST BANK and Gaza, Palestinian specialists say Israel can seize the moral high ground because it controls the water.

Mekorot said that on a per-person basis, Jews get just over twice as much water as Arabs. The numbers are in dispute because of how they are calculated and because some water data is secret.

According to B'Tselem, the respected Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israelis get five times as much water as Palestinians on a per-person average. In Gaza, the water ratio is 7-to-1, it said.

In practice, a B'Tselem report notes, Israel is in command because operating arrangements with the Palestinians give it veto power over new water projects in Arab territories. In shortages, the report says, Israelis often cut supplies to Palestinians.

Palestinian water systems are inadequate and degraded in places. B'Tselem says at least 215,000 West Bank Arabs with no piped water survive on costly bottled water when nearby springs go dry.

Marwan Haddad at An-Najah University in Nablus estimates Israeli homes get 10 times more water. By cutting consumption 10 percent, he said, Israel could double the Palestinian supply.

He believes the Israelis see nothing wrong with that. ``They think it is their land, their water, and we are intruders,'' he said. ``This should be a technical matter not a political one. But they don't accept us as people.''

Eran Feitelson, an Israeli expert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who works with Haddad on hydrology studies, said equal access to water is a basic human right. The conflict, he said, is more about symbolism than science because both sides view farming as essential to their identity, and farming consumes too much water.

Working the land and making deserts bloom is the basis of the whole Zionist enterprise of returning Jews to their homeland. To Palestinians, the family farm passed down through generations is a validation of their nationhood.

Farming is down to a token 2 percent of Israel's gross national product, far behind high technology. Israel imports 80 percent of what it eats.

Israel's agriculture survives because farmers pay much less than residences and industries for water even though farmers use 60 percent of the drinkable supply.

Palestinians depend more directly on farming. Their economy is about one-third agricultural.

Despite the crisis, Israel's home consumption is nearly 80 gallons daily per person. In wealthy Tel Aviv areas, people use up to three times the national average, about equal to Phoenix.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 10, 2001

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