Water Deal Elemental to Mideast Peace, Experts Say

Mati Milstein in Amman, Jordan
for National Geographic News
June 3, 2008

Open warfare, military checkpoints, borders, and bureaucracy quash most efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to discuss any issue, but an impending water crisis in the region may bring both sides to the table.

Solving Israel's desperate water shortage could be a critical step toward peace, and the two parties could forge a water management agreement in short order—if it were a priority, according to policy analysts.

A recent conference in neighboring Jordan brought together an army of Israeli and Palestinian experts to examine the water crisis from scientific, social, economic, and diplomatic perspectives.

The Water Wisdom participants, convened in Amman by Professors Alon Tal of Israel's Ben-Gurion University and Alfred Abed-Rabbo of the West Bank's Bethlehem University, all contributed chapters to a book of the same name slated for release in the coming year.

Diminishing Returns

More than 10 million people (7 million Israelis and 3.8 million Palestinians) live densely packed on just 10,840 square miles (28,075 square kilometers). And they all drink from the same dwindling water supply.

Precipitation is sporadic at best, and there are just three primary water sources: a coastal aquifer, which extends underground from Israel's northern coast south to the Gaza Strip; a mountain aquifer, which extends north-south under the West Bank and Judean Hills; and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the Jordan River Basin.

The two aquifers supply the Israeli and Palestinian populations, which also pull water, along with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, from the Jordan River and its tributaries.

A drought period of several years is exacerbating the intensity of competition for this scarce resource, which is dwindling even more due to leaking infrastructure, rampant water pollution, and poor management.

The coastal aquifer, for example, once had extremely high-quality water but has suffered from decades of municipal, industrial, and agricultural pollution. Rampant overpumping has lowered the water table and allowed seawater to rush in, contaminating the once sweet water.

Upstream-downstream water rights are fiercely contested, and human-made political borders complicate the conflict. Some 80 percent of the rain that falls on the West Bank—generally seen as the site of a future Palestinian state—flows underground to Israel via the mountain aquifer.

Five countries exploit the Jordan River as it travels south, creating a situation in which the waterway is little more than a small stream by the time it flows into the Dead Sea.

Continued on Next Page >>




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