Water, Security and Peace in the Middle East


The earth is frequently referred to as a “water planet” because 70% of its surface is covered with this precious, life-giving and life-sustaining resource. But less than 3% of all the water is devoid of salt, and thus useable. And only 15% of this meager amount is recoverable for human consumption.

Recently the World Health Organization released a report, “Water for Health: Taking Charge”, that indicates that 1 billion (of 6 billion) people in the world, almost all living in Africa, Asia and South America, lack access to clean water. By the year 2025, the projections are for 40% of the seven billion people on earth facing serious shortages of water for personal and commercial uses. At present, thousands of children die daily of dehydration or from diseases contracted due to infected or polluted water. The problem of dwindling supplies of fresh water in the Middle East also confronts other regions of the earth. But nowhere else is the problem as explosive due to its relationship to the only remaining unresolved anti-colonial struggle of the last century: the just fight of the Palestinian people for freedom, with fairness and dignity, from the Zionists of Israel. But the problem itself affords an unprecedented opportunity for peace, brought on by the desperate need to harness and share, sensibly and equitably, the water resources of the region, only if the people (Israelis, as will be shown) negotiate in good faith and with a desire for equity and justice.

The Middle East has very limited sources of water to go with the increasing demands of a rising population that threatens to be a greater source of conflict than even oil. Five percent of the world’s population lives in this region but has access to less than 1% of the earth’s fresh water. The region is suffering from a third straight year of below-average rainfall. Water from the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias bordering Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan), a major source for Israel’s fresh water, has receded to one of its lowest levels in years.

Since Israel’s creation in 1948, water from the River Jordan has been increasingly exploited to cater to the growing demands of its rising Jewish population, both in Israel and in the occupied territories. It has become a source of conflict between the countries that share the river’s waters, i.e., Lebanon, Syria, Jordan on the one side and Israel on the other. In the early 1950’s, Israel and Syria fought over Israel’s construction of its National Water Carrier to transport water from the river to southern Israel. The U.S. government of President Eisenhower was involved in attempts to resolve the dispute between these countries on sharing the water. In October 1953, Eisenhower sent Eric Johnston to the Middle East as his personal representative to undertake discussions with the countries for the “mutual development of water resources of the Jordan River valley on a regional basis for the benefit of all the people of the area.” Johnston presented a proposal to the Arab countries and Israel based on an engineering survey conducted by the American firm of Chas T Main Inc. under the supervision of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He allocated 67% of the Jordan River waters to the Arab countries bordering the river and 33% to Israel. This was disproportionately in favor of Israel for the existing Arab and Jewish populations. But Israel objected nevertheless, stating that it considered the allocation to the Arab countries to be too big a share of the waters. The proposal conflicted with Israel’s plans for channeling water from the river all the way to the Negev desert region. In addition, Israel laid claim to water flowing from the north into Lake Tiberias. Israel presented its own proposal that envisaged the diversion of all Upper Jordan River waters – and large amounts from other smaller rivers in the region such as the Yarmuk, Litani and Hasabani – to the Negev, leaving very small amounts for its neighbors. The Israeli and Arab positions were wide apart. In June 1954, Johnston and the Arab negotiators issued a communiqué that outlined points of agreement between them on which they would seek Israeli acceptance. These included

-the need to raise the living conditions of the countries concerned and of the Palestinian refugees, without prejudicing their rights, and

-international oversight over water withdrawals.

Needless to say, Israel was openly hostile to this communiqué because it was totally opposed to ceding to the just rights of the Palestinians it had expelled and distrustful of any supervision by the United Nation after the Security Council had condemned it for the massacre of sixty Palestinian children, women and men in the village of Qibya (led by the present Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon) in 1953. By Johnston’s third visit to Palestine in February 1955, the Arab states made a major concession in agreeing to accept Lake Tiberias for main storage of Yarmuk waters providing that international supervision of withdrawals was arranged. Israel continued to object to such oversight and the Arab countries were not prepared to entrust Israel with water storage. The settlement of the amounts of water allocated has also remained an obstacle ever since. As a result of Israeli intransigence, the Johnston mission was doomed to failure. Israeli attacks on the Gaza strip preceding his visit contributed to a justifiably heightened suspicion of, and opposition to, Israel on the part of the Arabs. In September 1955, when Johnston returned with yet another plan for sharing the waters, Israeli representatives upped their stake by demanding an even higher allocation than was already conceded by the Arabs. Arabs could not trust Israel to carry out any water agreement that was not totally accepting of the Israeli position. Israeli objections to a role for the United Nations in any agreement confirmed Arab misgivings about Israel abiding by any agreement. This was evidenced in 1959 when Israel’s secret plan to unilaterally divert the Jordan River was revealed. The Johnston proposal was an attempt by the United States to solve the Palestine question through economic measures. Mr. Eric Johnston, in an address at Cornell University (May 6, 1954) said as much in stating, “a comprehensive program for developing the Jordan river basin would mark at least the beginning of a solution to the refugee problem, and thus help to clear the atmosphere of bitterness and resentment.” But U.S. policy resulted in making short shrift of the rights of Palestinians and negated the recommendations made in 1949 by the United Nations Economic Survey Mission to the Middle East (to examine an economic approach to resolving the plight of Palestinians). This mission said in its report, “In the absence of a peace settlement between Israel and adjoining countries on outstanding issues involving reparation and compensation of Arab refugees and territorial boundaries, it is unrealistic to suppose that agreement on the complex question of international water rights could be negotiated among the parties.”

In the mid-60’s, Israel attacked Syrian construction sites that were meant to divert some of the Jordan river water. The ensuing tensions contributed to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that resulted in Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights from Syria and gaining control of the crucial headwaters of the river which it refuses to relinquish. Currently, Israel gets 30% of its water from the Golan Heights. Much of the water flowing in the river from this highland collects

in Lake Tiberias on the border. Another third of Israel’s insatiable demand for water comes from aquifers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Obviously, control and management of these resources being totally in Israeli hands is a great source of tension and resentment for the Palestinians. Besides, the water is allocated in a grossly inequitable manner between the Jewish settlers and Israelis on the one hand and the native Palestinians who are barely surviving in their own colonized land. The availability of water for Israeli Jews is 250 gallons/person/day, four times what is made available, in normal circumstances, to Palestinians. For comparison, estimated water availability in the U.S. varies from 300 to 1000 gallons/person/day.

Following Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands in 1967, it controlled the balance of the 22% of historic Palestine (having already conquered 23% more than the disproportionate 55% of prime territory it was allotted by the U.N. in 1948 through earlier wars with the neighboring Arab countries). The Zionists had fulfilled the essential need to totally control access and use of the limited fresh water resources of the region to supply their needs. The headwaters of the Jordan River were now finally in Israel’s hands. Furthermore, it issued a military order (# 92) that prohibited the drilling of new wells without permission, fixed quotas for pumping from existing wells and expropriated wells in these areas under Palestinian control. It presently controls 80% of all the water resources in the West Bank and Gaza. This has led to an inhumanely iniquitous situation that allows Palestinians to withdraw insufficient water from wells for personal, agricultural and commercial use. But the Jewish settlers are permitted to drill new wells to meet their extravagant demands for filling outdoor swimming pools, washing cars and watering immaculately maintained lawns. One million Palestinians in Gaza could access (pre-Intifada) one-quarter of the available local groundwater while 4000 Israeli settlers were allowed to use the remaining seventy-five percent ! The West Bank aquifer is also exploited to supply as much as a third of the water used in Israel. The Palestinians are lucky to get water two days a week sometimes. Often they are forced to buy it at steep prices from private vendors. But the Jewish settlers are hooked into the national water supply grid and suffer no shortage of the precious, life sustaining material. The native Palestinians are familiar with the need to husband natural resources through centuries of living in the region. They do without the obscene luxuries of the Israeli settlers that require an incredible 1000 gallons/person/day to satiate, received as part of the special benefits accruing to them from the Israeli government.

In early March, 2001, Israel warned Lebanon not to pump water from the Wazzani River near its border, to supply poor Lebanese villages in the area that were trying to recover from years of Israeli oppression (until the Israelis were forced to withdraw with their puppet, the South Lebanese Army, after being defeated by the guerrilla forces of the Hezbollah). The Wazzani flows into the Hasabani River which, in turn, contributes 25% of the water in the Jordan River (Israel’s primary source of fresh water now). In Gaza, Israel has also been dumping millions of gallons of waste water into a dried-up river bed. The Palestinians have not only to worry about pollution reaching their Mediterranean beaches and destroying marine life but also to concern themselves with the pollution seeping into their meager and dwindling sources of fresh water. Once the ground water becomes polluted, it would be unfit for human

consumption or agricultural use. This is yet another instance of Israel flouting, with impunity, international agreements and treaties or laws governing fundamental human rights, land use and environmental pollution. With no shame or compunctions whatsoever, an Israeli Defence (Offence?) Forces spokesman, Shlomo Dror, complained of Lebanese attempts to pump water from the Wazzani as being in “contravention of international law”. Israel itself, of course, is supremely above international law.

An Israeli withdrawl to the 1967 borders would mean it would have to pay, at least, for one-third of the 500 billion gallons of water its Jewish population uses annually. Now, this precious resource comes free, courtesy of a thoroughly repressed Palestinian population, caged within isolated bantustans and deprived of access to essential resources, food, education, health-care or work. Meir ben Meir, Israel’s retiring Water Commissioner, paints a gloomy picture of possible conflict over water between Israel and the Palestinians, neighboring countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. “I predict a scarcity of water within five years – if people remain thirsty for water, then we shall doubtless face war.” Israel refuses to return any of the occupied territories, especially those that abut rivers/lakes or surround aquifers. Recently, the Sharon government’s Minister of Infrastructure, Avigdor Lieberman (a right-wing extremist Russian-Jewish immigrant who came to Israel in 1987), warned that water supplies to the Palestinian homes might be completely (instead of the present, incrementally) cut off if the Intifada continued. This would be yet another in a series of cruel acts of collective punishment that Israel has subjected the Palestinian people to, more heinous in its mere suggestion than anything imaginable coming from a people who claim to know what cruelty is for having survived Hitler’s holocaust. This is surely as odious as it gets in the annals of man’s inhumanity to man. It is hard to believe, and sickening in the extreme, that Israel and its supporters in the West who repeatedly remind the world of the horrors wrought by the Nazis against the Jews of Europe should commit, or condone the commission of, such appallingly barbaric acts on another people (the Palestinians) who had nothing to do with the oppression of the Jews in the first place. Any criticism of Israel’s harsh actions (they are always called reactions or reprisals, as though by merely asserting so justifies the patent illegality of the occupation of Palestinian lands and the savage, unceasing attacks on their lives and property) is immediately assailed as “anti-Semitic”. Until Israel’s principal backers in the West, the ordinary people who have unthinkingly subsidized (just America provides $ 5 billion a year of outright military and economic assistance) Israel’s half-a-century of unmitigated terror on the Palestinian people, and the world as a whole, are disabused of this notion and have their visions corrected as to who is the historic and present wrong-doer, the Palestinians will continue to suffer unbearable hardships even as they struggle merely to survive.

Dr. Sadanand Nanjundiah is a Physics Professor at Central Connecticut State University.

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