Borderline Views: Water - a source of conflict or peace?

Its scarcity in the region is not only about global warming and careful management, it’s also about geopolitics and economics.

By
February 2, 2010 00:40
Stormy weather hits Jerusalem Monday.

Stormy weather jerusalem 311 AJ. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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There couldn’t have been a worse time for public-sector workers to be on strike. Those of us who follow the ups and downs of the Kinneret waited with eager anticipation to hear just how much the recent rains had affected our major water reservoir. Coming as it has after consecutive years of drought, the news that the Kinneret had risen by more than a meter in just over two weeks, with more to come, was indeed welcome. It looks like we will have enough water to drink, to fill our washing machines, to hose down our cars and, for the most wasteful among us, to “make the desert bloom” by watering lawns in regions which were never intended for lawns in the first place.

As the region’s population grows, so too does the demand for water. Even given a static population, the per capita consumption by an affluent, Westernized society grows annually. But add population growth, along with the impact of global warming, and the gap between demand and supply gets larger year by year. We therefore wait with bated breath each year for the rains to start, avidly following the daily increase in the level of the Kinneret. We follow the country’s water managers as they pump water up through the National Water Carrier to fill the main underground water reservoir in the center of the country, and from there distribute water to the metropolitan heartland.

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The ideal situation would be for the Kinneret to reach its highest level as the last rains fall in late March/early April, and as the final flow from the melting snow on Mount Hermon makes its way into the lake. In rare circumstances, extremely heavy rains can cause the Kinneret to reach its upper level faster than the water can be pumped into the national carrier, in which case the barrier gates at the south of the lake are opened, allowing water to flow into the Jordan River. But it would take a number of consecutive rain-filled years for the Kinneret to again reach its highest level.

IN ANY case, the scarcity of water in the region is not only about global warming and careful management – of which Israel is, without question, one of the leaders in the world. It is also about politics, geopolitics and economics, and the manner in which powerful lobbies determine the way we manage our scarce water supply.

Internally, the country’s agricultural lobby continues to receive preferential rates. This stems from the time when agriculture and the need for the country to supply all its own agricultural products was a national priority. Water was used for those types of products, such as cotton and the famous citrus fruits, which are high water consumers. Even today, when we have significantly reduced the use of water for these types of products, and when we accept that we live in a global economy in which we can import those fruits and vegetables which are not indigenous to the region, and even when the political godfathers of the agricultural lobby no longer have power, there are still preferential water rates for the country’s remaining farmers. This enables us to buy agricultural products at below market cost, and therefore has a social impact for those who would otherwise be unable to purchase healthy produce. At the same time, there is still a great deal of water wasted, and powerful political interests in the agricultural sector which need to be reexamined.

It is easy to be critical, but we should also be aware that Israel is probably the world’s leading consumer of recycled water. Local technology, water purification and the use of trickle irrigation – an Israeli invention – has meant that more than 70 percent of our recycled water is reused. The Water Research Institute at the Sde Boker Campus of Ben-Gurion University is probably one of the world’s leading institutes in this area, with its expertise being used in both developed and developing countries, especially in those which face similar problems of how best to maximize scarce water resources.

THE POLITICS of water is not only internal. There have been numerous incidents during the past 50 years in which water has been an added source of conflict (or peace) between Israel and its neighbors. Just two years prior to the Six Day War, the air force bombed  a dam being constructed by Syria to prevent the waters of the Yarmuk River from flowing into the Jordan, and from there to the Kinneret. At the time, the message was sent that any attempt to tamper with the natural flow of water into Israel would be seen as a cassus belli.



During the 1980s, following the invasion of southern Lebanon, the rumor was disseminated that Israel would not relinquish control over the Litani River, and that it was constructing underground tunnels which would divertsome of its waters into the North – a rumor which proved false.

But it should be remembered that back in the early 20th century, when France and Britain were determining their respective mandate territories, the British wanted the border to be located further north, so as to include the Litani within their sphere of control. They were unsuccessful, hence the future Israel-Lebanon boundary was demarcated south of the Litani.

Almost 50% of the peace treaty with Jordan deals with water transfers (amounting to 50 million cubic meters a year) from Israel to Jordan, and the potential for joint research and development in this area. The recent initiative to establish a cross-border research center in Eilat-Aqaba has, as one of its main foci, the promotion of environmental and water projects. This requires a comprehensive analysis of the political and ecological implications of the proposed Red-Dead canal, which would provide an increased water supply plus hydroelectric power.


The agreement with Turkey to pipe water under the Mediterranean from the region’s only water-surplus country is as political as it is economically logical. At one time this was considered a cheaper alternative to water desalination plants. But although Israel has finally started to construct desalination facilities, the agreement with Turkey remains, at least on paper, for a variety of political and strategic reasons.

In Jewish tradition, water is compared to the Torah – each gives life and sustenance, one in the spiritual sense, the other in the physical sense. And in today’s Israel, each has become a political tool. Some political commentators argue that water offers as much, if not more, potential for future conflict than either oil or religious fundamentalism. This may sound a bit demagogic, but we should be aware that, given the constraints of global warming and growing populations, the political and geopolitical dimensions of the problem have to be harnessed in such a way that water can serve as the basis for regional cooperation rather than the spark for renewed conflict.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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