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A problem that can't be wished or washed away

Negotiations between Israel and the PLO over water rights and water use are coming into sight. Jordan, too, will have something to say. The starting positions of the sides are reflected in two studies now making the rounds. Correspondent JON FEDLER reports.
By the year 2,000 almost nine million people will be living between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. They will all draw water from that region's limited supply. Unfortunately, nature did not design that supply for so many people. Even were this population composed of one nation, the prospect of serious water scarcity would arouse conflicting interests and friction. But since it is constituted by two nations, the issue is of explosive political consequence. It will, therefore, figure increasingly in the Israel-PLO dialogue and also in the developing negotiations between Israel and Jordan.

Palestinian water claims focus on the mountain aquifer, which lies beneath the hills of the West Bank and to a lesser extent on the Israeli side of the "green line."

For Israel, this aquifer is one of three main sources of water supply. The other two are the coastal aquifer and the Sea of Galilee. Israel extracts 500 million cubic meters annually from the mountain aquifer for its own use and supplies the Palestinian population with 100 million.

The official Palestinian position, as defined before the Oslo agreement, claims the mountain aquifer as Palestinian property which should be under Palestinian control. Accordingly, it calls for a reversal of the present 500 to 100 ratio. Such a radical change would compel Israel to resort to a combination of recycling, imports, and desalination to compensate for the shortfall. That, of course, would also dramatically increase national water costs.

Israel's Water Commissioner Gideon Tzur, expressing the official position says that until substantial negotiations over the water question get underway, "existing water-use levels should define future rights." He also believes that the Palestinians will need to follow the Israeli precedent of large-scale recycling of domestic waste water for agriculture, as well as sea water desalination for Gaza.

Two academic studies completed last year before the Oslo agreement, one reflecting the Palestinian position, the other the Israeli, show the totally different approaches of the two sides. The Palestinian case was outlined by Karen Assaf, Ph.D., who is Head of the Water Studies Center at the Arab Scientific Institute in El-Bireh/Ramallah. Her paper makes only oblique references to the need for a coordinated regional approach to water supply or for technological ways of increasing the supply. Nor does it refer directly to conflicting Israeli-Palestinian demands.

The Israeli document, prepared by an expert panel for the World Bank, follows the opposite track. It treats water supply as a regional matter and avoids reference to the Palestinian position on the water issue. "Political issues, and the principles of allocating resources between countries are beyond the terms of reference of this study," it says blandly.

Obviously if the water problem is to obtain real solutions, bridges will have to be built between these two approaches. Despite the differences, interviews conducted by this reporter suggest a willingness to find such bridges. But it is instructive at this stage to understand the differences.

Assaf's report concerns itself with the reasons for Palestinian water scarcity and the steps a Palestinian administration should take for proper water management. She locates that reason in inequality of water rights resulting from Israeli occupation and control of Palestinian water resources.

"Water problems in the Palestinian Territory are caused not so much by a shortage of fresh water as by its uneven distribution due to practices during the occupation," she writes. "Her report points out that most of the Palestinian water usage (73 per cent) goes to agriculture, that is, for irrigation. Although the lion's share (73 per cent) of Palestinian water usage is for irrigation, only 2 per cent goes to industrial use and some 25 per cent is used for domestic needs including limited sewerage systems. Yet only about some 5 percent of the cultivated area in the West Bank and less than 30 per cent in the Gaza Strip rely on what she calls Palestinian water resources. The rest meet their needs from rainfall.

Thus, she observes that "in the absence of water which is adequate in both quality and quantity, the development goals chosen by the Palestinian governing authority are not realizable. With ever-declining safe and sufficient water resources, it is imperative that Palestinians manage their most valuable natural resource to ensure a continued, reliable and sustainable supply. The embryo Palestinian Water Authority's policies must reinforce the country's capacities to solve its own problems."

Though she doesn't use the term 'self-reliance', Assaf implies that this is a central element. "The goal should be to promote water use and management in a way that society's needs are met while at the same time Palestinian water resources are protected."

This means education, information and mobilization of the public. "From the outset, policies should be introduced and implemented to stimulate water management and conservation, by well-informed decision makers as well as consumers in all the demand sectors - urban, rural, agricultural and industrial."

Thus, unlike the Israeli study which looks to regional coordination and the need for technological solutions to increase water supplies, Assaf implies that the Palestinian entity can be a self sufficient water economy, if that economy is properly administered.

The Israeli study submitted to the World Bank, was spearheaded by Dr. Avishai Braverman, an economist who is president of Ben Gurion University in conjunction with Tahal, the state water engineering company.

The study forecasts a water deficit of 2 billion cubic meters annually by the year 2040 for Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza if new sources of supply are not developed. Regional coordination and cooperation is not only needed, it would also increase the total amount of water available for all, according to this report.

For the short range - to the year 2010 - the water supply gap could be closed by increased use of reclaimed waste water for agricultural use. That would require investment of about $550 million up to 2010, and a total of $1.8 billion up to 2040 in order to reach the highest possible level of waste water reclamation for irrigation. Yet even such a program would supply only 58 per cent of total projected irrigation needs. Therefore, the study emphasizes that after 2010 there would have to be resort to desalination of both brackish water and sea water, in order to meet the water demands of the three entities: Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. And that need, in turn, makes coordinated effort all the more essential.

In a conversation with this reporter, Assaf was dismissive of the report to the World Bank. She noted that similar Israeli proposals had already been made to the World Bank a decade ago. "Maybe they were just being careful," she suggested about the latest panel, "following the same line as before until they could see what was going to happen in the bilateral talks."

But in matters of substance, Assaf said she "didn't believe" in desalinating brackish water, which costs much less to desalinate than sea water. She contended that the method is environmentally unsound because the greater the underground saline water exploitation the more would the nearby sea water be "pulled in" to the resulting vacuum, creating more problems. This criticism was echoed by Water Commissioner Gideon Tzur, who told this reporter that he was opposed to brackish water desalination.

Assaf had no objection to sea water desalination but said it should not be a substitute for equitable water rights to existing sources. "After that, whatever extra water you find, whether it is by imports from elsewhere, or purification or desalination, will be shared and divided."

Despite the different approaches, Assaf believes a comprehensive agreement can be reached. She pointed that her paper, reflecting the Palestinian position, had input from both Israeli and Palestinian experts.

"It was very difficult to write," she recalls. "It was prepared in the summer of '93, before Oslo. There were no negotiations at the time so we tried to be very careful about both of our sides, and everything we wrote in it we all agreed upon. We didn't want to step on any body's toes. Nevertheless, we had a view about equitable rights and (felt) it should be put down on paper. I think it is still a very good premise (equitable water rights).and I don't think anyone can argue with that.

"If you had seen the technical people together you would have been very encouraged. We just have to wait and see what the politicians do," she concludes.

Tzur was similarly hopeful. "I am convinced both sides can reach an understanding," he says. "It is possible to make sky-high demands, but people have to live in the real world."

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