Magazine article The Christian Century

Salty Solution: The Fight over Water in the Middle East

Magazine article The Christian Century

Salty Solution: The Fight over Water in the Middle East

Article excerpt

WATER WILL DETERMINE the future of the Occupied Territories, and by extension, the issue of conflict or peace in the region." Thomas Naff made this remark several years ago, and water remains a key, if often unacknowledged, issue behind the strife in the Middle East. When Israel's Likud Party vowed in May never to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that a central issue is water: "A Palestinian state would control the aquifer, which gives us 30 percent of our water. Yes to a Palestinian state means no to a Jewish state, and yes to a Jewish state means no to a Palestinian state."

When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it enforced stringent methods to monitor and control water supplies. Only 15 percent of the water supply was allocated to the Palestinians; the other 85 percent is used either by Jewish settlers, who constitute less than 10 percent of the population, or by Israel. As a result, about 90 percent of the land cultivated by Jewish settlers is irrigated, as opposed to only 3 percent of the land farmed by Palestinians.

For personal use--drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation--Jewish settlers consume more than four times as much water as do West Bank Palestinians, who average only 88 liters per person per day. This is less than the 100 liters considered to be the minimum for an acceptable quality of life. (Most American toilets require at least two liters for a single flush.)

Since the beginning of the occupation, the Israeli authorities have not permitted Palestinians to drill any new wells for agricultural purposes or to repair existing wells that are in close proximity to the wells of Jewish settlers. Arab wells have been metered, and limits have been placed on the amount that may be pumped from them. In addition, water from two aquifers which are mainly in the West Bank but extend into Israel are used to supply Israel.

Yet even these measures have not solved Israel's water problems. Like many other parts of the world, Israel has a critical need to increase fresh water supplies.

The planet has huge amounts of water--about 1,360,000,000 cubic kilometers. But 97 percent of the earth's water is seawater and another 2 percent is locked in icecaps and glaciers. Most of the remaining 1 percent of the earth's water supply is found in underground aquifers which are recharged by rainwater seeping through the soil.

Water use has been increasing even more rapidly than population. During the 20th century world population more than tripled, and the use of water for agriculture increased more than fivefold. Agriculture accounts for 65 percent of the global use of fresh water.

As a result of these large increases, which are likely to continue, pumping from most aquifers has exceeded the rate at which they replenish themselves. For example, the Ogallala Aquifer, which runs 1,300 miles from Texas to South Dakota, is being used up eight times faster than nature can refill it. Over several decades the Texas portion of the Ogallala has been depleted by an estimated 164 billion cubic meters--more than five times the entire state's annual water use for all purposes.

For decades Israel's use of water has outstripped its renewable supply. Overpumping has seriously degraded the Coastal Aquifer, which is entirely in Israel, deepening Israel's dependence on the two aquifers in the West Bank and increasing its reluctance to end the occupation.

THE U.S. CAN DO something to alleviate this problem and, in the process, better prepare itself and the rest of the world to deal with their own water shortages: it can offer to finance a series of large desalination plants to greatly increase the supply of water in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Recent progress in desalination technology makes such a move feasible.

The new technology of "reverse osmosis" offers a more efficient and less costly method of desalination than the old process of distillation. …

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