Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Vanishing Waters of the Middle East

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Vanishing Waters of the Middle East

Article excerpt

Israel and its neighbors are suffering one of the driest years in modern history. It follows three years of drought and declining water reserves. The Biblical Sea of Galilee is at the lowest level recorded in modern times and aquifers elsewhere are similarly depleted. It is now too late for spring rains to improve the situation very much. The Israelis conveniently forgot that in order to "make the desert bloom" ample water is required, and that overpumping in drought years can dangerously deplete water reserves. Overuse as much as the current drought is the cause of the present water shortage. The shortfall next year could be disastrous if rainfall again is scarce.

By coincidence, California also faces a water shortage after five years of drought. The climatic conditions in Israel and Southern California are similar. Both are regions of semi-desert with rainfall confined to the winter period, so that agriculture, industry and domestic households must depend on large volumes of water stored in reservoirs and in natural aquifers to carry them through the dry season. Both regions also have rapidly expanding populations, some of whom depend for a living on agriculture using irrigation.

A Crucial Question

Politically, the resemblance ends there. California is a single administrative unit. Its water problem revolves around the diversion of water from agriculture to service the burgeoning cities and suburbs. Israel, however, depends on water diverted from its militarily occupied territories for one-third of Israeli consumption. More than 80 percent of the water in the occupied West Bank is either used by the Jewish settlers there, or else diverted from the West Bank for use in Israel.

Control of water is a crucial, although seldom mentioned, question that underlies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Confirming this point are the Israeli government's discriminatory and extraordinarily burdensome limitations on Palestinian access to water. The determination of the Israelis to retain full control of the water in the occupied territories is a hidden reason for their intransigence about withdrawing from the West Bank territories they seized in 1967. The present drought exacerbates the issue.

As in Israel at the present time, California's rapidly expanding population is placing new demands on the water supply. However, this only partially accounts for the acute water shortage. Eighty percent of California's water is used in agriculture, and at heavily subsidized prices, sometimes as low as one-tenth of the cost of producing it. Subsidization of water enables the growth of water-intensive crops such as rice and cotton that otherwise could not be profitably produced in California's semi-desert environment.

After five years of sparse rainfall in California, the major Oroville reservoir is down to one-quarter of capacity, the lowest in history for this time of year, while the small Gibraltar reservoir serving Santa Barbara is practically dry. With still another year of deficit rainfall a possibility, measures are being taken to cut agricultural water consumption as much as two-thirds.

Doing away with crops that are heavy water consumers would be an important step toward a long-term solution to water scarcity in California. In principle, this could be accomplished by eliminating federal and state government subsidies of water, letting the agricultural sector stand on its own economic feet. …

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