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Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue 3, Volume ii, Volume II, published 10th May, 2010.

Water concessions could yield Middle East peace

With the peace talks in the Middle East stuck in quicksand, much of it concerned with the fractured geography of the place they used to call the Holy Land*, it seems perverse to suggest that consensus building on environmental issues like water could be a key to progress. And yet it could be so.

Water is just about the most divisive issue in the region. The Six Day War in 1967 started over water as much as land. In the early 1960s Syria appeared to be on the verge of diverting north tributaries of the River Jordan, a key water resource for the state of Israel. It had begun digging a diversion channel through the Golan Heights.

Israel responded by hijacking the flow of the River Jordan, diverting most of its waters into a giant pipe known as the National Water Carrier that takes the water south as far as the Negev desert and deprives the country of Jordan of the flow that it had once relied on.

Then came the Six Day War. Histories write about how Israel extended its borders at that time, taking charge of the West Bank and the Golan Heights. They mention less how the occupations also gave Israel final control of the River Jordan. Before the war, less than a tenth of the Jordan's drainage basin, the source of its water, was within Israeli borders. By the end of the war, Israel controlled almost the entire basin.

In addition Israel became the military master of the only part of the region with substantial rains, the hills of the West Bank. Rains here mostly percolate underground and flow west into Israel, where they are pumped up by lines of deep boreholes. Before the Six Day War, Israel feared that Palestinian pumping of water for their own use on the West Bank might dry up its own wells. Ever since Israeli military authority has ensured that Palestinians cannot sink new wells or boreholes, even when existing wells run dry. Today more than 85 per cent of the water that falls onto the West Bank is used by Israelis. This is hydrological hegemony - made worse in Gaza because Israeli water structures in the Negev desert deprive the coastal strip of the fitful water it once received to top up its underground reserves. Gaza is currently, by some measures, the most water-deprived community on the planet.

And yet....

Through the worst years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians one of the few channels of communications that has remained open and functioning is that between water engineers. Water may be important enough to fight wars over. But it is also too important not to talk about. The Palestinian Water Authority still exists, patching up the system inherited from the past. And it is in constant dialogue with its Israeli counterparts, sharing expertise, repairing each other's burst pipes and other day to day work.

And the two sets of water scientists agree on much more than do their politicians. Israeli hydrologists whom I know say that stripped of the power politics there is enough water in the region to satisfy the needs of both groups, and to leave water for the Jordanians too. They say Israel wastes huge volumes of water on irrigating tomatoes, oranges and other crops for export, when that water could be used to fill Palestinian taps. Water, they believe, could be part of a peace deal. The truth is that modest concessions from Israel on the hydrological front could transform many Palestinian lives. They could turn future bombers into farmers, and set engineers building water pipes rather than rocket launchers. The waters of the Holy land could one day baptise peace. River Jordan could one day lubricate an end to war. Fred Pearce 10.5.2010.

Edited by Helen Gavaghan. My one reservation about the author's meaning in the editorial above is that as editor I wanted to change the place "they used to call the Holy Land" to the place "many call the Holy Land". I have left the ambiguity in the words the author submitted.
Minor corrections made within 24 hours of first publication, in line with the magazine's policy.

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