The tap that’s running dry

By WND Staff

Lets face it: The Middle East is an arid place. North Africa and the Middle East accounts for 6.3 percent of the world’s population, but only has 1.4 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water.

So limited and precious is water in the Middle East that countries have resorted to arms in the past to protect their access to it. One of the most important aspects of the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88 was the bid to control the Sha’at Al Arab waterway, a conflict that, to this day, remains unresolved. Turkey and Syria have several times come close to war over rights to the headwaters of the Euphrates. Likewise, in 1964, Arab countries tried to re-route the headwaters of the Jordan, which flows into Israel. Israel responded by bombing the pumping stations and forcing the Syrians to cease. The power of the water issue to ignite conflict was underscored by the PLO in 1965 when it chose, as its very first target of assault, Israel’s National Water Carrier.

Issues over water rights are complicated by the competitive needs of the countries. For example, the per capita water consumption in Israel, an industrialized nation, is several times that of its Arab neighbors.

Nevertheless, Israel endures water shortages and has suffered grievously from a drought that has reduced the Sea of Galilee – which contains 35 percent of all of Israel’s potable water – to dangerous levels.

All of which makes the recent decision of the Lebanese government to pump water from the Hatzbani, a tributary of the Jordan, a bitter source of contention between the two countries. While Lebanon has claimed that its consumption of water from the Wazzani Springs will drain only a small fraction of its total flow, Israel, unsurprisingly, regards such pumping as a dangerous precedent that it cannot tolerate. Short of a peace treaty that governs the riparian rights and responsibilities of all the countries in the area, Israel has always felt it must enforce control of its water supply. Failure to do so can be a perilous mistake in a region given to the sudden eruption of war.

Yet a peace treaty is precisely what all the states require for the sake of future water usage. That is because such treaties can and do work. In October 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel which, among other things, laid out a framework for the distribution of water from the Jordan River – a water source they both share. Several months even before the treaty was signed, Israel began to distribute water to Jordan in recognition of that country’s extreme water shortages.

Subsequent agreements guaranteed Jordan the annual delivery of 215 million cubic meters of water, an obligation that Israel – despite its own shortages – has faithfully fulfilled. Agreements on the construction of dams and water desalination plants were also contemplated by the treaties, a breakthrough in regional cooperation that should have been a precursor of agreements with all of Israel’s neighbors.

But even the desperate water problems of the region have not been enough to coerce Israel’s other adversaries into serious contemplation of a treaty – even one limited to water rights. Successive Israeli governments have been willing to come to terms with both Syria and Lebanon over water issues, with the Barak government drawing up an extensive plan to share its water resources and technology with those countries. But all such efforts have been stonewalled by hard-line positions over territory.

Not that a country such as Syria has that much choice. In Damascus, a water system designed for a population of 1 million is servicing a population of 4 million that is growing at an annual rate of 8 percent. To compensate for the excess demand, ground water sources are being exploited without regard to conservation. Until recently, waste management was virtually nonexistent, with sewage dumped untreated into surface water in many Syrian cities.

The situation becomes even more hazardous when issues of global warming and pollution are factored into the equation. A recent study, cited in the journal Science, claims that fine particles produced by pollution in industrialized countries have gathered in the upper atmosphere over the Mediterranean. This, claims the study, is having a devastating impact on weather patterns in the region and could mean years of drought.

It also should not be forgotten that international law compels upstream states to take into account the needs of downstream states and even to secure their approval of any project that may adversely affect them. For some, that argument might seem like just plain common sense. But sadly, in the Middle East, no principle of international law, bad environmental news or even the desperate needs of populations seems likely to shatter the formidable dam of resistance – erected by Arab states – to reconciliation with the despised Jewish state.

And yet, the day is fast approaching when the spigot on the Arab side of the border will run dry. When that happens, Syria and Lebanon may well find the need to go to war. But by that time , there may not be enough water available to even cool the radiators in their military vehicles, let alone fill the canisters of their under-manned and under-motivated troops.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for the online magazine Jewsweek.