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Israel's Water War

May 9, 2009 | by Mitchell Bard

Peace in the Mideast hinges on control of crucial hydro resources.

Despite the voluminous literature on the peace process and the manifold proposals for territorial compromise, surprisingly little has been written about [the crucial issue of water resources]. Water is critical not only because it is a matter of dispute with Israel's neighbors, it is also vital to Israel's development and economic health, which are no less important to the nation's security. To maintain a standard of living that will allow Israel to continue as an advanced western country, it must have water for agriculture, industry, drinking and bathing, gardens, and recreational facilities such as swimming pools and parks. As living standards increase, so does water consumption.

The situation becomes more dangerous each year. As the population of the region continues to grow exponentially and thousands of immigrants arrive in Israel, the political disputes over existing water supplies become more pronounced, and Israel and the Palestinians must negotiate rights to the water in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel may be flowing with milk and honey, but it has no natural resources.

The land God promised the Israelites may have been flowing with milk and honey, but it has no natural resources. Israel has little land and no great rivers, forests, or mineral deposits. It depends on scarce and erratic rainfall for its water supply. Its three main water sources are the coastal and mountain aquifers and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Each supplies approximately 25 percent of the total water consumed in Israel. Roughly 20 percent is derived from smaller aquifers; the remaining 5 percent comes from recycled sewage.

The coastal aquifer extends along Israel's Mediterranean shoreline between the southern approaches of Carmel in the north and the Gaza Strip in the south. Roughly 80 percent of Israel's population and most of its economic activity are concentrated in the coastal plain. The Kinneret basin is a little more than 1,000 square miles, about one-quarter of which is in Lebanon. The lake itself is 64 square miles, 15 miles long and 10 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River and its sources -- the Hatsbani, Dan, and Banias rivers -- as well as by streams and wadis in the Golan Heights that drain into the Jordan River and directly into the Kinneret.

The mountain aquifer extends from the eastern approaches of the coastal aquifer under the hills of Judea and Samaria. Water flows westward from the highlands, where winter rainfall recharges the aquifer, and emerges at the surface through two outlets near the coast into the Yarkon and Taninim rivers, which empty into the Mediterranean Sea.

This aquifer straddles the "Green Line" (the 1949 armistice line that separated Israel and the West Bank) and as much as 90 percent of its water originates from precipitation in the West Bank. It is Israel's principal source of high quality drinking water and supplies major population centers such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Beersheva.

All these water sources have delicate balances that have led Israeli water authorities to establish "red lines" below which the extraction of additional water can result in permanent damage from salting or other contamination that can render the water undrinkable. The water level of the Kinneret, for example, varies with rainy and drought years and, if the level is too low, it is necessary to reduce pumping to prevent salty water from neighboring springs to seep in. If the level rises too high, it may be necessary to allow water to drain out toward the Dead Sea to prevent flooding. Over-pumping has already done severe damage to the coastal aquifer whose salinity has rendered nearly 20 percent of the water unusable.

The other major threat to the water supply is pollution caused by sewage infiltration, industrial spills and wastes, agricultural chemicals, and environmental blights typical of growing industrial nations.

Frugal Usage

This water crisis is not a result of Israeli wastefulness. Israelis are especially sensitive to the water scarcity and are relatively frugal in their usage, using only a small fraction of the amount of water that is consumed by people in an area with a similar climate, such as southern California. The government took control of water resources in 1959 when a law made water resources public property and has since regulated water resource exploitation and allocation.

Despite the awareness of the problem, water sources have been overused and contaminated, and water quality in some places has deteriorated. Numerous warnings have been issued over the last decade that Israel will face a shortage of water for drinking and for agriculture because of the recurrent droughts and the increase in consumption. The expectation is also that the amount of drinking-quality water will decline quickly to the point where reducing its use in agriculture will not make more water available for households.

Domestic (38 percent) and industrial (6 percent) needs comprise less than half of Israel's water consumption; the majority of water (56 percent) is used for agriculture. As a result, a great deal of research has been devoted to finding ways to reduce the amount of water required for growing fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products.

One innovation that succeeded in dramatically reducing water use in Israel and was subsequently exported around the world is drip irrigation-water (and fertilizer) is discharged from drippers uniformly and directly to the root system rather than to the total area of the field. This method allows for the use of lower quality water (saline water or effluents) and minimizes water loss from evaporation.

Across the Jordan

Israel's water balance is also affected by the supply and demand of its neighbors and by the conflict over lands that hold much of the water Israel needs to survive... Jordan also takes the water issue very seriously. Part of its water supply problems are related to pollution and old and poorly maintained pipelines. A more serious issue for Jordan has been Syria taking more water from the Yarmuk River than it had agreed to in negotiations.

Israel and Jordan have managed their disputes over water very well over the years, even during wartime; nevertheless, the question of sharing water from the Yarmuk River, which adjoins the Israeli and Jordanian borders, was an important issue in the negotiations of the peace treaty signed between Israel and Jordan in 1994. Israel agreed to supply Jordan with 50 million cubic meters (mcm) of water a year, some of which would come from the Yarmuk River and the rest from the desalination of brackish springs around the Kinneret. Even after the treaty was signed, water quickly became an issue of contention, one of the few between the two countries, and Israel increased the allotment of water to 75 mcm.

Despite the agreements, Hussein's warning about potential conflict will remain a concern for Israel as Jordan's population continues to grow and its water consumption increases. Jordan could become tempted to satisfy its needs by taking aggressive action to gain access to the water resources in Judea and Samaria. Given Jordan's relative military weakness, and the ability of Israel and Jordan to negotiate even during the period before the peace treaty, the danger from this direction should remain small.

Dealing with Syria

A far more serious problem is posed by Syria, which demands the full return of the Golan Heights in return for peace with Israel. If the Syrian border were redrawn closer to the 1967 border or to the international 1923 border, Syria would have the ability to affect the supply of roughly one-fourth of Israel's water. According to reports of secret negotiations in the 1990s between Israel and Syria, even hardline Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prepared to give Syria territory that would approach the northern edge of the Kinneret. Given that starting point, it is unlikely that any Syrian leader would be satisfied with anything less.

The Kinneret could become an odious foul-smelling pond.

If Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it could severely compromise Israel's water supply even if its intentions were not malevolent. The expectation is that Syria would build up the area with perhaps as many as half a million people, who would produce sewage and other contaminants that could pollute the Kinneret. As one Israeli water specialist put it, "given the level of environmental protection and waste management in Syria," the Kinneret would become "an odious foul-smelling pond, unsuitable as a tourist attraction and certainly unable to supply drinking water without thorough and expensive treatment."

It is also possible that the increase in Syria's overall population and/or the diversion by the Turks of water from the Euphrates River on the south side of Syria could produce a water shortage that would provoke the Syrians to divert water from the Golan. A belligerent Syria could purposely divert water to deprive Israel of water at any time... This was one of the causes of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Any peace treaty with Syria would have to ensure Israel's water rights, but can Israel afford to put one-third of its water supply at the mercy of a foreign power, especially one whose leaders have talked about denying Israel all "Arab water?" As Joyce Starr put it, "an Israeli government that concedes territory on the Golan without a guaranteed supply of Yarmuk waters, or a dedicated alternative source of water, would be committing national suicide." Ultimately, Israel may have to choose between water and peace with Syria.

Watery West Bank

Israel's water security is further threatened by the fact that the mountain aquifer, which also supplies a quarter of Israel's water, including most of the drinking water for the major cities, is partially located in the West Bank. The Middle East Water Commission forecast in the 1990s that the West Bank and Gaza Strip will face a water deficit by 2020. According to Palestinian water authorities, as much as 50 percent of domestic water is lost because of old, inefficient supply systems. Today, the water Israel takes from the mountain aquifer is not sufficient for Israel to expand agricultural production, yet the Palestinians are demanding the right to expand their agricultural sector using the same limited water resources.

As in the case of Syria, even if a future Palestinian state had peaceful intentions, it could significantly reduce the water available to Israel because of the need to satisfy the needs of its own population, which could explode from more than two million to more than three million if the Palestinian refugees were resettled. Even today, unauthorized Palestinian drilling of wells in the West Bank has affected the quality of the aquifer. Without any other water source, the Palestinians will be tempted to pump more out of the aquifer to meet their growing needs and thereby could ultimately inundate it with sea water. There would be nothing Israel could do to stop them. Of course, the Palestinians see the situation in the reverse. If Israel's population and consumption increase, it will draw more water and reduce the amount available for them.

Also, as in Syria, the poor quality of Palestinian water treatment facilities, mismanagement, neglect, and the low priority placed on environmental issues increases the likelihood that the aquifer will be polluted and its quality reduced, perhaps to the point of being undrinkable. This has already occurred in the Gaza Strip where the sole aquifer is unusable because of contamination and salinity. Today, only five sewage treatment plants exist for the Palestinian population in the West Bank, and only one of these is functioning. That plant can handle sewage for up to 50,000 people, but the area's population exceeds two million. Israelis rightly ask, if the Palestinians cannot take care of the water for its own population, how can they trust them to protect the water that Israel depends on?

A Matter of Control

Regardless of treatment facilities, since water is crucial for the development of a Palestinian state, it is no surprise that the Palestinians argue that because the aquifer lies under the West Bank, it should come under their control. Prior to 1967, Israel used 95 percent of this water, the Arabs only 5 percent. Since then, the Arab share has increased to 17 percent and Israel has agreed to pump a negotiated amount across the Green Line to the Palestinian Authority.

Before 1967, only 10 percent of West Bank villages had running water.

The Palestinians maintain that Israel is stealing their water though most of the water Israel extracts is taken from within the pre-1967 border. Israelis also point out that Palestinian cultivation and agricultural output in the territories increased exponentially after 1967 because of the introduction by Israel of drip irrigation and other modern agricultural techniques. They also note that of 430 towns and villages in the West Bank, only 50 were connected to running water prior to the Six-Day War. Less than 25 years later, the figure was 260. Israel has long tapped the mountain aquifer while the Palestinian hardly used it; nevertheless, they now demand 100 percent of the water from the aquifer and compensation for water pumped since 1948, or at a minimum since 1967. Israel counters that it has a right to the water based on its prior use, its investment in development, and the water's natural flow inside the Green Line.

To secure its water future, Israel would need to maintain control over three West Bank regions comprising 20 percent of the land. These regions rest adjacent to the Green Line in northern and Western Samaria, and include the Jerusalem hills heading south past Gush Etzion. As in the case of the Golan, however, Israel has already offered territorial concessions that jeopardize the water supply. At Camp David in 2000, Israel was prepared to give up as much as 97 percent of the West Bank, and it is unlikely the Palestinians or the international community would be prepared to accept anything less today. To maintain the water supply would also require incorporating large numbers of Palestinians within Israel's borders -- precisely what Israel seeks to avoid. Under most scenarios the areas that Israel would keep -- that is, the major settlement blocks -- do cover part of the mountain aquifer but would not give Israel complete control over its use.

The Oslo agreement signed in 1993 did not resolve the question of who would control the water resources, putting that off with the other contentious issues to the final status negotiations that never took place. Should the two sides discuss the water issue, a number of difficult questions would have to be resolved, such as who determines drilling sites, how much water can be pumped without causing damage, who makes decisions on treatment and disposal, and who will monitor treaty compliance.

In the end, the problem is similar to the one with Syria. If Israel gives up control of the mountain aquifer, as is implicit in the proposals made to date, it will depend on the goodwill of the Palestinians to protect the quality of the water and to ensure Israel continues to receive sufficient water to meet its needs. Israeli monitoring would increase but not assure the probability of a good outcome. A second possibility is for the two parties to have joint control for an interim period to give the Palestinians a chance to demonstrate their ability to manage the water supply. Another option would be to enlist a neutral third party to monitor water, but this might be resented by the Palestinians. The Palestinians might reject all of these options, however, as intrusions on their sovereignty.

Endangered Supplies

One faint cause for optimism comes from the effort by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to protect the water supply during the Palestinian War. In 2001 the two parties issued a joint call to refrain from harming the water infrastructure and water supply to both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; it was upheld throughout the conflict. For its part, Israel also stuck to its obligations and resisted the temptation to use water as a weapon. Even when water allocations were cut within Israel, it continued to supply the water promised to the Palestinian Authority. After negotiating how much water Israel would supply to the territories, a formula was later agreed upon to increase the water allocation over the interim period outlined in the Oslo agreements.

Whether a final agreement on control of the aquifer is reached or not, Israel will face the dilemma of what to do if the water supply is threatened. Israel could detect any large-scale Arab efforts to target its water, such as the building of a dam or the diversion of water, but it will be more difficult to know if the mountain aquifer is being affected by activities that it cannot monitor, such as the drilling of wells in the West Bank. If it does see its water supply or quality endangered, Israel will have to decide whether to take military action to stop the drilling of wells, or the diversion of water, or to seize the water source. What level of provocation would the UN, the United States, or the international community in general find sufficient to justify Israeli action? What, if anything, would these parties be prepared to do to prevent the interdiction of Israeli water supplies? The historical answer to that question is not encouraging. Clearly, if Israel does not have control of its water sources, its future is threatened.

Alternative Sources

If Israel does not have control over the Golan Heights and/or the mountain aquifer in the West Bank, the need for alternative water sources will be essential. It will have to plan for the worst-case scenario of a cutoff of its water supply and ensure that it has enough water to make up for the loss of all its existing supplies. This would also mean increasing the infrastructure required for the additional supply, which in turn would require more energy and more investment. The ripple effect to the economy would be significant if not devastating. Even if Israel retains control over those areas, it will inevitably need more water to meet the demands of a growing population and thriving economy.

Israel is over-consuming its water resources by 25 percent.

I like the idea I've read about of towing icebergs from the polar regions to the Middle East, but most proposals for alleviating the water shortage are more practical and realistic. Although improving water treatment, management, and infrastructure can make a marginal difference in the availability and quality of water, more drastic steps are required to ensure that Israel has the water it needs in the future. Israel's annual water consumption is approximately 580 billion gallons, and its water resources total only about 450 billion gallons. Israel is over-consuming its water resources by 25 percent.

This is reducing the water levels of the Kinneret and the aquifers to dangerous levels. To make up for the deficit, Israel is exploring and pursuing a variety of options.

One possibility is to reduce the supply of fresh water to agriculture and transfer it to urban and industrial use. Very little water can be diverted in this way, however, because there is no way to bring much of the water from the farm areas to the metropolitan urban centers. In addition, reduction of Israeli agricultural production might lead to an increase in cultivation by Palestinian farmers who would require water from the same sources for their crops and probably use the water more inefficiently, resulting in a net loss to the water supply. While reducing agriculture would save water, it would have other economic costs associated with the loss of revenue from that sector and would have a number of other potentially damaging side effects, making it more difficult to sustain communities in arid areas such as the Negev.

A second option is to increase the use of recycled sewage water in agriculture. Reservoirs are being constructed by the Jewish National Fund to hold recycled waste water and collect flood and runoff water, which the organization says will provide for the water supply of 1.2 million people. A high percentage of water used in agriculture, however, is already recycled (for example, the cotton industry uses 90 percent recycled water), and the additional amount that could be used may not significantly increase the amount of fresh water available. Moreover, recycled water has some negative side effects such as the potential of contaminants leaching into ground water supplies, salts from the recycled water damaging the soil, and reducing crop yields.

A third possibility for increasing available water is to import it from another country. This is logistically difficult, politically risky, and very expensive. The most popular ideas have been to either ship water from Turkey to Israel or to transfer it via a pipeline. There has been discussion, for example, of a Turkish "Peace Canal" that would bring water to Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians. This proposal seems unlikely given that it is expected to cost more than $8 billion and take perhaps 15 years to build. The project is also problematic because it assumes Turkey would not need the water for itself in the future. Moreover, a pipeline would be a tempting target for terrorists.

It is also uncertain whether Israel would be included in the project; possibly Turkey would choose to supply only Muslim nations. Relations between Israel and Turkey have been very good, however, and prolonged negotiations were held to discuss an export deal. A deal was finally struck in August 2005: Turkey agreed to export 1.75 billion cubic feet of water from its Manavgat River to Israel each year for the next 20 years. The deal was expected to cost between $800 million and $1 billion. The cost of importing Turkish water is considerably higher than the price of desalinated or recycled water, so when the immediate need became less acute as more rain fell, Israel abrogated the deal.

Rather than a pipeline across countries, another suggestion has been to build one across Israel. Various proposals to take water from the Red Sea or the Mediterranean were considered too expensive and risked the contamination of fresh water aquifers by transferring salt water. One of the proposed canals would have also had to traverse the West Bank, which would have made it politically sensitive.

The most popular idea for alleviating Israel's water shortage, the one the government is now actively pursuing, is desalination -- that is, the removal of salt from water to make it drinkable. Desalination is a proven technique with more than 7,500 plants in use in about 120 countries, 60 percent of which are in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia has the world's largest plant). Malta, for example, began desalination in the 1960s and by 1995 desalination supplied about 70 percent of its water needs. Israeli companies have been leaders in the field of desalination, supplying 30 percent of the world market with 300 plants in roughly 40 countries. One of the benefits of desalinated water is that it is a more predictable and reliable source than renewable water supplies. Although expensive, the cost is expected to fall as new technologies are introduced.

In 2000 Israel launched a Desalination Master Plan that envisioned the construction of a series of plants along the Mediterranean coast. The first of these was built in less than 30 months in Ashkelon and went online in August 2005. The $250 million plant is expected to provide between 5 and 6 percent of Israel's total water needs or around 15 percent of the country's domestic consumer demand. In theory, Israel could also sell desalinated water to the Palestinians, but for nationalistic reasons, they may reject the idea of depending on Israel for such a vital resource.

In February 2005 an agreement was signed for an $85 million sea water desalination plant in the Palmahim area, which was slated to be operational by 2007. Other facilities are planned for Hadera and Ashdod. In addition, Israel signed an agreement in 2006 with Siemens to jointly develop water treatment technologies to solve challenges such as the supply of high quality water.

Desalination is not an immediate panacea. It can ameliorate Israel's water problems but not solve them. The plants are expensive, take time to build, use a lot of energy, and will not supply as much water as Israel will need. They also make tempting targets for terrorists. The plant in Ashkelon, for example, is not far from where rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have landed.


There is a certain Chicken Little quality to the warnings about a water shortage that are similar to the inaccurate claims heard in the past about the exhaustion of oil supplies. The first warning about over-pumping was issued by Israel's state comptroller in 1966. Dire forecasts throughout the 1990s suggested water would become more important than oil by 2000 and that, as early as 2005, Israel would not have sufficient water for household consumption.

Water may yet become a threat to Israel's survival, but Israel has taken steps to improve its water security and this may turn out to be the least of the dangers described in this book. If nature does not play any nasty tricks on Israel, such as a prolonged drought, the combination of increasing the amount of recycled and desalinated water should meet Israel's needs for the foreseeable future.

Despite fears that water could become a flash point for conflict, Israel and its neighbors have for the last several decades been more successful in cooperating to resolve water disputes than other issues. Moreover, past negotiations and proposed peace plans have demonstrated that water will not be the principal factor in determining territorial concessions; strategic, economic, and political concerns will hold greater weight in the calculus of decision makers. The complexity of the issue led both sides to delay resolving it, but an agreement must be reached to avoid future conflagrations over water.

Excerpted from Will Israel Survive? (Palgrave-MacMillan)

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