Can Israel afford to trade water for peace?

JERUSALEM, Dec. 27 (JTA) — In Israel, the skies are dry too often, yet the country is negotiating a peace with the Palestinians and Syrians that may require giving up valuable water resources.

As the drought drags on, opponents of giving up land for peace on the West Bank and the Golan are playing up a crucial question: Can Israel compromise on its water?

In Israel, there is a water deficit. Natural resources yield over 2 billion cubic yards of water annually, but average usage is 2.6 billion cubic yards, and the shortfall increases every year. The difference is filled by overpumping and by reservoirs built by the Jewish National Fund.

Ronald Lauder, the JNF’s president, drew a bleak picture of the water situation in Israel.

“Many rivers and streams in Israel are now polluted,” Lauder said recently. “The aquifers under Tel Aviv are no longer being replenished with rainwater.”

He added that the Sea of Galilee is so low that it “runs the risk of becoming too salty for consumption.”

Here is the map: Israel’s main source of water is the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Kinneret, whose tributaries are the Hasbani, from Lebanon, and the Banias, from the Golan Heights.

The Sea of Galilee supplies one-third of Israel’s fresh water. Further south, the Jordan River receives water from the Yarmuk, marking the border between the Golan Heights and Jordan.

Water is one of the major issues of conflict not only between Israel and the Arabs, but also in the entire region. Experts have predicted that future wars will break out because of water, not territory.

Well aware of the sensitive issue, Israel and the Palestinians signed an agreement on water and sewage in 1995. Israel recognized Palestinian water rights in principle and agreed to expand the Palestinian water supply.

Behind the agreement is the premise that while the territorial conflict could be resolved through physical separation, water would have to be shared.

This premise is at the core of a paper prepared by a joint team of Israeli and Palestinian experts for the World Bank.

“It is clear to me that joint management increases the spectrum of sensible usage of water, which unilateral usage does not allow,” said Uri Shamir, head of the Water Resources Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

At issue is the future handling of three aquifers: the eastern mountain, the northeastern and, most importantly, the central mountain, which is the main source of ground water for Israel.

The crucial central mountain aquifer does not know man-made borders. It runs under both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Opponents of a territorial compromise with the Palestinians argue that Israel should keep control of the mountain aquifer region.

Haim Gvirtzman of the Hebrew University supports continued Israeli control of the eastern mountain aquifer. If the Palestinians get their water from that aquifer, he warned, Israel would need to overpump the central mountain aquifer, which will cause serious damage to the quality of its water.

Israel’s water commissioner, Meir Ben-Meir, will say of joint control only this: “Can two women take responsibility for one small kitchen?”

Whatever the political solutions will be, it is obvious that Israel needs to seek alternative sources of water. The choices include desalination of sea water; recycling sewage water; and importing water, most likely from Turkey.

Desalination of 130 million cubic yards a year is considered by some experts to be the magic solution.

Israel has already built 40 desalination plants. All of Eilat is fed with desalinated water.

Now it is up to the government to decide in principle whether to push ahead with desalination projects. The main lobbyists for this option are Eli Suissa, Israel’s national infrastructure minister, and Dalia Itzik, its environment minister.

Another strong proponent of water desalination is Ben-Meir, the water commissioner.

“Make a simple calculation,” he told JTA. “I know of tenders in Tampa, Fla., offering desalinated water for 55 cents per 1.3 cubic yard. In Cyprus, there is a tender for 60 cents per 1.3 cubic yard. Even if you reckon 70 cents per 1.3 cubic yard, you would need some $70 million to desalinate 130 cubic yards of water annually. Divide this amount by a population of 6 million, and you reach the cost of $11 per capita.

“Would you not buy such an insurance policy which would guarantee the supply of drinking water for that price?”

But the Cabinet has been dragging its feet on the issue, and so far has not passed a binding resolution.

The main argument against desalination is that its real cost will be close to $1 per 1.3 cubic yard, unlike Ben-Meir’s more modest forecast. Moreover, opponents argue that before desalinating sea water, one should desalinate saline ground water.

One of the main reasons for the water shortage is the use of drinking water by the agricultural sector, rather than using recycled water. Farmers in Israel use three times as much water as non-farmers.

The JNF has kept itself busy finding long-term, viable solutions to the water crisis in Israel. The JNF recently announced a $50 million plan to rehabilitate Israel’s polluted rivers. It has built more than 100 dams and reservoirs to cover 6 percent of Israel’s total water supply.

Some 70 percent of 260 billion cubic yards of wastewater has already been captured and recycled for non-food crops. The JNF and the government are now working out a plan to recycle the entire amount of waste water.

Last year, a special advisory group of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommended that within 40 years, all fresh water in the Middle East should be drinking water. Agriculture will have to do with treated waste water and saline water.

Otherwise, the American experts warned, Israel and its neighbors will run out of drinking water within five years.

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