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Water - Reason for Conflict or Cooperation in the Middle East?

It has often been predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be fought not over land, not over oil, but over water. In this report from the Jordan River Valley, VOA's Sonja Pace looks at how this valuable commodity affects the volatile relationship between Israelis and Palestinians and some of their neighbors.

Rain is a welcome sound in these parts, but often all too rare. These are the good winter months when the streams swell, the hills turn a lush green and the level of the Sea of Galilee, known to Israelis as the Kinneret, rises. Each millimeter is carefully measured and announced on local news.

People wonder how far the lake will rise before the rains stop and the summer heat sets in and parches the land again.

For about six million Israelis and four million Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River water is a valuable, but scarce commodity. Uri Shaw, spokesman for Israel's water commission explains the current deficit.

"The demand for water is much larger than the water that comes naturally from the sky," he says. "That means rain and other flows. And, we are in lack of water altogether [deficit] of approximately 1.5 billion cubic meters, especially in the aquifers - the mountain aquifer and the coastal aquifer."

Israel gets about one-third of its water from the aquifer running along its Mediterranean coast, another third from the mountain aquifers that lie almost exclusively under the West Bank, and another third from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Palestinians get almost all of their water from the mountain aquifer.

This area could be yet another source of potential conflict between the two sides. Professor Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University says both sides have legitimate concerns.

"The Palestinians have legitimate claims that their water needs are not being met and have not been met for decades," he says. "The Israelis have legitimate security concerns that if they turn over certain territory that they consider hydrostrategic that their water resources would be threatened."

Surprisingly, Professor Wolf says competing demands have generally not ended in conflict, and he cites as an example use of the Jordan River. "The countries that share the Jordan literally ran out of water in 1968, where demand hit supply," says the professor, "and, all the growth since then - economic growth, population growth, growth in output - has all come through more efficient use, better sharing, more creativity."

Here in the Jordan Valley, competing demands have on occasion led to shots being fired, but not for some time. The waters of the lower Jordan and its tributaries are shared by Israel, Jordan, Syria, and, to a lesser extent, the Palestinians.

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth, Middle East says decades of animosity have contributed to greedy use of water resources. "Israel is building a national water carrier, [nationwide water distribution system], Syria is building dams trying to stop the water coming down the Jordan. That is in the 1960s," he says. "In the 1970s, Jordan builds the King Abdullah canal, and then Syria, Jordan and Israel continue to build dams on the side 'wadis,' [tributaries]."

Decades of overuse and abuse have reduced this vital source of water and historic symbol to a mere trickle of mainly raw sewage and saltwater runoff.

Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian officials and experts met recently on an island in the middle of the Lower Jordan to discuss the need to replenish the river's flow in an environmentally sound way.

Friends of the Earth in Jordan Director Munqeth Mehyar told the group that everyone is to blame for the river's sorry state. "Of course, we all needed water for drinking, for agriculture, for industry, but did we need to take all the water?" he asks. "Less than 10 percent of the natural flow of the River Jordan is flowing nowadays."

While officials at the gathering talked of giving the revitalization of the Jordan River high priority, none gave any indication of doing the obvious - not siphoning off 90 percent of the river's flow.

Loose cooperation has led to generally peaceful use of the waters, but experts say much more cooperation is needed to manage and replenish the area's scarce water resources in an environmentally sound manner and sustain development for all those who depend on them.