Drinking water has long been scarce in the Middle East, a problem that is expected to worsen in years to come. Experts on the subject recently testified at a hearing before the House of Representatives' Committee on International Relations. The Middle East's water dilemma is seen as both a challenge and an opportunity.

For centuries, conflict in the Middle East has revolved around land and resources. When it comes to resources, perhaps nothing is more precious than water. David Satterfield heads the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and Environmental Affairs.

?The people in Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza live in a constant state of water scarcity. With population growth and economic development in the future, water resources in the basin will come under even more stress,? he said.

It has been estimated that by the year 2040, combined Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian demands for water will outstrip supply by between 870 million and 3.5 billion cubic meters of water per year.

In the United States, total annual fresh water supply averages about seven-thousand cubic meters per person. In Israel, that per capita figure drops to about 300 cubic meters, and in the West Bank and Gaza less than 100 cubic meters.

Addressing the congressional hearing via satellite was Uri Shamir, Director of Israel's Stephen and Nancy Grand Water Research Institute. Mr. Shamir said, in decades to come, human water consumption in the Jordan River basin will squeeze out supplies that currently go to agriculture and industry.

?Today, over half of the potable water in Israel goes to the urban areas, and it will grow by 2020 to over 70 percent of the available average natural potential,? Mr. Shamir said.

You might think that getting historical enemies in the Middle East to unite behind water resource projects would be a lost cause. But recent history suggests the opposite. In the 1990's, Israel signed accords with both Jordan and the Palestinians creating joint water commissions that have been successful, some would say remarkably so, in focusing on the tasks at hand.

?The Israel-Jordanian Joint Water Commission and the Israel-Palestinian JWC have continued to operate without pause since agreements were signed. In the last three and a half years of violence, during which time political negotiations have largely gone into abeyance, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians continue to work together on the multilateral water projects,? Mr. Satterfield said.

And just what ideas are being proposed to boost the supply of fresh water? One idea is to construct a 180 kilometer long pipeline to transfer water between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, with hydro-electric power used to desalinate a projected 850 million cubic meters or water a year.

But Israeli water researcher Uri Shamir says the project would be long and costly. ?With the Red Sea-Dead Sea project that has been discussed, there you have to construct the entire project and invest all of the 4 to 5 billion dollars estimated today before you get the first benefit,? Mr. Shamir said.

A better idea, according to those who testified at the hearing, is to desalinate sea water along Israel's coastline. James Kunder, deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development's Near East Bureau, says, ?Desalinization, we believe, as opposed to some of the other mega-projects, is the way to go in the Middle East [best option available].?

Uri Shamir agrees. "Israel has suggested that the desalination plant be constructed for the West Bank on the Israeli coast,? he said. ?The plant would be constructed and operated by donor countries for the Palestinians; the space for the plant and the pipeline access to the West Bank would be provided by Israel; the West Bank would then be fed partially from local ground water sources, augmented by desalination.?

Yet obstacles persist. Aside from the challenge of obtaining funding for water projects, continuing violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recently caused USAID to suspend a water desalination project in Gaza.

But many are hopeful. The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Representative Henry Hyde, says the extent to which warring parties in the Middle East overcome challenges in the availability and distribution of resources can have an enormous impact on larger peace efforts in the region.

?Man has the ability to determine how natural resources can be shared for everyone's benefit,? Mr. Hyde said. ?Is it not realistic for the region's water challenges to serve as motivation for peace, rather than a point of contention, since any future territorial settlement between the people and the countries of the Jordan River basin will be linked to their need for water

Mr. Hyde said he hopes history will bear out the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres: "If roads lead to civilization, then water leads to peace."