Running on empty

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2007, 12:00am

Hussein Mohammed Ali Tayat, 52, sighs heavily while sipping thick, black coffee. 'I lost a large portion of my banana crop - millions of shekels - to drought last year. I have 17 family members to support. The situation gets worse each summer.'

Mr Tayat lives in the small Palestinian farming village of Auja east of Jericho, about 5km from the Jordanian border. The 4,500 residents subsist on earnings from tomato and banana crops, but diminishing water supplies have created a crisis in the village.

During the dry summer stretches from June to early October drinkable water bought from Israel is rationed to one to two days' allowance for each household per week. And the aquifer used to irrigate crops runs dry each summer so cash crops are slowly dying out in villages such as Auja.

And the problem is getting worse: earlier this year the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted rising global temperatures would cause critical water shortages in Africa, the Middle East, China, Australia, parts of Europe and the US by the end of the century.

Water shortages have also sparked international security fears - last month the UN Security Council held a meeting on the implications of climate change on global stability.

The US-based Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database has warned that half the world has no access to clean water, causing 2.5 million to five million deaths annually. 'The magnitude of potential destruction is staggering,' said its director Aaron Wolf. 'The water crisis is a weapon of mass destruction that does more damage than all wars put together - more damage than tsunamis, earth- quakes and almost anything you can imagine.'

Of the top 10 countries the US government believes will most likely go to war over water, more than half are in the Middle East because much of the region is desert or dry land where supply is low.

The River Nile, for example, flows from Ethiopia through Sudan into Egypt. Although 85 per cent of the water originates in Ethiopia, Egypt gets a 75 per cent share and has indicated to Sudan and Ethiopia that it would consider an armed response if those countries took more than their current combined share of 20 billion cubic metres per year (versus Egypt's 55 billion).

The region's conflict over scarce water resources was highlighted in 1974 when Iraq amassed troops along Syria's border after the latter diverted water from the Tigris and Euphrates Basin. The basin, a water supplier for Turkey, Iraq and Syria, was a flashpoint again in 1990 when Turkey blocked reservoir flow for 30 days.

In 1967 Israel made pre-emptive strikes on Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Syria. When the dust settled after six days of war, Israel had taken control of Syria's Golan Heights in the north, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip in the south and the formerly Jordanian-ruled West Bank - including freshwater aquifers. 'Some call 1967 a war for water because after it Israel controlled [much of] the Jordan River Basin and West Bank water resources,' said Fadel Kawash, head of the Palestinian Water Authority. 'After the war Israelis gained tremendous benefits from water.'

Israel controls about 70 per cent of the River Jordan and 85 per cent of freshwater originating inside West Bank aquifers. Of 400 million cubic metres of water per year derived from three main aquifer systems in Israel and the West Bank, the Palestinian population of 4 million gets about 160 million cubic metres. After factoring in agricultural use and loss due to poorly maintained pipelines and water theft, the average Palestinian gets about 60 litres a day. That's less than half of the World Health Organisation's standard minimum of 150 litres daily. Israel's average per capita domestic use is about 180 litres.

Alon Tal of Israel's Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research dismisses as propaganda claims of water theft via Israel's control of aquifers. 'This is a classic case of transboundary water sharing and Israel is the downstream user,' he said. 'That is as absurd as claiming that Egypt steals Nile water from Ethiopia.'

Israeli water commission officials say that greater consumption needs and a pre-existing water use clause in international law cause the imbalance. In negotiations, the laws stipulate a country's projected use based upon previous consumption up to the point of talks.

In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, when water representatives met as part of the Oslo Interim Peace Agreement in 1995, Israel claimed 90 per cent pre-1967 use of aquifer water.

Noah Kinarty, who was water policy adviser to former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, said: 'During negotiations I directed and redirected the focus back to pre-existing use which is precedent-setting. I told our Arab counterparts: 'Water recycling and desalination is the future. You want the water I use? I'm not willing to give up my natural resources'.'

Israeli policymakers say they have done all they can in searching for alternative supply solutions.

'Donor countries offered to fund projects to bring in water and we began a plan of principles and prepared an area for a desalination plant,' said Yosef Dreizin, senior director of Israel's Water Commission. 'Even the licences went through. If they agreed to it, their water problems would be solved.' But an Israeli government source said it stalled because 'Palestinian leadership is purposely avoiding solutions, to keep their own people in the mire. That way, they gain global sympathy and support.'

While internal factions in Palestine and Israel wrangle over dwindling water supplies, pirate aquifer drilling contaminates freshwater and untreated sewage is at hazardous levels. In March five people died when a collapsed embankment flooded a Gaza village with raw waste.

While tensions are high, some say the water conflict forces opposite sides to co-operate. Of all the Palestinian-Israeli committees established under the 1995 Oslo peace agreement, only the joint water committees continue to meet regularly and co-operate.

'The idea of water wars is sexy and appealing but it's media hype,' said Israel Foreign Ministry deputy director-general for Middle East Affairs Yaakov Keidar. 'If you have scarce resources it won't do any good to fight over them; you will only re-divide the scarcity.'

Palestinian Friends of the Earth Middle East director Nader Al Khateeb agreed. 'I totally disagree with any suggestion of war over water. It doesn't make sense because war cannot solve the water problem. Peace will.'

Former Israeli water policy adviser Mr Kinarty said: 'It took thousands of hours and endless patience to reach an interim peace agreement. But I have endless patience because I know peace is better than war. I've fought wars and I lost a child to war. Peace is always better.'

In the Palestinian-Israeli water row, some say the solution lies in rebalancing the supply inequity, addressing sewage treatment and curtailing illegal drilling.

But Israel and the Palestinian leadership are not in sync and neither side predicts a breakthrough in relations. The water committees continue to meet because farmers need to maintain crops and babies need water to drink regardless of who's fighting whom.

Both in the Middle East and on the global scale, Professor Wolf said, 'there is an entire menu of easy fixes and basically two strategies: either increase supply or decrease demand.' Short of population control, Professor Wolf's suggestions include government policy for waste water recycling, drip irrigation, producing drought- and salt-resistant crops, and desalination.

Local and national policy and organisational effort should aim for 'think global, act local' strategies for tackling shortages through community projects and outreach programmes. 'When it comes to shortage and a decrease in water quality I'm not optimistic at all,' Professor Wolf said. 'We'll have to deal with the change with change. Richer countries will adapt and survive, and the lesser ones will suffer and die.'

In Auja, Mr Tayat has no suchintention. If necessary, he will leave his land and work for an Israeli farming community to make ends meet. 'Imagine that. I will go to work on an Israeli's farm - keep an Israeli's crops alive while mine die. All because I don't have enough water and I don't control the water. It is crazy. But I have my family to think of.'