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Future of War Will Go with the Flow — Water Promises to be Flash Point

Future of War Will Go with the Flow — Water Promises to be Flash Point

August 3, 2008

Social Sciences & Humanities

Jericho, West Bank — Hussein Mohammed Ali Tayat sighs heavily as he sips thick black coffee from his demitasse cup. “I lost a large portion of my banana crop — millions of shekels — to drought last year. I have 17 family members to support, and the situation is getting worse each summer.”

Tayat, 52, lives in the small Palestinian farming village of Auja, sandwiched between Jericho and the Jordanian border. The village’s 4,500 residents subsist on earnings from tomato and banana crops, but diminishing water supplies are increasingly moving them toward crisis.

During the dry summer stretch of June to early October, potable water purchased from Israel is rationed to one day per week per household. The aquifer or underground well system tapped into for crop irrigation runs dry every year. As a result, cash crops are dying.

Global population, economic development, industrialization and migration trends are pushing water demand to such unsustainable levels that a 2003 Pentagon study on climate change predicts resource-rich nations will eventually build virtual fortresses around their countries to preserve water resources. Less fortunate nations — especially those with ancient enmities with neighbors — may instigate conflict over access to food, energy or clean water.

A leaked global climate report compiled by the U.S. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change details predictions of rising global temperatures resulting in critical water shortages in China, Australia and parts of Europe and the United States by the end of the century.

In the here and now, half the world has no access to clean water and more than 2.5 million people die each year because of it, says Aaron Wolf, U.S. director of the Trans-Boundary Freshwater Dispute Database and former water adviser to the U.S. State Department.

“The magnitude of potential destruction is staggering,” Wolf says from his Oregon office. “The water crisis is a weapon of mass destruction that does more damage than all wars put together — more damage than tsunamis, earthquakes and almost anything you can imagine.”

Do the statistics, studies and situations on the ground foreshadow a future global reality of influential nations strong-arming weaker counterparts into extinction over water control? Will there be wars over water in the future?

The answer depends upon the source.

Conflict over water dates back as far as the Book of Genesis: Attempting to staunch famine in Canaan, Isaac dug wells that were promptly filled with dirt by the Israelites’ arch-enemies, the Philistines.

Historically, trouble over water erupts when a river, lake or stream originates in one place and flows to another. Determining who controls the flow and divvying up usage often necessitates commissions, governing authorities and legal action. And even then, implemented measures often don’t suffice.

Of the top 10 countries the U.S. government has earmarked as most likely to go to war over water, more than half are in the Middle East. Not surprising since much of the region is desert or dry land, water supply is low and water control is a charged issue.

The Nile River flows from Ethiopia through Sudan into Egypt. Although 85 percent of the water originates in Ethiopia, Egypt gets a 75 percent share and has, via political inference, made clear to Sudan and Ethiopia: Use more than your current combined share of 20 billion cubic meters per year (versus Egypt’s 55 billion) and we’ll invade.

In the 1970s, Iraq amassed troops along Syria‘s border after Syria diverted water flow from the Tigris and Euphrates Basin. The basin, a water supplier for Turkey, Iraq and Syria, was a near-war flash point again in 1990 when Turkey blocked reservoir flow for a month.

And in 1967, Israel dealt preemptive strikes to Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Syria. When the collective dust settled after six days of warring, Israel had assumed 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,” says Fadel Kawash, head of the Palestinian Water Authority. “After the war, Israelis gained tremendous benefits from water.”

Israel controls 70 percent of the Jordan River and 85 percent of freshwater originating inside West Bank aquifers. Of 400 million cubic meters 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 meters.

After factoring in agriculture use and loss due to poorly maintained pipelines and water pirating, the average Palestinian end-user is left with about 60 liters per day. That’s less than half of the World Health Organization’s minimum standard of 150 liters per person per day. Israel‘s average per capita (domestic) consumption hovers at the 180-liter mark.

Does Israel’s control of the aquifers constitute water theft? “That’s propaganda,” says Professor Alon Tal of Israel’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research dismisses. “This is a classic case of trans-boundary water sharing and Israel is the downstream user. That is as absurd as claiming that Egypt steals Nile water from Ethiopia.”

Regardless, the divvy is lopsided, a fact Israeli water commission officials put down to greater consumption needs and a pre-existing water use clause in international law. In water negotiation, pre-existing water use laws stipulate a country’s projected future water use based upon pre-existing usage up to the point of talks.

So in the case of Israel and the Palestinians, when the water teams sat down to hammer out an Oslo II Interim Peace Agreement in 1995, Israel claimed 90 percent pre-1967 use of aquifer water.

“During negotiations I directed and redirected the focus back to ‘pre-existing use’ which is precedent-setting,” says Noah Kinarty, Oslo II Water Accord architect and water policy adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “I told our Arab counterparts: ‘Water recycle and desalination is the future. You want the water I use? I’m not willing to give up my natural resources.’ ”

Dirty politicking? Not at all, claim Israeli policymakers who maintain Israel has gone beyond the call of duty 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,” says Yosef Dreizin, senior director of Israel‘s Water Commission. “Even the licenses went through. If they agreed to it, their water problems would be solved.”

But it stalled, claims an Israeli government source, because “Palestinian leadership is purposely avoiding solutions to keep their own people in the mire. That way they gain global sympathy and support.”

Regardless, while internal factions war for power, water supplies dwindle. 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.

The pressing question: Is war on the horizon? And if so, are the implications — based on the Mideast model — global?

Water researchers, policymakers, negotiators, scientists and environmentalists on both sides of water conflict tend to be in agreement: Tension over water runs high but war on a global front is highly unlikely. These water experts are unique in the tendency to sidestep conflict in favor of compromise.

Of all the Palestinian-Israeli committees established under the umbrella of the 1995 Oslo II Interim Peace Agreement, only the Joint Water Committees continue to meet regularly and cooperate.

“The idea of water wars is sexy and appealing but it’s media hype,” says Yaakov Keidar, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general for Middle East affairs. “The reality of the situation is: If you have scarce resources it won’t do any good to fight over them; you will only redivide the scarcity.”

Nader Al Khateeb, Middle East director for the Palestinian Friends of the Earth, concurs: “I totally disagree with any suggestion of war over water. It doesn’t make sense because war cannot solve the water problem. Peace will.”


“It took thousands of hours and endless patience to reach an interim peace agreement,” Noah Kinarty says. “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.”