Peace Process Could Leave 70% of Israel's Water in Arab Hands

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - With the announcement of resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria, Israel will soon be forced to deal with "hydro-strategic" ramifications of the peace process on two fronts, Syrian and Palestinian, and could see as much as 70 per cent of Israel's water supply in Arab hands.

For years analysts have said that despite the sharp differences over borders and land in the Middle East - not only between Israel and its neighbors but also among Arab states themselves - the next war in the arid Middle East could be fought over water.

Dr. Martin Sherman, a former senior advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture, says giving up the Golan Heights would affect Israel's water supply "disastrously."

"The whole peace process would totally jeopardize Israel's ability to provide [water] for its own people," he told

Sherman explained that Israel has three major sources of water - the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), which receives its water from drainage off the Golan Heights, a Mountain Aquifer (underground supply) and a Coastal Aquifer.

"The way the system works is that one source can compensate another. When there is surplus water [from a rainy year], it can be used to refill aquifers for use in a bad year," Sherman said.

Israel and much of the Middle East receives rain only during about five months of the year. From April until November the region is completely dry.

The Kinneret, which supplies most of Israel's drinking water, reached its lowest point in modern history this year because of a 1998 drought, and a predicted lower than average rainfall for this year has experts scrambling for other solutions. Add to that the equation of the peace process and a serious problem looms.

Sherman said the fate of the Kinneret depends on three rivers and the "run-off" from the Golan Heights. "If that amount was reduced or polluted then the Kinneret would be imperiled as a source of fresh water," he said.

In the event of an agreement with Syria, there is "no guarantee that the full volume of water from the Golan will be allowed to flow into the Kinneret or that farmers or industrialists will not dump waste that will wash into the Kinneret and destroy the Kinneret's ecological system."

In addition, the "upstream" end of Israel's mountain aquifer, which is the primary storage source for rainwater in "good years," would be in Palestinian hands. Every Israeli uses approximately 110 cubic meters each year, while Palestinians use only about 33-38 cubic meters each.

If the Palestinian population swelled with the return of refugees, or if they were to demand "a more equitable share of the water, and rightly so," Sherman said, Israel would be in serious trouble.

The regional water problems already have been highlighted in the peace process. Israel had trouble supplying Jordan with promised water after a year of drought and the Syrians have broken a signed agreement with Jordan by taking more than twice their allocation from the Yarmuk River, thus preventing Jordan from receiving its fair share downstream.

If both the Palestinian and Syrian land demands are met in peace agreements, up to 70% of Israel's water sources could be controlled by the Arabs. According to Sherman, no one disagrees with the facts about the water distribution. The dispute, he said, is between those who feel they can trust the Arabs to keep an agreement and those who say Israel "can't afford to take the risk."

The peace process aside, Israel still must augment its water supply in order to fulfill its agricultural and growing domestic needs. Water recycling, desalination and the bulk purchase of water from Turkey are all being considered.

Last year, the water allocation to the agricultural sector was reduced by 40 per cent. More than $60 million in compensation was paid to farmers last year and the actual damage was probably four times as high.

Agriculture Minister Haim Oron, a proponent of desalination, told that Israel must decide how much water it will recycle and how much it will import from Turkey.

But he expressed optimism that the peace process would bring a positive solution to the water problem for the entire region.

"Everybody understands any peace agreement will include an agreement with water," Oron said. "The situation will not be worse but better."

One scenario Oron envisions is a pipeline to bring water from Turkey to Syria, Israel and Jordan, thereby alleviating the shortages in all three countries. Turkey is currently damming rivers, thereby cutting off water to Syria and Iraq, but has offered to sell water to Israel.

Oron conceded the plan was hypothetical but said if the countries in the region can trust each other in areas like security, then they surely could when it came to water - "a concrete common interest."

Dr. Miki Haran, Chief Scientist of the Ministry of the Environment, and a proponent of increased water recycling for agricultural use, told Israel was at a critical point regarding its water supply.

The water question could be a "cause for a war or source of mutual cooperation," she said.

"The price of water will determine stability in the region. It is the most crucial environmental issue for this region, Haran added." She acknowledged that all solutions for "artificial" water production, particularly desalination, are costly.