Middle East Welcomes Winter Storms

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

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Middle East has been hit by several days of winter storms, bringing much needed rain to the region. The heavy rains, accompanied by strong wind gusts, caused severe flooding in Lebanon and damage to agricultural crops and homes in Israel.

However, after two successive drought years, most people aren't complaining.

In this desert region, rains are expected from November through March with the heaviest rainfall in January and February. There is no rain from April until November - great for vacationing but not so good for life's other needs.

So tentative is the water situation that it figures heavily in the current peace processes between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians as well as in most treaties and agreements between neighbors in the region.

Syria has a water agreement with downstream neighbor Jordan. It's an agreement Damascus has not fulfilled.

Israel agreed to give Jordan 50 million cubic meters of water annually as a provision of their 1994 treaty. Meanwhile Turkey, which has plenty of water, recently agreed to sell water to Israel, but transportation of the water presents a problem.

Meteorologists, who originally predicted a higher-than-average rainy season this year, changed their forecast after late autumn rains were sparse. Since the beginning of January, however, two massive storm fronts have helped to ease the situation.

Streambeds - dry just a week ago - are now cascading into the Sea of Galilee, raising the level of the lake by two-and-a-half inches in the last 24 hours. It's still 13 feet below its full capacity level. Up to 10 feet of melting snow on Mt. Hermon on the Golan Heights will provide additional water to the lake in the spring.

Israel is demanding water guarantees from Syria in current negotiations because the Sea of Galilee, which provides Israel with some 30 percent of its drinking water, is fed primarily from sources running down from the Golan Heights. Syria says it needs those waters and intends to pipe them to Damascus if it regains the Golan Heights as the result of a treaty.

Water is also one of the final status issues to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. Most of the issues will require a one-time decision, but water will require ongoing cooperation between Israel and the PA.

Dr. Eran Feitelson, from the Department of Geography at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that academics have already been working on the problem for some time and there are a "wide array of options" for dealing with the situation.

About one third of Israel's water storage and all of the Palestinian water storage is in the Mountain Aquifer. Both sides will have to establish joint regulations to ensure that it is not polluted and that it does not become salinated through over-pumping.

Feitelson told CNSNews.com an example of the type of administrative coordination that is needed, for instance, is determining criteria for identifying a drought year and joint procedures for dealing with it.

The question, Feitelson said, is "how to build such [joint] institutions" that can deal with these issues. There are very few such joint institutions worldwide and most of them deal with rivers. "There is very little experience to learn from," he said.

With a framework agreement between Israel and the PA due to be signed in mid-February, or shortly thereafter, and final arrangements due to be concluded by September 2000, the two sides will have to work quickly to establish water management institutions.

There is "no option but to try it," Feitelson said.