Water: The strategic resource in the Middle East - by Jason Godesky

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April 4, 2009
Water: The strategic resource in the Middle East
Israel’s Water Wars

by Jason Godesky
15 August 2006

Israel’s ecology varies from semi-arid to complete desert, yet it has intense water needs. These are fulfilled primarily by three sources. Lake Kinneret (a.k.a., the Sea of Galilee) provides over a third of Israel’s water. Another third comes from two aquifers—large, geographical areas of subterranean catchment where water accumulates. These aquifers lie beneath the Gaza strip and the West Bank: precisely the territories Israel seized in the 1969 war.

Under international law, the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories, and the Geneva Conventions—which govern the appropriate use of occupied territories—forbid moving people into an occupied territory. That’s precisely what Israel’s settlement program did. Israel then proceeded to siphon the water of the West Bank away from its native Palestinian population, to the new settler population.

At present, Israelis receive five times as much water per person as Palestinians. In Gaza, the disparity is even more striking, with settlers getting seven times as much water as their Palestinian neighbors. Stated differently, on average, Israelis get 92.5 gallons per person per day, while Palestinians in the West Bank get 18.5 gallons per person per day. The minimum quantity of water recommended by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Health Organization for household and urban use alone is 26.4 gallons per person per day. …

Israel did hook some Palestinian towns into the water network—although nearly 30 percent of Palestinian homes have yet to be connected—but it did not provide appropriate maintenance work, with the result that, today, as much as half of the water meant to supply some Palestinian towns may be lost to leaking pipes, according to B’Tselem. The country also gave Israelis and settlers priority access to water: In the summer, when water is scare, the Israeli water company Mekorot shuts the valves of the main pipelines supplying Palestinian towns so that Israeli supplies remain unaffected. (32)

In 2005, Ariel Sharon forcibly removed 7,000 settlers from the Gaza strip, amidst great controversy domestically. The move forced him to break away from the Likud party he’d helped found with Menachem Begin to form the new, centrst Kadima party. Controlling the West Bank cost Israel $3 billion per year in military expenditures, but gave Israel control of the aquifers beneath it. A criticism of Sharon’s plan in the New York Jewish Times cited precisely the importance of the West Bank’s water:

During a debate at Tel Aviv University’s Diplomatic Forum, when challenged on how, after disengagement from Northern Samaria (which overlies hydrologically crucial areas of the Mountain Aquifer), Israel will be able to continue to manage and preserve its national water system, Dov Weisglass - Prime Minister Sharon’s crony and mouthpiece - admitted with some embarassment that he did not really undertand much about water problems and added flippantly, to the astonishment of the audience (which included many foreign embassy staff), “maybe we’ll have to import bottles of water.” (36)

Though Sharon’s “crony” may not have been briefed, it’s obvious that Sharon was. This is the same Ariel Sharon who, as a general fighting it, admitted publicly that the 1967 war was fought to obtain water. Sharon withdrew Israeli settlers from Gaza—but only because it had ceased to provide the water it once had. The “level of salting and other pollutants has reduced the quality in numerous sites to below that permissible for drinking water.” (37) Once Israel had used up the resource and it was no longer potable, Sharon gave up the cost of defending the region and generously returned it to the Palestinians.

Because of saltwater intrusion from the sea into the aquifer, and recirculation and evaporation losses of pumped groundwater, the quality of the water is deteriorating faster than fresh rainwater can desalinate it. This means that Gaza residents must acquire water from beyond their borders, which are closed at present; build a large desalination plant; or eliminate agriculture within the next two decades, said the two researchers, Assistant Professor Charles Harvey and Dr. Annette Huber-Lee of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“We’re not talking about a hundred years into the future,” said Dr. Huber-Lee, lead author of the study. “I can show numbers that say it’s a problem very soon. It’s reaching a point where you have to decide what you are willing to impose upon people, and without additional sources of water, you finally have to eliminate agriculture.”

Agriculture is about 30 percent of Gaza’s gross domestic product. While this percentage hasn’t decreased in the past 20 years, the increasing salinity has affected the types of food grown, eliminating most citrus fruit—which is sensitive to saline—in favor of salt-tolerant vegetables and flowers.38

With the collapse of the Coastal Aquifer from Israel’s overuse, and signs that the same process may now be happening (though more slowly) at Lake Kinneret, the importance of the Mountain Aquifer is only intensified, but that lies beneath the West Bank, and remains a major flashpoint of tensions. After the 1967 war, Israel siezed 80-85% of the West Bank’s water resources. More recently, the “security barrier” has been used as a means of claiming more water for Israel.

The barrier does not run along the old 1967 border or the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the Arab states, which, in the eyes of the United Nations, delineates Israel and the West Bank. It will contain at least 50% of the West Bank, including the whole of the western mountain aquifer, which supplies the West Bank Palestinians with over half their water. (39)

The barrier has already cut off many Palestinians from their traditional water sources,40 and an article in Ha’aretz estimated that the bizarre loops and zig-zags of the barrier, adhering to no previous delineation, would place some 95% of the Mountain Aquifer on the Israeli side . (41)

Even so, Israel is fighting a losing battle to supply its voracious need for water. A highly complex society in a semi-arid/desert ecosystem is always going to have a chronic water problem, but Israel’s voracious consumption and lack of environmental responsibility has turned that problem into a crisis. Conservation policies have had an effect, but they are limited. Desalination plants are used, but they are expensive. To continue its growth, Israel needs new sources of water. This is a question of life or death for Israel: either it will take new sources of water, by any means necessary, or it will fail to meet its needs for continual growth, and die. But water is a zero-sum game: for Israel to have more, others must have less. Water is no less necessary for Israel’s neighbors than it is for Israel itself, so it is unlikely that this situation could ever end peacefully.

After the 1967 war—the war Ariel Sharon said had been waged to conquer the water sources Israel needed—Moshe Dayan commented that the new conquests gave Israel “provisionally satisfying frontiers, with the exception of those with Lebanon.”

The Litani River is the primary source of water for southern Lebanon. It starts west of Baalbek, in the Biqa’a valley. The average annual flow of the river is estimated at 920 MCM, with 480 MCM measured at the Khardali Bridge, where it makes an almost 90 degree bend to flow west into the Mediterranean.

Permanent occupation of southern Lebanon and continued access to the Litani could augment the annual water supply of Israel by up to 800 million cubic meters, or approximately 40 percent of its current annual water consumption. …Another attraction of the Litani River is the high quality of its water. The salinity level is only 20 parts per million, whereas that of the Sea of Galilee is 250 to 350 parts per million. Many aquifers in Israel are stressed, especially along the coast, and the water in them is increasingly brackish. The water of the Litani would lower the saline level of the Sea of Galilee, from which the National Water Carrier channels water to much of the country. “It is this purity that makes the Litani very attractive to the Israelis, who have developed their National Water Carrier System with a view towards potable (as opposed to irrigation quality) water.” (42)

Not only could the Litani provide the volume of water Israel so desperately needs, but it’s a clean source of water, with very low salinity. It could help repair the water sources that Israel’s overuse has turned salty and brackish. This has been understood by Israel for a very long time, and we can see the Litani River cropping up in Israeli history on a regular basis.

Even before Israel was a state, an engineer in 1905 proposed diverting water from the Litani at its westward bend, to the Hasbani River, a tributary of the Jordan, because “the waters of the Jordan basin would be insufficient for the future needs of Palestine.”

"Prestatehood Jewish interests in the Litani River were made explicit in letters from Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), to various British governmental officials in 1919 and 1920. In a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Weizmann argued that Lebanon was “well watered” and that the river was “valueless to the territory north of the proposed frontiers. They can be used beneficially in the country much further south.” Weizmann concluded that the WZO considered the Litani valley “for a distance of 25 miles above the bend” of the river essential to the future of the Jewish “national home.” Nevertheless, the British and the French mandate powers retained the Litani basin entirely in Lebanon. David Ben-Gurion, a leading Zionist and the first prime minister of Israel, suggested to a 1941 international commission on the question of Palestine that the Litani be included in the borders of the future Jewish state. The commission recommended that seven-eighths of the river’s waters be leased to Israel." (43)

In his diaries, Moshe Sharett—Israel’s second prime minister—quoted Moshe Dayan after the 1967 war as saying that the war had left Israel with “provisionally satisfying frontiers, with the exception of those with Lebanon.” The exception Dayan was referring to was Israel’s continued lack of access to the Litani River. While the water sources captured in 1967 were estimated to last Israel into the 1980s, planners anticipated that Israel would need the Litani by then to make up for the shortfall.

Israel hoped that it would have use of the Litani by the mid 1980s, when it projected that it would have fully used up the waters captured in the 1967 war.

Israel hoped to meet this goal by securing the Litani in 1978. Israel had even included the Litani in calculations of their water resources. (44)

In his same diaries, Sharett quoted Dayan’s plan for how Israel might achieve access to the Litani River, from a secret cabinet meeting:

According to him, the only thing necessary is to find an officer, even just a major. We should either win his heart, or buy him with money, to make him agree to declare himself the savior of the Maronite population. Then the Israeli army will enter Lebanon, occupy the necessary territory, and will create a Christian regime which will ally itself with Israel. The territory from the Litani southward will be totally annexed to Israel, and everything will be all right.

In the mid-1970s, Palestinians displaced into Lebanon brought tensions between the various factions in Lebanon to a head. Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Maronite Christian Phalange, was long rumored to have accepted Israeli support and training for his troops. Israeli prime minister Begin grew depressed about the invasion of Lebanon when his hopes for forming a peace with Gemayel were dashed by his assassination. The South Lebanon Army or SLA, also made up of Christians, were seen largely as puppets of Israel. The evidence is circumstantial, but certainly provocative: on the timeline anticipated by Israeli hydrologists, when their estimates required access to the Litani River, a series of events—most of them traceable to Israeli policies—converge to create the very state of civil unrest that Moshe Dayan had proposed for an Israeli invasion to sieze the Litani.

In 1978—the year that Israel’s long term water plans drawn up after the 1967 war called for acquiring the Litani—with the war seeming to reach an uneasy truce, the peace was shattered when Israel invaded, ostensibly to establish a “security zone” in southern Lebanon that would have a northern border of the Litani River—the border Ben Gurion had proposed for Israel in 1947. The codename of the invasion was “Operation Litani.”

The hyrdostrategic significance of southern Lebanon is rarely considered as an explanation of current Israeli occupation of the security zone there. The zone stretches along the northern border of Israel and straddles the westward bend of the Litani River. Israel unilaterally established the zone in 1978, after Israeli troops invaded and remained as a hegemonic occupier. Although there are between one and two thousand Israeli troops in the zone, it is controlled and administered by a Christian Lebanese army general who heads the South Lebanese Army (SLA). Trained, equipped, and paid by the Israeli government, the SLA is nonetheless a quasi-militia, composed of Lebanese. The zone has 850 square kilometers, with 85 villages and a population of approximately 180,000.

Shortly after establishing the zone, the Israeli army prohibited drilling of wells there. Moreover, after the 1982 invasion, Israeli army engineers carried out seismic soundings and surveys near the westward bend of the river, probably to determine the optimum place for a diversion tunnel, and confiscated hydrographical charts and technical documents of the river and its installations from the Litani Water Authority offices in the Biqa’a and Beirut. Israel also controlled most or all of the waters from the Hasbani and Wazzani rivers, which rise in Lebanon. Over the years, there have been reports of water siphoning from the Litani into the Jordan River basin, a distance of less than ten kilometers. …

No one can yet document categorically that the Litani waters are being diverted, because large tracts of land near the crucial westward bend of the river are cordoned off by Israeli troops, which prevents researchers, journalists, and United Nations observers from approaching the area. Independent water analysts, however, have reported that Israel has been diverting some water from the Litani River into the Jordan River by tapping the massive underground water resources. Hence the measured flow of the Litani is not affected. (45)

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