MIDEAST WATER CRISIS: A Fuel for War, Peace

Water emerges as political currency...

Fellows Spring 2000

By Andrew Metz

June 07, 2009

BLAT, Lebanon, Spring 2000 -- It's enough now for the oldest man in the village to just sit on the floor by his wood stove and thank God he has lived to see another morning. He barely remembers the days when he would walk the trail from his olive grove, through the poppies and rocks, down the serpentine path to the river.

That was a time, Yacoub Khneifis insists, when he would fish in the gorge below this Shiite Muslim enclave, when he and other men would use sticks of dynamite to blow eels out of the water, when they would collect firewood and water their flocks on the riverbanks.

That was 20 years or more ago, before Israel and Hezbollah turned the Litani River valley into a battle zone where the only things that thrived were mines and bombs and gunfire. That was before most of the some 6,000 villagers fled for safety, leaving only 350 of the brave and the stubborn and the vaguely hopeful.

"It used to be one of our resources,” said Kneifis, who guesses he is about 88 years old. "But no one dares go down there,” he said as mortars and machine guns erupted overhead, weeks before Israel withdrew from the buffer zone along the border.

Daily terror in southern Lebanon has ceased but the country is still at bitter odds with Israel over the river it believes was usurped for two decades and any lasting peace depends on whether Israel and Syria -- which controls Lebanon -- can resolve an historic impasse over another waterway, the precious Sea of Galilee, about 30 miles south.

Throughout one of the most parched parts of the world, water is the ultimate political currency, as divisive and dangerous an issue as religion or geography. With demand outpacing supply and cutthroat competition making every droplet count, a fight over a spigot in one country can cascade through the entire region. Dams in Turkey inflame Syria. The tension spills into Syria's relations with Jordan and Israel, which aggravates Israel's negotiations with its neighbors, the Lebanese and the Palestinians.

"You can't put boundaries on water,” said John Kolars, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and a leading Middle East water expert. "Turkey and Syria and Iraq are all vying for water from the Euphrates. Meanwhile Syria has built 23 small dams on the Yarmouk, which is a major tributary of the Jordan River, which means this exacerbates the water shortage in Israel, Jordan and Palestine.”

There are few international laws that govern water relations, so conflicts are common. One of the most troubling disputes is in Turkey, right now most pronounced at the Birecik Dam, six miles north of Syria on the Euphrates River. The waterworks here are part of a $32-billion project to build 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, major water sources for both Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, Turkish officials have been filling up the 21.6 square mile reservoir, flooding ancient villages and washing away archeological treasures.

"We have to think of our future,” said Ibrahim Kizilirmak, the village elder in Belkis, standing in the shadow of the 200-foot dam face -- a tombstone over his hometown that will soon drown. He and a few families were all that remained, picking among the rubble of scores of small stone blockhouses. As archeologists nearby raced to save the remnants of a centuries-old civilization, Kizilirmak and a handful of men tried to rescue their own artifacts, pulling down the last roofs and walls in search of valuable beams and boards.

"This dam will be good for the next generation,” he said, adding that it won't be so bad for the people of Belkis either: The government has built them a new, modern town above the waterline.

The Southeast Anatolia Project's official mission is to turn a dry, endemically poor and politically unstable region in the Turkish southeast into a national breadbasket, along the way increasing power output by 70 percent and quelling separatist violence in the largely Kurdish area.

Five dams, including the centerpiece Ataturk Dam, one of the world's largest, are already operational and there are signs that the project, known by the acronym GAP, is achieving its mandate. Water is being delivered to formerly parched fields. Farmers tell of six-fold salary increases. In the city of Sanliurfa, one of the poorest in the country, 30 factories have opened and 10,000 new apartments have been built, while the population has doubled in the past five years. There are Internet cafes, a new Western-style mall and a hotel approaching modern standards on the same dusty streets shared with donkey carts and flocks of sheep.

But what in Turkey may look like paradise, in Syria and Iraq appears as a quickly closing tap. Both countries have dire water problems already and believe that GAP is both worsening their plights and limiting their future opportunities.

"This situation has resulted in immense damages to the various aspects of life in Iraq. And these damages will increase with each new project carried out by Turkey,” Iraqi foreign ministry and irrigation officials wrote last year in their government's position paper on the project.

Iraq takes up nearly half the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which is its main water source. And Syria has relied on the Euphrates increasingly since the 1950s, now eying it for future irrigation projects and municipal water.

"The Euphrates plays a major role in Syrian life,” said Nabil Samman, a water and engineering expert in Damascus. "If the Turkish government decides to go ahead with all its plans, even if they say there will be enough water, there won't be.”

Turkey has agreed to let a fixed amount of water travel downstream, but there is no telling how much water its massive project will end up using. It could be half of the Euphrates' entire flow alone, according to Kolars, whose work on the subject is among the most widely cited.

There has been little official discussion between the countries and over the years tension and violence have marked the relations. Many Western officials and experts have suggested that the standoff could be resolved as part of the larger Middle East peace process. The complicated formula they have proposed would have Turkey giving more of the Euphrates to Syria and in turn Syria ceding claims on the Sea of Galilee and springs in Golan Heights -- contested waters, coveted by both Syria and Israel.

Turkey however has insisted the Tigris and Euphrates are off limits and there are no signs of an imminent accord between Israel and Syria.

The Israelis have bunkered themselves at the foothills of the Golan, protecting the sea at its feet and the Sapir Pumping Station on its shore.

Hidden in the hollowed out core of a steep hill, 700 feet below sea level, the station's snail-shaped, avocado-green pumps suck in fresh water then send it to thirsty cities and desert outposts. "If you think of water as the blood stream of this country,” said Jonathan Ben-Zur, an engineer who proudly showed off the Swiss-made machines, "then this pumping station is the heart.”

In recent months, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara has said that his country is ready to compromise on sharing the Sea of Galilee, which supplies one-third of Israel's water, in exchange for full withdrawal from the Golan. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has rejected sharing shore or water "We don't want to see Syrian feet splashing in the waters of the Sea of Galilee.”

So, with Israel and Syria not even offically talking, the standoff has deepened. And Lebanon, a bit player, has been caught between the two nations as a proxy battlefield in a war over nothing less than water.

"I don't think you'll ever be able to have much more than a very uneasy armistice on the Lebanon-Israel front until the Syrian-Israeli tract is brought to conclusion,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former U.S. Army attache in Lebanon and government water mediator who is an expert on the relations among the three countries.

Lebanon has its own water issues with Israel as well. With the hasty Israeli withdrawal, Lebanon now controls the Hasbani River, a major Jordan River tributary that Israel depends on. Furthermore, the Lebanese government has made the cessation of water theft one of the prerequisites for officially declaring peace with Israel, a reference to the widespread Lebanese belief that Israel established a secret, illegal pumping operation on the Litani River, taking water across the border.

There is no evidence of such thievery, but in the Middle East perception is sometimes more important than fact. "The Litani is Lebanon's Nile. National identity is attached to this water,” said Hussein Amery, a Lebanese geographer and water expert from the Colorado School of Mines. "Whether the accusations are true or not, it is a social reality; it is something that has to be dealt with if there is ever going to be peace.”

Israel faces just as thorny and open-ended water issues on all of its borders, but those with the Palestinians are particularly acute.

"If the Israelis want sustainable peace ... Water is the most important issue,” Nabil El-Sherif, head of the Palestinian Water Authority and Yasser Arafat's lead water negotiator, said in an interview. "Water means life. It is a very easy equation. I cannot make a bath with Coca Cola. I cannot irrigate with Coca Cola. The Israeli can live without Tel Aviv, but he cannot live without water. And the same principle applies for the Palestinians.”

Peace accords acknowledge Palestinian water rights to two main aquifers shared with the Israelis, but the details have been left to final status negotiations, where water is one of the main sticking points.

At the core of the talks is a stark reality: Israel draws two-thirds of its water from aquifers shared with the Palestinians and controls and consumes most of the supply. The majority of the water in the Mountain aquifer, for instance, comes from the West Bank, however Israelis have long drawn at least 80 percent of it.

In Kufr Na'ama, a Palestinian-controlled village in the West Bank -- an area that Israeli troops officially withdrew from this spring -- it still hurts Najwa Al-Dieck that she has to tell her children they cannot wash themselves or wear clean clothes when they want. "I can only do the washing once every two weeks,” she said. "And my kids, I cannot let them have a shower but once every one or two weeks.”

There is no running water in the two rooms the 39-year-old nurse shares with her husband, a grade school science teacher, and seven children. There is just a well in the yard and a blue plastic pool and pail that must serve as bathtub, shower and faucet.

For 15 years, the couple has been building a house next door, hoping that one day water will flow at the turn of a tap as it does in Israeli settlers' homes and gardens and vineyards only a few miles away.

"It's been so many years of working, suffering,” she said, glaring sourly at the dust-covered tub in her new bathroom. "Both of us are employed, and still, after 15 years, we are not able to have this.”

Palestinian officials have said they not only want control of the water within their land, but expect a parity with Israeli consumption, which is as much as four times their own. Many Palestinians are also demanding compensation for the dry years.

Facing a severe water shortage of their own though, Israelis insist they cannot afford to give any more away. The country is already considering unprecedented emergency restrictions to get through the hot summer ahead.

"Israel cannot, absolutely cannot, give up any part, any quantity of its water,” Meir Ben Meir, the Israeli water commissioner, said in an interview before retiring recently. "If water is diverted from Israel to our neighbors, we will have to abandon the desert.”

Nerves are fraying. As water becomes harder to find and populations increase, so does anger in the streets.

On a recent afternoon in the Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza, where water quality and scarcity are about the worst anywhere, Walid Ali, a 24-year-old Palestinian, came to his own dark conclusions.

At first, all he and two friends were really thinking about was where to find clean water to make coffee. After the coffee had been poured and bottles of mineral water set on a low table, however, the only thing left to be figured out was when things would get so bad they'd have to start throwing stones again.

The three friends recounted with bravado a teenhood spent during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising between 1987 and 1993, hurling hunks of rock and metal bolts at Israeli soldiers who long policed the strip.

Sitting on a sagging couch in a crude concrete apartment, Ali said, "If this water problem grows and grows, there is going to be a new intifada.”

Today, he is not sure at whom he would throw the stones: the Israelis for leaving them in this mess or the fledgling Palestinian Authority for not fixing it.

"When you get to the point when you are thirsty, and there is no water, you know,” he said. "Who cares, I will choose intifada.”

But for all the combustibility, dependence on water has also long been the glue of coexistence. Israelis and Jordanians met secretly for years at the confluence of the Yarmouk and Jordan Rivers to hash out sharing of the waters, on which they both depend. Today, because of the peace between the nations, Israel stores winter run-off for the kingdom in the Sea of Galilee and then pipes it there in the summer. Palestinians and Israelis participate in joint patrols against illegal pumping of wells, and their hydrologists hold regular meetings.

"Exactly the same reasons that might make water the cause of war -- scarcity, necessity, high political profile, economics -- all those reasons might also make it a cause for cooperation," said Ram Aviram, an Israeli government negotiator and the head of the country's multilateral working group on water. "It is up to us to decide."