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Drought adds to Mideast tension

Arabs getting far less water per capita than Jews

SHARE Drought adds to Mideast tension

TIBERIAS, Israel — The Sea of Galilee, the biblical lake where Jesus walked on water, has been pumped almost to its limit. It is now so low that salt deposits endanger its sweet water.

Broad mud flats and odd little islands deface the placid expanse of blue that until just a few years ago lapped at old stone walls.

Israel's other main sources, aquifers marbled within mountains and along the Mediterranean coast, are depleted by the worst drought in a century. They are being tapped much faster than engineers advise.

With all of their other problems, Israelis and Palestinians are running out of water.

"We're worried, very worried," said Zvi Stuhl, senior engineer at Mekorot, Israel's water company. He oversees the National Water Carrier, which has supplied homes and made deserts bloom for 37 years.

Against a backdrop of fresh conflict, water politics are paramount. Arabs receive a fraction of what goes to Jews, which adds hard immediacy to the slow process of making peace.

Israelis say their advanced society, with its developed economy, needs more water. Palestinians argue that the water shortage blocks their development.

The imbalances are striking.

In the West Bank, some Palestinians trudge long distances for water, at times within earshot of youths frolicking in the swimming pools of Jewish settlements built in their midst.

In the Gaza Strip, a few thousand Jewish settlers have ample water piped from Israel while a million Palestinians pump the last drinkable dregs of underground rivers polluted by encroaching seawater and sewage.

"You cannot talk about peace while you have this discrimination on the ground," said Ayman Rabi, executive director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group. "Every day, the problem is getting worse."

Because the Palestinian economy depends so heavily on growing food, the future looks bleak, he said.

Water authorities say the present is serious enough.

Uri Saguy, chairman of Mekorot, went on the air in June to warn of more drought to come, with the country already facing a 30 percent water shortfall.

One stopgap measure is to bring tankers of water from Turkey, but that won't begin for a year, warned Sara Haklai, who manages supply for Mekorot.

Salvation may ultimately lie in desalting seawater, as Arab states on the Persian Gulf already do. But although Israel is a world leader in the technology, it prefers natural water sources for itself.

Desalination plants are now being planned, but the first two, not expected to operate before 2004, will meet only 5 percent of the normal annual demand.

Meanwhile, the population mushrooms. A high Arab birthrate and influxes of Jewish immigrants have boosted it to more than 6 million Israelis and 3.3 million Palestinians.

"We have to reduce the supply, but everyone wants to do something different," Haklai said. "The government has to decide what to do and be sure that everybody does it."

The crisis has deep roots. In 1990, Israel's state comptroller excoriated "irresponsible management of the water supply for 25 years" that destroyed reserves and damaged water quality.

In a report last year for the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, analyst Steven Plaut concluded: "Israeli water policy is and has been a nearly unmitigated disaster, producing waste, misallocation and environmental destruction."

The National Water Carrier is an engineering showpiece. The intricate grid of pipeline and canal, is fed by three huge pumps on the Galilee, or Lake Kinneret, set underground in case of war with neighboring Syria. It conveys water far south to the Negev desert.

Normally, the lake supplies more than 100 billion gallons a year, but pumping is down by more than three-quarters and is being pushed ever closer to the point where saltwater springs might seep in.

If the lake's surface drops another three feet, Stuhl said, pumps will draw air and stop dead, Stuhl said.

The carrier network also taps the coastal aquifer, which lies largely beneath Israel, and the mountain aquifer, which is mostly under Palestinian territory. Both are also at their danger points.

Uri Shamir, head of the Water Research Institute at Technion University in Haifa and an Israeli water negotiator, told a meeting of experts in Paris that severe shortages forced both sides into a test of good will.

"If you seek a conflict, water can provide a plausible excuse," he said. "If you seek peace, water is a bridge for cooperation."

In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian specialists argue that Israelis can afford to seize the moral high ground because they control the water.

Mekorot says that on a per-person basis, Jews get just over twice as much water as Arabs. The numbers are in sharp dispute, however, partly because of how they are calculated and partly because some water data are secret.

According to B'Tselem, the respected Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israelis get five times as much water as Palestinians on a per-person average. In Gaza, the water ratio is 7-1, it said.

In practice, a B'Tselem report notes, Israel is in command because operating arrangements with the Palestinians give it veto power over new water projects in Arab territories.

During shortages, the report says, Israelis often cut supplies to Palestinians to satisfy their own demand.

Palestinian water systems are inadequate and badly degraded in places. According to B'Tselem, at least 215,000 West Bank Arabs with no piped supply have to survive on costly bottled water when nearby springs go dry.

Marwan Haddad at An-Najah University in Nablus estimates that Israeli households actually get 10 times more water. By cutting back consumption only 10 percent, he says, Israel could double the supply to the Palestinians.

He believes the Israelis see nothing wrong with the imbalance.

"They think it is their land, their water, and we are intruders," he said. This should be a technical matter not a political one. But they don't accept us as people."

Eran Feitelson, an Israeli expert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who works with Haddad on hydrology studies, agrees that equal access to water is a basic human right.

The conflict, he said, is more about symbolism than science because both sides view farming as essential to their identity, and farming consumes too much water.

Working the land and making deserts bloom is the basis of the whole Zionist enterprise of returning Jews to their homeland. To Palestinians, the family farm passed down through generations is a validation of their nationhood.

"Technically, this all can be solved, but the problem is perception," Feitelson said. "There's a big difference between what professionals know and the public perceives. And politicians can play on this."

Farming is already down to a token 2 percent of Israel's gross national product, far behind high technology. Israel imports 80 percent of what it eats. Mainly, it sells export crops, such as citrus and flowers.

Israel's agriculture survives because farmers pay much less than household consumers and industries for water even though farmers use 60 percent of the drinkable supply.

Palestinians depend more directly on farming. Their economy is about one-third agricultural.

Despite the crisis, Israel's home consumption remains near 80 gallons daily per person. In wealthy Tel Aviv neighborhoods, people use up to three times the national average, about equal to Phoenix, Ariz.

"Even now, most Israelis have no sense of a crisis," said Raphael Semiot at the Technion water center. "It's hard to believe but many just go on as if nothing is different."

In Efrat, a West Bank Jewish settlement, pizzeria owner Mordechai Goodman was puzzled when asked about water supply. "We just turn on the tap," he said, with a shrug.

In the neighboring Palestinian city of Hebron, where homes might get a few hours of running water a month, people rig makeshift tanks in basements. Cherished vegetable plots have withered away.

Franklin Fisher, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose speciality is Middle East water, scoffs at the idea of war over water.

Stripped of emotion or symbolism, he said, fresh water cannot be worth more than it costs to produce. In the Holy Land, the entire water supply should be valued only somewhere in the low millions of dollars, he said.

Seawater can be desalinated for less than Israeli households now pay for water, he said on a visit to Jerusalem. Gaza could be supplied via the National Water Carrier and inefficient farming could be replaced with imported food.

But Fisher punctuated his remarks by saying, "In a perfect world ...," with a chuckle to acknowledge how far from perfect Middle East affairs are.

Mutual distrust hampers technical practicalities. Palestinian leaders dismiss out of hand arrangements that leave Israel's hand on their faucet.

"On paper it might work, but it's not so simple," Semiot said. "In the West Bank, if they don't get water, they don't care about cost. They know that without water, they don't have food, and they are ready to fight."

Specialists on both sides agree that in the long run politics cannot override nature.

Hillel Shuval, a Hebrew University expert, insists agriculture should compete for scarce water on real terms. "We are already causing irreparable damage to our aquifers," he said. "It is suicidal to grow food in water-short areas."

To make his point, he plans to sue if the state adopts a proposed three-year ban on watering home gardens while farmers grow flowers for Europe with subsidized water.

Shuval also insists that only fair distribution can ease conflict.

"If we're going to live in peace with Palestinians," he concluded, "it is in Israel's political, social and economic interest to get them enough water not only to survive but also to thrive."