ISRAEL'S WATER BASICS
By Yedidya Atlas
ISRAEL LOOKS TO THE SKIES
While the arguments go back and forth whether or not Israel's security is threatened by unilateral territorial withdrawal from the administered territories and the Golan Heights, one issue has been studiously glossed over by advocates for territorial concessions: water.
Israel has a water problem. No country can physically exist without sufficient supply of this most vital liquid, and Israel is no exception. Located on the fringe of a desert, Israel is almost wholly dependent on seasonal rainfall for her water supply. Rarely do Israelis experience rainfall outside of a five-month winter season from November through March.
Moreover, Israel has a growing population that maintains a modest level of western standard of living, where water (for bathing regularly, drinking freely, etc. ) is not considered a luxury. Nonetheless, it shouldn't be assumed that Israeli water consumption is extravagant; by Western standards, it is low. Recent figures show that Israeli average annual per capita municipal consumption is less than half of that of domestic consumption in southern California, for example - a region with similar climatic conditions.
THE THREE SOURCES
Israel's water supply is stored in three main sources, which together comprise the National Water System: Lake Kinneret, the Coastal Aquifer, and the Mountain (Yarkon-Taninim) Aquifer.
A series of extensive studies conducted by geologist Martin Sherman, author of "The Politics of Water in the Middle East," indicate that the permissible output of these sources varies from year to year, according to the annual rainfall. This varies from 600 to 800 million cubic meters per year. Current non-agricultural demand (e.g., showers, coffee, chicken soup, etc.) has reached the level of 600 to 700 million cubic meters. In other words, Israel's current population needs virtually the entire permissible annual output of both the surface and underground water reservoirs that make up the National Water System. We see, then, that the necessary quantities of water required by the agricultural sector can only be supplied by over-exploiting the system and reaching the danger levels.
As a result, Israeli agriculture has become increasingly dependent on recycled sewage and other types of low-grade waters which are unsuitable for drinking. Hence, the oft-repeated argument that Israel's water crisis can be resolved by reallocating water used by the agricultural sector to the non-agricultural sector sounds good, but is simply untrue - unless we are to drink these low-grade waters.
COASTAL AQUIFER IN TROUBLE
Moreover, while the population increases, the water supply is actually shrinking. This is due to a deterioration of both the quantity and quality of the country's water resources. As Sherman's study logically stipulates, "the diminishing quantities and deteriorating quality in one water source inevitably increases the importance of other sources in the system."
Specifically, there is deterioration in the Coastal Aquifer, where "the level of salting and other pollutants has reduced the quality in numerous sites to below that permissible for drinking water. " A similar pattern has begun in Lake Kinneret as well, albeit to a lesser extent. What this means, however, is that the importance of the Mountain Aquifer has increased. As Israel's State Comptroller's Annual Report already reported by the early 1990's:
"The Mountain Aquifer, extending eastward of the Coastal Aquifer, from the slopes of Mt. Carmel to Beersheba, and from the crests of mountain ridges in Judea and Samaria to the coastal plain, serves as the principle reservoir of drinking water to the Dan region, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba. Today, it is the most important long term source in the [National] Water System. "
ALL-IMPORTANT MOUNTAIN AQUIFER - TO THE PALESTINIANS?
Now comes the political problem. This "most important long-term source"physically straddles the pre-1967 cease fire lines, alias "the Green Line", into Judea and Samaria. The Principle of Connecting Vessels tells us that any activity affecting the water on one side will affect that on the other side as well. So if pumping operations, or uncontrolled flow of sewage or industrial waste, etc., occur on the western slopes of Judea and Samaria, it would cause serious, and most probably irreversible, damage to the key source of drinking water for Israel's major urban centers and environs.
The political and strategic significance for Israel is clear. Withdrawing from Judea and Samaria - i.e., the Mountain Aquifer - or from the Golan Heights would create a situation in which the fate of Israel's water supply would be determined by Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the Syrians, respectively.
Can Israel really afford to trust her most valuable and irreplaceable national resource in the hands of those who have had a long history of trying to destroy the Jewish State? In the case of the Syrians, this includes diverting and/or poisoning Israel's water supply.
MISMANAGEMENT ALONE CAN DO US IN
Even if we completely ignore Arafat & Co. 's consistent and deliberate record of gross noncompliance with the Oslo accords - the Palestinian Authority's municipal mismanagement, poor planning, insufficient knowledge or policing, and just plain neglect would still cause the irreparable damage to Israel's main supply of drinking water. The present predicament of the Gaza Aquifer is proof enough.
When Gaza was turned over to the sole ruling authority of Arafat's PA, it received total control of the Gaza aquifer - which at the time was still functioning and producing potable water. Within less than two years under Palestinian Arab management, the Gaza Aquifer was ruined, contaminated beyond repair. If the PA is incapable of taking care of its own aquifer to supply water to its residents, how can Israel place its trust in the same Authority to care and conserve water sources that supply Israeli taps?
On the Syrian front, let's even assume that the Syrians are genuinely interested in keeping the peace. Nevertheless, a few years down the road, with the increase in Syria's own population, and continued Turkish diversion of water from the Euphrates River on the other side of Syria, Damascus may decide to divert water from the Golan for peaceful means, and not just to dry out Israel. Yet for Israel, the effect would be the same.
AND THEN WHAT?
Although Israel's national survival would be at stake, at what point could Jerusalem re-invade the Golan or Judea and Samaria? When the water supply goes down to the danger levels, or when its irreversibly damaged? What justification would be acceptable to the United States and/or the UN who may feel there are more pressing problems to deal with besides Palestinian municipal mismanagement or terrorist well-digging, or Damascus' diverting the Jordan River's headwaters to irrigate Syrian fields?
True, peace talks sub-committees continue to discuss the water issue. But what is there to talk about? Either Israel has sole control of her national water sources or her very survival is threatened. If everything works out, fine. But if it doesn't, well, then what? As an economics professor of mine once said, "All things being equal, such and such is the case - but in real life things are never equal." How much more so in the Middle East.
Yedidya Atlas is a senior correspondent and commentator for Arutz-7 Israel National Radio. He also serves on the advisory committee of the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies.