The last meeting of the multilateral peace talks on water resources graphically illustrated the impending water crisis that faces Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. A report, prepared by the European delegations and presented to the meeting, predicts a sharp reduction in per capita water allocations over the next 25 years. Between 1990 and 2020 the total water resources available in Israel will be reduced by more than half to 250 cubic metres (cms) per head, in Jordan the figure will drop by more than two thirds to 63 cms, in Gaza it could fall as low as 45 cms. With Jordan and the Palestinians so dependent on agriculture, cross-border allocations and the realistic pricing of domestic water supplies have become matters of extreme urgency.

The multilateral talks, part of the peace process launched in Madrid in 1991, were never expected to solve the sensitive issue of allocations, or to interfere in domestic water policies. The intention was to provide a forum for the Arab states and Israel to exchange ideas and data, to encourage conservation and to develop existing supplies.

‘We have our difficult moments, but the atmosphere generally in that working group is a constructive one,’ says one Western official closely associated with the talks. The most recent meeting, in Athens at the start of November 1994, led to the launch of several joint projects, including setting up a centre for research into desalination techniques in Oman and developing pilot wastewater recycling projects in various states in the region in early 1995.

‘Funding is a problem because we have just moved from the stage where activities were studies, workshops and tours, to the point where people want to see things constructed and working on the ground,’ the official adds. But at least one project seems to have had no difficulties in attracting donations. This involves creating a $12 million regional data bank to be backed by the US and Canada.

Collecting data on water is no easy task in the Middle East, where information on available resources is a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations. ‘Data is extremely sensitive. It always has been, especially for the Palestinians who don’t have their own data,’ the official says. But, a data bank could help build the trust that will be required to move towards a comprehensive agreement or to resolve disputes as they arise.

Tensions

Water sharing has long been a source of tension between the Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis, as they all have to rely on such meagre supplies. In the negotiations leading to the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, signed in October, water allocations and future co-operation were a key issue. The final agreement guarantees Jordan 215 million cubic metres (mcms) a year and envisages creating a framework for pursuing joint water projects, such as water storing in the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers. The two sides also agreed to hold meetings to discuss the improvement of water sources and their more efficient exploitation.

The declaration of principles between the Israelis and Palestinians shows no such readiness to address water problems. ‘Everyone is afraid to touch the subject, because it is like a hot coal,’ says Karen Assaf, the newly appointed director of water planning in the Palestinian authority’s planning and international co-operation department.

A single aquifer runs under the West Bank, flowing east towards the Jordan river, and west towards Israel. Since the start of the its occupation in 1967 Israel has prevented the Palestinians from drilling for new water sources. In the meantime, agricultural demand has grown relentlessly, and it accounts for up to 80 per cent of the annual 120 mcms of water used on the West Bank. Israel itself has continued to drill new wells to supply its settlements and has also developed wells on the border with the West Bank, which has increased the flow of aquifer water into the Jewish state.

Palestinians complain of similar manoeuvres that have hurt the Gaza Strip. The area is facing a desperate decline in both water reserves and water quality. According to the World Health Organisation the Gaza Strip could be left with no potable water by the turn of the century. Palestinians say the problem has been exacerbated by Israel’s construction of dams in Wadi Gaza and the creation of a series of water traps along the border which interrupt the free flow of underground water towards the Gaza aquifer.

‘It is very important to agree on water rights and agree on a Palestinian share and Israeli share. This is a priority for us,’ says Nader al-Khateeb, senior water resources engineer with the UNDP in Gaza and the West Bank. ‘Sooner or later Israel will have to accept the reallocation of this water and accept international regulation on water sharing.’

Al-Khateeb also argues the case for Palestinian farmers and their water demands. Agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Palestinian economy but only contributes about 5 per cent to Israel’s GDP, he says. ‘Even among Israelis that are ready to look at the facts, they acknowledge that Palestinians need the water more than Israel,’ he says. But Palestinian farmers may find that water allocation is only one of their problems.

Throughout the Middle East, the agricultural sector is ripe for reform. According to Tony Allan, professor in the geography department at the London School of Oriental & African Studies, government attitudes are changing. After years of emphasising the strategic importance of developing agriculture, awareness is growing of its financial cost and the environmental impact of over-exploiting limited water reserves. ‘It is now possible in public to say that it is not possible to support agriculture with uneconomic water,’ he says. ‘This doesn’t sound like much, but it is a tremendous step forward from five years ago.’

Jordan is a good case in point. As part of an economic restructuring programme, the price of water is being raised to levels which more closely reflect its economic value and the cost of delivering it. Jordan is also looking at the possibility of using private funds to develop the Disi aquifer and the pipeline that will serve Amman with drinking water which is estimated to cost more than $300 million.

The most significant shift of government policy in the region has occurred in Israel, says Allan. He says that the Israeli policy changes point the way that others will follow. Agricultural policies formulated in the 1950s and 1960s have been abandoned and water allocations to the sector reduced. The result could be an increase in the amount of water Israel is prepared to negotiate in bilateral talks with neighbouring Arab states. But Allan cautions against too much optimism.