Water and Peace in the Middle East

By Peter W. Zimmermann

Sitting by the edge of a lake in Maine in the humid northeastern United States it is hard to imagine a water shortage issue in the Middle East, thousands of miles away. However, limited supply and unfair access to potable water is a major thorn in the side of every day life in the Levant. In fact, water rights is one of the greatest barriers to lasting peace in the region.

The Middle East and its water issues are vast and interwoven. Focus, for example, on water's impact on the Palestine-Israel relationship. This is the most volatile situation and perhaps the one with the most straightforward solutions. Until water is addressed in the area there will be no peace. And until interested parties in the United States and other countries initiate public-private partnerships to deal with the water issue -- independent of the interminable peace process - the conditions that could actually most facilitate the peace process will never occur and hopes for peace will remain low.

The lack of reporting on this issue contributes to the misguided perception that peace is impossible and creates a general sense of malaise concerning options for peace. Instead of paying attention to water, which might help establish tolerable living conditions that would be conducive to peace in the area, reporting sticks to attack and retaliation. For example, the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon is matter-of-factly described as a "security" issue. In fact, Israel has used the occupation to control the waters of Lebanon's Litani River, diverting flow to Israel and limiting access to villages in Lebanon, and communities in the occupied Palestinian territories. It is a form of environmental domination and abuse disguised as a security need.

There has been far too little attention paid to Palestinian water needs and the water restrictions imposed by the occupying Israelis. These conditions, if widely known, would likely be compared to some of the atrocities in the Serbia-Kosova conflict. However, water supply is an issue that can be solved outside the political zone. It does not require good will on the part of an entire country, or broad political agreements. It is not dependent on which party is in power, special elections, stopping of other conflicts, or land ownership-dispute resolution. What is required is funding, investment opportunity, payback, technology sharing and research, and implementation planning. There have been enough studies of the problem; there needs to be focus and investment in non-political, independent solutions to the problem.

The problem is that there just isn't enough water. It's that simple. So look for independent solutions - not ones that necessarily require sharing. When there isn't enough water, the hardest thing to do is to ask someone who already doesn't have enough to give some of it up and compromise their children's future. And in return for what, in the absence of trust? So the focus of the international community, and in particular the United States, and to an even greater degree American Muslims and Arab Christians with ties to the area, is to find independent solutions to the water issue in the Palestinian territories and in those areas shared with Israeli control. If the solution is great enough, the Palestinians could even be in the position to offer water to the Israelis as means of bringing something other than cheap, bitter, untrained labor to Israel's economic growth effort.

What are the elements of independent solutions? It would be very interesting to have reporting by the media of the results of studies on this, instead of a restatement of the problem -- which seems to be the general approach. Isn't it interesting that USAID sees fit to have multimillion dollar funding to rehabilitate Jordan's springs and wells with little to no attention to similar independent solutions with respect to the Palestinians. Is any one so nave to think that the Israelis will independently give serious thought to what might be sufficient allocations of water resources to the Palestinians? Generous enough to create a stable and favorable quality of life? This would be unprecedented in history as group altruism over hatred and fear.

Independent solutions would focus on conservation and supply technology, combined with government assisted (but not totally funded ) development programs that would allow a certain amount of privatization and return on investment from private financing. The focus should not be on regional scale programs but on local, cooperative or otherwise linked groups of water users. This would be consistent with the current geographic distribution of the Palestinian Authority and jointly controlled territories. The systems should not be government-run but have a certain amount of government regulation, similar to other privatized waste-water treatment and water supply programs in the U.S.

In terms of Palestinian control over this effort, the United States should give full support to the private effort. Israel does not permit Palestinians to sink new wells. But if the Palestinians and their investors want to generate a public-private partnership to address and redress water supply issues that doesn't involve sinking new wells but employs innovative supply technology or more efficient use of existing water supplies, the US should help eliminate barriers to implementation of such efforts. Those efforts could include gray water management, waterless/composting toilet facilities to minimize water-based sewage, state of the art irrigation and water recovery or evaporation control systems.

Companies should be formed on the Palestinian stock exchange, backed by related investors that are involved in part for altruistic reasons, in order to assure that their giving is used to forward their interests and does not contribute to uncontrolled government expenditure. Opportunities for computer-controlled supply, quality, and usage monitoring systems, and associated training programs should be forwarded. In terms of supply, solar powered systems for desalinization should be investigated. These can be readily applied at the local level. There should be little need to consider multimillion dollar petroleum-powered plants for desalinization, since this would require massive single-phase investment, a unified user base over a geographic area, and anticipates too much altruism from investors and too little efficiency and self-sufficiency on supply and usage for an area that can predict natural usage restrictions for the long term base on the regional climate.

Israel's detractors have raised flags about the imbalance of water rights, but unless those complaints are accompanied by a concerted and sustained quality public relations effort they will resemble no more than formalized whining. Rather, more attention should be focussed on how Palestinians could get water without requiring interminable negotiations with a country that won water supply as a war prize. That is barking up a deaf tree. History will likely prove that neither Israel nor any other country will readily give up war-won prizes of natural resources now or in the foreseeable future. Do we really think the United States is going to return California or Texas to Mexico? At best, the give-back of water rights would only be the minimum to satisfy a puny peace condition, whose main purpose is to keep the Israeli government from undesirable political risk. It is highly unlikely that the fragile coalitions will make significant and difficult decisions about expanding water rights for Palestinians. Best options lie in investing intelligently in alternative access to clean water for at-risk populations in the Middle East. Once basic survival needs are satisfied it is much more likely discussions for peace will be fruitful.

Peter Zimmermann is an environmental risk management professional specializing in the restoration and rehabilitation of impaired water resources and land.

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