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Water Shortage Creates Tension for Israel, Arabs

April 18, 1999|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KFAR MENACHEM, Israel — One of the harshest droughts in 60 years is forcing water cutbacks to Israeli farmers, raising concerns in the Palestinian territories of painful summer shortages and prompting a political dispute between Israel and neighboring Jordan.

Worse yet, the dry season--with its relentless sun and soaring temperatures--is still two months away.

"We have a severe lack of water here in the best of times," said Gershon Baskin, a water specialist at an independent Israeli-Palestinian research center in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. "But this year, with a real crisis, the situation is more difficult and complex than ever."

In addition to a rainy season that Israeli officials describe as one of the driest since 1939, when record-keeping throughout the country began, the demand for water in Israel and the Palestinian areas is growing along with a burgeoning population. And, with Israel having issued a formal declaration of drought Thursday, this year's shortfall is likely to exacerbate existing disparities in water distribution between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Palestinians "already receive much less than we need from Israel," said Abdel Rahman Tamimi, who heads the Palestinian Hydrology Group, an independent institution in the West Bank city of Ramallah that studies water and environmental issues. "This year will be even worse."

Few issues are as emotionally or politically sensitive in the parched Middle East as that of water. Flowing through ancient limestone aquifers beneath the disputed lands of the West Bank, water has been central to Israel's renowned agricultural success and its industrial development. Along with the status of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees, water is among the complex subjects that must be resolved before a permanent peace agreement can be reached.

Israel still controls nearly all water resources in the West Bank, despite troop withdrawals that have ceded authority over part of the land to the Palestinians and a 1995 interim accord in which the Jewish state recognized "Palestinian water rights in the West Bank." The same agreement required Israel to meet the Palestinians' "immediate needs" with an annual allocation of 37.4 million cubic yards of water.

Palestinian water experts say that framework, which gives each Palestinian less than a third as much water as the average Israeli, is wholly inadequate. And it makes no adjustments for heat waves or drought.

In 1998, during one of the hottest summers in more than 25 years, Bethlehem, Hebron and many Palestinian villages near both West Bank cities endured days with little or no piped water. Heavy water usage reduced the flow of water; leaks, together with illegal tapping into the pipes, slashed it further.

The Palestinians, including Fadel Kawash, deputy director of the Palestinian Water Authority, accused Israel of making matters worse by diverting some of the water to its own population, particularly several nearby Jewish settlements.

Israel denied the charge, and Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir said the government has provided at least 15% more to the Palestinians than required under peace accords.

But the contrasts are often stark on the West Bank, where many Israeli settlements have community swimming pools, flower gardens and broad expanses of green lawn. About 140 Palestinian communities, meanwhile, have no running water at all.

In Ein Arik, a village about two miles west of Ramallah, young girls and a few small boys made their way one recent morning down a series of stone steps to a small spring surrounded by empty plastic bottles and other trash. There, they scrubbed and carefully filled large jugs, pails and bottles and hauled them back up the hills to their homes.

Warde Ahmed Samih, 19, the eldest of 13 siblings, said she visits the spring as often as six or seven times a day, whenever her mother needs water.

"Every day, we come," she said, preparing to balance a yellow jug on her head for the climb up the hill. "Every time, to cook, to clean, we have to come."

But she expressed no bitterness at her situation or resentment that others simply turn on a faucet to receive water. "We are used to this," she said.

But many others believe that one side or the other should have controlling rights to the West Bank's water. Palestinians contend that they must be able to guarantee their access to the aquifers under the land on which they hope to establish an independent state; Israelis claim that they are entitled to continue using the majority of the water, as they have since capturing the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Moreover, Israeli officials--notably Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon--argue that control of the West Bank aquifers is crucial to Israel's national security, pointing out that about 30% of the water supply for the nation's population of about 6 million comes from the West Bank.

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