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by Martin Sherman



West Bank, Golan withdrawals would put Israel's water supply at risk

The latest report from Mekorot, Israel's national water corporation, published a few days ago, starkly underscores the nation's grave hydro-strategic position i.e. its rapidly dwindling supply of water. This is a shortage that is swiftly -- but not unexpectedly -- developing into an acute crisis whose solution is far from easy to envision.

For over and above the dearth of moisture that nature imposes on the region, there are many who tend to forget -- or willfully conceal -- that there is another threat that hovers over Israel's water system. This is a threat that is largely political in its origins and may well prove far more ominous than that of nature per se. Indeed, it could totally undermine any conceivable government efforts to resolve the water crisis by desalination in the foreseeable future.

It should be emphasized that disturbing hydrological predicament in which Israel now finds itself was arrived at despite the fact that since 1967 and up to August 2005 (with the unilateral disengagement from Northern Samaria) it was the only body with governmental authority over all the water sources in the area known as "Greater Israel" (with the exception of the sources of the Hasbani, which flows into the upper Jordan from Lebanon.) The same is true with regard to the sources of pollution, whose significance for the fate of national water system is no less than that of the water sources themselves.

The Israeli public should be aware that today whoever controls the areas of Samaria, Judea (which overlie vital ground water supplies) and the Golan (which is a crucial part of the Sea of Galilee's drainage basin,) also controls of the flow of water to the taps in the nation's homes and industries.

In order to contend with Israel's hydrological deficit, estimated at 300-500 million cubic meters per annum, the government has decided, a decade later than it should have, to embark on an ambitious desalination initiative. The objective of this enterprise is to free the country from the fickle whims of the weather in an arid area of the world located on the fringes of a desert, by the large scale artificial generation of water.

The first such plant, sited near Ashkelon, recently began operating, more than five years after the government approved its construction. The plant, which is the biggest and one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world, produces 100 million cubic meters annually -- i.e. between one fifth and one third of the current hydrological deficit.

This means that even without yielding a single liter of water to any Arab entity, Israel still requires the construction of an additional three to five similar plants -- the biggest in the world -- to achieve "sustainable management" of the existing hydro-resources i.e. to prevent their over-exploitation and accelerated salting and pollution due to excess extraction.

This is clearly not the appropriate framework for a detailed professional analysis of Israeli hydrology, so it will suffice to draw attention to two hydrological facts that are not in contention: (a) Whatever the de jure provisions of any future peace treaty may be, evacuation (even a partial one) of Judea, Samaria and the Golan, will transfer the de facto control over about one billion(!) cubic meters of water to Arab hands; (b) Whoever controls these areas can create -- whether through purposeful malice or unintended incompetence - a situation whereby these quantities of water will be denied to the Israeli consumer.

'Grave threat to main water supplies'

In this regard, nearly all the relevant professional bodies have issued warnings regarding the risks and ramifications of evacuation. For example then-Water Commissioner Meir Ben Meir told the Knesset State Control Committee (Jan. 3, 2000) that pollution by the Syrians after transfer of the Golan to their control "would, quite simply, herald the end of the Sea of Galilee as a source of fresh water."

Likewise, in a 1996 risk-assessment of the hydrological dangers involved in withdrawal from the Golan, Mekorot experts warned that if Syria began significant use of the water resources on the Golan plateau, this would reduce the inflow into the Sea of Galilee, raise the lake's level of salinity "so as to render waters of the Sea of Galilee unusable..." and create a situation "which in our assessment ... the Israeli water system will not, under any circumstances, be able to withstand... "(p. 20).

The hydro-strategic importance of Judea and Samaria is reflected in the State Comptroller's report on the management of Israel's water system: "The Mountain Aquifer which extends ... from the slopes of Carmel to Beer Sheva and from the ridges of Samaria and Judea to the coastal plain, constitutes the principal source of drinking water in the country..."

Regarding the vulnerability of this "principal source of drinking water", the Water Commissioner informed the Israeli government that: "The water resources of Judea and Samaria are interlinked with the major water resources of Israel ...It is physically possible to increase the extraction in Judea and Samaria to a level that will force closing down production inside Israel". The Commissioner went on to warn that "another danger to the ground water supplies arises from sewage and other sources of pollution that can result in the contamination of the water supplies (inside Israel)".

A report commissioned from the TAHAL Water Engineering Company cautioned that abandoning Judea and Samaria would "constitute a grave threat to the main water supplies of Israel"(p. 105).

Accordingly, one does not need to be a trained hydrologist to comprehend the significance of all this. All that is required is a rudimentary grasp of basic arithmetic! Withdrawal from Samaria, Judea and the Golan creates a very tangible risk that Israel's water system will be deprived of quantities of water far greater than those that desalination, even on the ambitious scale planned by the government, can contribute within any realistic timeframe.

This means that in order to contend with this grim -- but not inconceivable -- scenario, Israel needs to gear up for the artificial production of water on a scale commensurate with quantities which may be denied it -- in other words, one billion cubic meters over and above the 300-500 million cubic meters required to cope with the current pre-withdrawal deficit.

This is an enterprise of enormous proportions -- far beyond anything envisaged to date. Implementation of such an endeavor has far-reaching ramifications for the energy regime in the country, the configuration of its national infrastructures, and the storage capacity for the desalinated water - in times of low (off-peak) demand for delivery at peak-demand. These and other weighty topics are not even on the agenda of the public debate - despite their crucial importance for the future.

Moreover, even if Israel succeeds in overcoming the huge difficulties involved in the construction of such a giant desalination project, there are still a number of problems that arise from withdrawal from Samaria and the Golan that no desalination plant, whatever its capacity, can deal with.

These include issues which Water Commission experts warned of prior to the 2005 disengagement such as: (a) The threat of crippling the desalination plants themselves due to sewage flows from Gaza into the sea which will carried by northbound marine currents into Israeli waters; (b) The danger for salination and even "desertification" of extensive areas within the 1967 "Green Line" caused by over-exploitation of the ground water in Samaria and which according to the Water Commission's assessment will "devastate agriculture and tourism, and destroy the unique communities in these areas."

In light of these factors one can state with a large measure of confidence that territorial withdrawal will more than nullify any contribution desalination can make to resolving Israel water crisis, transforming it from a panacea to a chimera. This is not ideology, merely hydrology.

Dr. Martin Sherman is a political scientist at Tel Aviv University with degrees in geology, physics, finance and political science. He has written extensively on the politics of water in the Middle East and the necessity for Israel to safeguard its water supply. To read "Water in Israel: the Dry Facts", click here). A sister article by Aubrey Wulfsohn -- click here -- noted that the Gazan Arabs had done wildcat drilling of the local wells and had contaminated the drinking water.

To download a powerpoint presentation of some prepublication material from Dr Sherman's book The Politics of Water in the Middle East: An Israeli Perspective on the Hydro-Political Aspects of the Conflict Click here.

This article was published April 26, 2007 in Ynet News,7340,L-3392229,00.html


Readers' Comments And Interaction With The Author

1. stolen water

you have been stealing water for years from palestinians.

24. #1 stolen water
Martin Sherman (04.26.07)

Theft has nothing to do with the issue. Since the natural flow of the ground water is almost entirely from Samaria and Judea into pre-1967 Israel, and since Israel was utilizing most of this water PRIOR to 1967, by the internationally accepted principle of "PRIOR USE" Israel as an absolutely legitimate claim on these waters (as well by other accepted principles). This, by the way, is precisely the concept on which Egypt bases its claim to the waters of the Nile which originates in other downstream states, and over which it is overtly and assertively ready to go to war.

28.Finally, The Real Reason For The 1967 War Admitted.
Fred Farkelsteinman, NY, NY USA (04.26.07)

Finally the truth about Israel's aggression in 1967 is admitted openly, and it was not anything Nasser did, but Israel's greed for the water resources of others. Israel has been lying for years claiming that it needed to continue the occupation of Arab lands for security reasons, when in fact the only reason was to steal water. Joining Judaism does not grant one land rights over the indigenous Arab population already living there, so this revelation of why Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967 is just one more reason that the occupied lands must be returned to its former owners. Arab countries must unilaterally declare peace with Israel if Israel once again rejects peace and force the implementation of UNSCR 242's conditions upon Israel through economic sanctions etc. It is time for Justice to return to the region, and the era of Israeli aggression to be ended once and for all.

29. #28 May I suggest historical accuracy?
Martin Sherman (04.27.07)

You should check your historical facts.

1. There was no need for Irael to take the "West Bank" to acquire the water in this area as it flowed naturally into its pre-67 territory anyway (see #24 above)

2. While it might be claimed that Israel initiated a (justifiable) preemptive strike against Syrian and Egypt, this was certainly not the case against Jordan which attacked Israel at its own initiative (despite of being beseeched not to) and thus lost the "West Bank" and access to its water resources This would not have happened had it refrained from hostilities (as, by and large, it did in 1973 and thus remained unscathed).

3. It was the Syrians who tried to divert the head waters of the Jordan and to deprive Israel of them -- well before the 1967 war. This attempt was thwarted by Israeli military action before Syria lost the Golan and thus in1967 these waters continued to flow into Israel. Accordingly, there was no need to initiate war to gain use of them.

4. What "water motive" could there possibly be for attacking Egypt who by international law had committed an act of war against Israel by closing the international navigation routes in the Red Sea??? I am sure that you will agree that taking the parched Sinai desert did little to increase Israel's water resources

5. Even if Israel relinquished all the "West Bank" and Golan, it would still have valid claim to the all the water it has today on the basis of well recognized international principles including "Prior Use". Moreover, as previously mentioned, in the absence of Arab actions to deprive Israel of these waters, they would flow into Israel anyway. But would you recommend that it trust the Syrians and the Hamas to respect this right and indeed refrain from depriving Israel of the water to which it has a valid claim???

34. #29 May I (again) suggest accuracy?
Martin Sherman (04.27.07)

a) "Prior Use" was NOT established as a result of the taking over the "West Bank" but before that since, as I mentioned Israel was using most of the ground water of the aquifer from inside pre-67 lines because of the direction of the subterranean flow. You seem unable to grasp this

b) While it is true that Palestinian farmers were not been permitted to drill wells at will, similar restrictions apply to Israeli farmers as well. Severe restrictions on drilling and extraction rates in the Mountain Aquifer were enforced in regard to Israelis west of the 'Green Line' prior to the '67 take-over of the 'West Bank'. After this, essentially the same well drilling and pumping restrictions were extended to these territories

c) It is true that the fresh water allocation to Palestinian farmers has not been increased, but for Israeli farmers it has been REDUCED - and significantly so over recent years. Moreover, in spite this, the scale Palestinian agriculture developed dramatically under Israeli administration: The overall area under cultivation increased by 160% while agricultural output increased 12 fold (by 1200%!) in the period 1967-1989. This is a result of the adoption of modern water-efficient irrigation techniques such as sprinklers and drip irrigation by Palestinian farmers, instead of open channel or rain fed irrigation that were prevalent before Israeli administration in these areas. Of course sine the establishment of Palestinian administration most of these achievements have been lost.

d) With regard to urban usage, the Palestinian household consumption of water rose dramatically under Israeli rule - by almost 600% from 1967 -89, from 5.6 mill. cu.m. to 32 Out of the roughly 430 towns and villages in Judea and Samaria only 50 were connected to a running water system in June 1967. By comparison this figure rose to 260 by 1.10. 91. In the period 1967 -89 Israeli domestic usage rose from 211 mill cu. m. to 495 mill cu. m or approximately 230%- much less than 600% increase Palestinian domestic usage in the same period. These figures hardly lend credence to the charges of an Israeli policy of blatant deprivation and callous neglect of Palestinian needs

e) Numerous reports abound of incidents where new Israeli drilling operations have allegedly dried out existing Palestinian springs and shallow wells. However hydrological studies prove that there is usually no physical connections between the deep strata feeding the Israeli wells and the shallow strata feeding the Palestinian sources such as in the Ouja region near Jericho where The fact that the two sources are indeed isolated and independent of each other, is confirmed not only by the totally different depths, but also by the totally different composition and concentration of dissolved solids in the water derived from them There is thus no truth in the emotionally charged claim that Israel has deprived the villagers of their water source. Indeed, springs and wells such as those at Ouja, whose flows ceased or were drastically reduced during the severe drought of 1989-91, were revived after the heavy rains of 1991-92, showing conclusively that they were afflicted by seasonal fluctuations in precipitation, rather than being permanently undercut by deeper Israeli drilling

f) There have, however, been several instances where Israeli drilling and pumping operations have indeed lowered the water table, adversely affecting the supply in some shallow wells and springs, such as in the case of Bard'le in the Jordan Valley. In virtually all these cases, not only have the Palestinians been compensated by an alternative supply, but their water situation has actually been improved by the new supply, since this is being delivered by more advanced methods (in a pressurized pipe-line rather than a free flowing seasonal source) allowing more efficient and effective use of the water, particularly with regard to irrigation techniques.

35. Hogging the water?
Wolfram, USA (04.28.07)

I have no reason to question Martin Sherman's statistics (#34), but several numbers are -- if I read them correctly -- a bit eyebrow-raising. Citing 1989 figures (more recent ones would be useful), he notes that Palestinian urban domestic water usage was 32 million cubic m while Israeli citydwellers consumed 495 million cubic m.

Given urban populations of roughly 2 million Palestinians vs. 6 million Israelis, this would indicate that urban Israelis received and consumed about 7.5 times as much water as their Palestinian counterparts.

Does this jibe with Sherman's assertion that "these figures hardly lend credence to the charges of an Israeli policy of blatant deprivation and callous neglect of Palestinian needs"?

36. #35 No Hogging of water
Martin Sherman (04.28.07)

1. The figures for Palestinian domestic use do not represent water QUOTAS but water CONSUMPTION. Water was not rationed to the domestic Palestinian consumer, so the consumption figures represent ACTUAL DEMAND not IMPOSED DEPRIVATION.

2. What you should be looking at is the demand in the pre-1967 period which reflects the level of consumption under JORDANIAN rule and them compare with that under Israeli administration - and draw the obvious conclusion a regarding the dramatic rise in living standards that were achieved under alleged Israeli "oppression".

3. As for the currency of the figures, remember that in the early 90s Israeli administration was withdrawn from the "West Bank" -- and the less said about the reliability of the statistics since them, the better. Moreover, water piracy and neglect of infrastructure (including losses due to leakage) during this period are liable to thwart even the most sincere efforts at accuracy

37. The back-and-forth with Sherman is nearly as valuable ...
sk, USA (04.28.07)

as the essay. In dealing with a scarce resource (water) that can be measured over time and that has properties that are well known, we have great leverage in analyzing the political rhetoric around the issue.

We are as close to a "critical test" as we can be. The Pals and leftists have failed, needless to say.

38. #36 - I'm still unconvinced
Wolfram, USA (04.29.07)

Whether or not formal "quotas" are applied is irrelevant if actual supply or availability is physically limited by infrastructure (or lack thereof). Consumption levels necessarily depend on available supply. Given the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian per capita consumptions, then, I am inclined to wonder: Under Israeli administration, has there been anything approaching parity in infrastructural investment and consequent supply for both Israeli and Palestinian citydwellers?

How else is this disparity to be explained? Is it because urban Palestinians take fewer showers than Israelis, don't use flush toilets, don't water their lawns, don't have swimming pools?

Further : if 1989 Israeli water consumption is deemed "satisfactory" or "decent" or "adequate for normal life," how would you characterize Palestinian per capita consumption, which -- after 20 years of Israeli administration -- is one-fifth as great?

Conversely, if Palestinian water consumption is deemed "satisfactory," how would you characterize an Israeli consumption that is five times greater? Extravagant? Wasteful? If that is the case, I suggest that Israel's impending water crisis might be alleviated by simply requiring Israelis to cut down on their consumption by four-fifths.

40. # 38 In California for example
Martin Sherman (04.29.07)

The urban consumer in California, where there is also a problem of water shortage, uses between 2-3 times that of the Israeli urban consumer. This difference is not because of greater restrictions on the Israeli consumer or inadequate infrastructure relative to his Californian counterpart, but because of range of socio-economic, cultural and lifestyle factors including the prevalence parks, private and public gardens, water-related recreation activities etc. These have little to do with restrictions or infrastructure investments. Even within the Jewish population of Israel there are vast differences between the domestic water consumption rates of various socio-economic groups. Californians, Israeli and Palestinians all have taps, which as a rule, deliver water whenever they are opened. How often and how long they are opened depends on the decision of the individual consumer and not on the discriminatory cessation of supply to households.

41. The "hogging" question, again
RedStarYeast, USA (04.30.07)

Sherman's numbers are a bit confusing ("simple arithmetic" doesn't suffice!), but I take from them that 1) Israel's own water extraction (its "deficit") is 300-500 million cu m/year; and 2) to fulfill its actual consumption, Israel further extracts two or three times that amount (1 billion cu m) from the occupied territories/Golan. The subtext of Sherman's article is, then, that Israel does not limit its consumption to its own resources, cannot afford to lose this "borrowed" water and therefore cannot afford to end the occupation. This does not say much for Israel's self-sufficiency as a nation nor does it bode well for any prospect of peace between Israel and its neighbors.

44. 41 (RedStarYeast): try looking at the text ...
sk, USA (04.30.07)

... before bothering with the subtext. As Sherman notes in #24, Egypt relies on the same legal principle that Israeli does for its use of the Nile water. Is Egypt therefore not "self-sufficient"? Is it "stealing water"? Israel doesn't "borrow" water; it has rights to the water. There is a body of international law that applies--and it applies even when it benefits the Jewish state. Sorry.

Frankly, when a state threatens another's water supply, that is indeed an act of war. Israel's hostile neighbors already launch rockets and missiles into Israel. You think they wouldn't mess with Israel's water supply? You see, RSY, one reason there is law governing water is to avoid the need for countries to go to war about the matter.

Anyway, the Pals are squatters on Jewish land; there is no "occupation" as the only Pal state was to be Jordan.


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