Could Israel die of thirst?

Posted: Nov 12, 2002 12:00 AM
Last night, the Washington area was drenched overnight by a steady, hours-long downpour. As the rain fell, a natural first reaction was gratitude that the drought that had been afflicting our region would be eased somewhat as reservoirs, rivers and wells inched back towards normal levels. No such relief is in prospect for Israel, an arid nation that even in good times contends with water shortfalls that make those confronting Washington and other parts of the United States pale by comparison. At the moment, however, the Jewish State confronts a combination of forces -- a meteorological drought, regional efforts to deny it access to water and misbegotten U.S. diplomacy -- that could threaten Israel's very existence. An Israeli online publication called Globes reported on November 6 that Israel's Meteorological Service is forecasting a winter drought over the period from December 2002 to February 2003, historically the country's wettest months. If the predictions prove accurate, Israel will see little precipitation, prompting its Water Commissioner, Shimon Tal, to warn that "Israel's reservoirs will be empty by the end of the 2003 winter, posing a real threat to the supply of drinking water." According to Mr. Tal, "this situation will last until the desalination facilities [being built in Israel] are fully operational and other water sources, including imports in 2004, are created, which will provide 400 million cubic meters of water a year." Unfortunately, Israel's access to drinking water could be even more dramatically afflicted, and for a far longer time, if one or more of the following eventuate: o Lebanon has unilaterally initiated a program to provide water for communities in its south by tapping the Wazzani Spring, a tributary to the Hatzbani River that flows, in turn, into Israel's Sea of Galilee. By some estimates, Lebanon controls as much as 20% of the Jewish State's fresh water resources and its plan for the Wazzani would divert as much as 50 million cubic meters a year from downstream Israel. According to the Jerusalem Post, "This is the same amount of water Israel supplies to Jordan each year under the peace accord between the two countries and more than the allotted amount given to the Palestinians. It is equivalent to the quantity of fresh water proposed to be imported from Turkey and the total annual production capacity of a major seawater desalination plant." In the face of Israel's already acute drought, the prospect of the loss of the Wazzani water prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to warn that Israel would take militarily action to destroy Lebanon's new pumping station. This threat brought promises of retaliation from Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorists and called to mind a similar moment in the mid-1960s when Israeli artillery fired on Syrian positions in order to prevent Damascus' diversion of the Banias River. Newsday recently noted that this, in turn "trigger[ed] a series of skirmishes that eventually led to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war." o Matters would be made considerably worse if the aforementioned fresh water Turkey had promised to sell Israel is not forthcoming. On October 20, the Middle East News Line reported that Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Yusuf Buluc announced that "Israel and Turkey had agreed that Israel will purchase 50 million cubic meters per year for a period of 20 years, and the Turkish side again approved its commitment." Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, a victory in parliamentary elections by an Islamist party raised questions about whether this strategically important transaction will ever be consummated. The Associated Press reported on November 6 that "Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, said Turks consider Israel's policies toward Palestinians to be 'terrorism.'" While he went on to aver that "Turkey would not link its close economic relations with Israel to popular anger," Erdogan nonetheless signaled that such anger could prove inimical to ties between the two countries -- presumably including water sales: "The whole Turkish population is very critical of what is going on in Palestine. Our public does not view this as anything anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. They see it as the terrorism of Sharon." o Then there is the "Road-map" being touted by the Bush Administration and its partners in the so-called "Quartet" (the European Union, Russia and the United Nations). This plan would call for Israel to relinquish to a new Palestinian state control over territory that would encompass many watersheds of the West Bank. Since roughly 40% of Israel's fresh water comes from such sources, the prospect that a future Palestinian government would act as Syria has done in the past and as Lebanon (Syria's colony) is doing now, by unilaterally diverting vital water from Israeli cities and farms, is clearly an intolerable one for the Jewish State. A "comprehensive settlement" of the sort fancied by the Quartet would also require Israel to give back to Syria the Golan Heights, whose watersheds provide Israel with another 30% of its fresh water. Even if such a territorial concession were prudent militarily -- and it is not under present and foreseeable circumstances -- it could be tantamount to state-icide. No amount of conservation would enable Israel's economy and society to subsist, let alone to thrive, in the face of the cumulative effects of all these reductions in water supply. The recent sniper attacks in the Washington area gave Americans an appreciation of the traumatizing uncertainty that has for years been the lot in life of many Israelis: Will I be capriciously murdered today? The droughts being experienced by many parts of the United States should similarly sensitize us to an existential question that Israelis have to confront on a national level: Will their country be forced to choose between dying of thirst or having again to wage war in order to secure necessary water resources?