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Monday, March 15, 1999 Published at 15:58 GMT

World: Middle East

Drought 'forces Israel to break treaty'

Sea of Galilee at lowest level for decades

Israel is looking to reduce the amount of water it supplies to Jordan because of a worsening drought in the region.

Jerusalem Correspondent Paul Adams: "Region heading for a severe water crisis"
Israel, which supplies agreed levels of water to Jordan under terms of the 1994 peace accords, says it cannot meet it commitments.

Israel says water levels are at their lowest in decades and cuts to its own farmers, as well as to Jordan, are necessary.

But Jordan, which is heavily reliant on Israeli water, has rejected the Israeli proposal.

Water is a scarce commodity in the arid Middle East and Jordan and Israel are a rare example of neighbours agreeing water-sharing rights.

[ image: Golan, occupied by Israel and source of the water]
Golan, occupied by Israel and source of the water
Israel's water commissioner, Meir Ben Meir, says the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main reservoir of drinking water, is at its lowest level since 1908.

"We must face the facts; it is impossible that Israel alone should have to carry the burden of this severe drought," he told the BBC Arabic Service.

"We are suffering a deficit of 60% in the Sea of Galilee this year. Jordan is suffering a similar deficit in our mutual source, the Yarmouk River, so I proposed to the Jordanians that we both share the deficit."

Mr Ben Meir did not say how much water Israel is, or is not, going to give Jordan, but the Jordanians have rejected any reduction.

Explosive issue

Israel is bound to supply Jordan with 55 million cubic metres of water each year from the Yarmouk river, which runs into the Sea of Galilee between Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan.

The Yarmouk's headwaters rise in Syria, and correspondents say the river has the potential to be an explosive issue in a region fraught with political and environmental threats.

Both Israel and Jordan have expressed concerns about unilateral Syrian actions which have affected the quality and level of the river.

Jordanian Water Minister Kamil Mahadin, also speaking to the Arabic Service, said Jordan was facing domestic water cuts anyway and Israel had no right to ask Jordan to share Israeli difficulties.

"This agreement is binding," he said. "There is no room for debate over our share - Israel is meant to provide us with a certain quantity of water."

Water scandal

Last summer, a scandal over drinking water in Amman led to the sacking of Mr Mahadin's predecessor, Munther Haddadin.

Foul tasting and smelling water came out of the taps in the Jordanian capital for a month between July and August.

[ image: Haddadin, failing to make his point last summer]
Haddadin, failing to make his point last summer
Some critics of the government even accused Israel of being behind the pollution, in the shape of the then Infrastructure Minister, Ariel Sharon.

Water Ministry officials blamed the problem on high summer temperatures leading to a build-up of algae in the capital's Zai dam.

But observers say, if the Yarmouk problem cannot be solved, there could be a lot more anger in Jordan over this most sensitive of subjects.

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