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Sunday, 9 January, 2000, 01:28 GMT
Water wars and peace

An Ein el-Tina resident waves to relatives across the Golan
By Middle East correspondent Paul Adams

The Middle East has been buffeted by some stormy weather this week and almost 10cm of rain fell on Tel Aviv in a matter of 24 hours.

Despite the inconvenience of temporary flooding, the rain was greeted as good news by the people of a dry, increasingly thirsty region.

Middle East
So scarce are the water supplies of the region that some have predicted that it will be water, not oil or land, that triggers the next Middle East war.

A week ago I was bumping across the desert in a convoy of what the Americans like to call recreational vehicles. Still bleary eyed from New Year's Eve celebrations in Bethlehem the night before, we'd loaded up with charcoal and meat, the odd bottle of champagne, and were heading for a barbecue in the wilderness.

This is a landscape that seems to have changed little in 2,000 - since Jesus was born just a few miles away across the rocky Judean hills.

Unseasonably hot

Out here in the desert, you wouldn't be a bit surprised to chance upon a left over Biblical prophet - a wild eyed, bearded Elijah or Moses, ranting about God and eating thorns. In a place where past and present seem entirely meaningless, this felt like just the spot in which to spend the first day of the future.

It was a flawless day too - the dust from a dozen 4x4 vehicles rising into a clear blue sky. The sun was blazing - it was unseasonably hot. Finally reaching our destination - a dramatic escarpment, 1,000ft or more above the still, salty water of the Dead Sea - we piled out and set about the serious business of eating.

Two days later, and there was a slight chill in the air. The wag who writes weather forecasts for Israel's daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, said the country would be blessed with rain by the end of the day. Winter, he wrote, is expected to last at least until Thursday.

The following day, mist and rain descended on Jerusalem as if they had never been away. The forecaster's headline read 'Farmer's delight'. Another 24 hours later, the wind howled around the house and rain lashed the hillsides, seeping in through cracks in the wall and collecting in pools underneath the Christmas tree.

Children have been enjoying the snow falls
Driving home that night, my heart leapt at the brief appearance of a blizzard. Four days after our sun-drenched desert barbecue, it was snowing.

As I write, the clouds linger and it's still cold. The snow, unfortunately, never settled. It hasn't rained for a day or so, but it seems there's more on the way. The Ha'aretz forecaster, his first flush of enthusiasm at the appearance of winter now over, says simply that it'll be a rainy weekend.

All of which will be of more than passing interest to Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, who's been locked away for a week at the West Virginia retreat of Shepherdstown, involved in difficult peace negotiations with Syria's foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

One of four main issues on the agenda is water. Israel gets as much as 30% of its supplies from the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Handing over the Heights might bring Syria back to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which, despite its name, is a lake where much of the Golan's water collects.

Worst drought

So sensitive is the question of water and who will control the area's precious reserves in the future, that a special negotiating committee devoted to the issue has yet to meet.

Of course, if Messrs Barak and al-Sharaa were representing countries in western Europe or North America, water might not seem like such a big deal.

But the Middle East is different. It has the lowest per capita water supplies in the world and it's in the middle of the worst drought in 60 years. Some areas are better off than others, but in the overcrowded Gaza Strip, for example, Palestinians have access to 50 times less water than most Americans.

The Sea of Galilee, itself, is in trouble. This week's rains have raised the water level by 7cm, but it's still well below the red line - the mark below which further pumping is thought to represent a threat.

Last year, Israeli farmers found their allocations cut by more than 50%. Oddly enough, domestic use was unaffected. There were no hosepipe bans. No-one told you to put a brick in your toilet.

The spinkler system which automatically waters my garden in summer continued to operate as if nothing was wrong. It seems no-one has ever dared tell the Israeli public to exercise restraint.

Becoming a luxury

In Jewish settlements, scattered about the barren hills of the West Bank, Israelis from America and Britain do their best to recreate the suburban lives they've left behind. And no suburb is complete without manicured lawns and a swimming pool.

The Palestinians, rather more familiar with the business of husbanding the natural resources of the land, make do without these imported luxuries.

But water itself is becoming a luxury - soon Israel may be forced to import it too. There's already talk of buying supplies from Israel's new regional ally, Turkey. But getting it here - either through a pipeline laid under the Mediterranean or in vast, converted oil-tankers - would be costly.

Another expensive option is desalination. Governments have been talking about it for years, but have yet to make the necessary investment.

Israel is not the only country that will have to make difficult decisions about water in the years ahead. The region as a whole must learn to co-operate or face crisis after crisis.

Perhaps Israel's peace agreement with Syria will point the way ahead.
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See also:

08 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Peace talkers study key paper
28 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Middle East prays for rain
24 Sep 99 |  Middle East
Drought hits Jordan and Syria
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