Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

Will The Next Mideast War Be Fought Over Water?

The supply of water is a matter of life and death, war and peace for the peoples of the Middle East. For Israel, water is a key element of the peace process. A Jerusalem Post headline concisely stated the security threat, "The hand that controls the faucet rules the country."

Israel has three main water sources: the coastal and mountain aquifers and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Each supply approximately 25% of the total water consumed in Israel. Roughly 20% is derived from smaller aquifers. The remaining 5% comes from recycled sewage.

If Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it could severely compromise Israel’s water supply even if its intentions were not malevolent. For example, simply increasing the population in the area would produce sewage and other contaminants that could pollute the Kinneret. A belligerent Syria could divert water to deprive Israel of water at any time. The effort to do so in 1965-66 was one of the causes of the Six-Day War.

Any peace treaty would have to ensure Israel's water rights, but can Israel afford to put one-third of its water supply at the mercy of a foreign power, especially one whose leaders have talked about denying Israel all "Arab water." Ultimately, Israel may have to choose between water and peace with Syria.

Israel's water security is further threatened by the fact that the mountain aquifer, which supplies most of the drinking water for the major cities, is partially located in the West Bank. Even if a future Palestinian state had peaceful intentions, it could significantly reduce the water available to Israel because of the need to satisfy the needs of its own population. Today, unauthorized Palestinian drilling of wells in the West Bank affects the quality of the aquifer. Without any other water source, the Palestinians will be tempted to pump more out of the aquifer to meet their needs and thereby inundate it with seawater. The poor quality of PA water treatment facilities, mismanagement, neglect, and the low priority placed on environmental issues increases the likelihood that the aquifer will be polluted and its quality reduced perhaps to the point of being undrinkable. This has already occurred in the Gaza Strip where the sole aquifer is unusable because of contamination and salinity.

To secure its water future, Israel would need to maintain control over three West Bank regions comprising 20% of the land; however, it has said it is prepared to give up control of the mountain aquifer. This would make Israel dependent on the goodwill of the Palestinians to protect the quality of the water and to ensure Israel continues to receive sufficient water to meet its needs.

One reason for optimism is that Israelis and Palestinians have made efforts to protect the water supply. In 2001, the two parties issued a joint call to refrain from harming the water infrastructure and water supply to both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel has also resisted the temptation to use water as a weapon and continued to supply water promised to the Palestinian Authority.

If Israel sees its water supply or quality endangered, it will have to decide whether to take military action to stop the drilling of wells, or the diversion of water, or to seize the water source. What level of provocation would the UN or the United States find sufficient to justify Israeli action? What, if anything, would those parties be prepared to do to prevent the interdiction of Israeli water supplies? The historical answer to that question is not encouraging.

The most popular idea for alleviating Israel's water shortage is desalination. In 2000, Israel launched a Desalination Master Plan that envisioned the construction of a series of plants along the Mediterranean coast. The first of these was built in Ashkelon in 2005. The plant is expected to provide approximately 5% to 6% of Israel's total water needs.

Desalination is not a panacea. It can ameliorate Israel's water problems, but not solve them. The plants are expensive, take a long time to build, use a lot of energy, and will not supply as much water as Israel will need. They also make tempting targets for terrorists.

Despite fears that water could become a flashpoint for conflict, Israel and its neighbors have for the last several decades been more successful in cooperating in resolving water disputes than other issues. Moreover, past negotiations and proposed peace plans have demonstrated that water will not be the principal factor in determining territorial concessions; strategic, economic, and political concerns will hold greater weight in the calculus of decision makers. The complexity of the issue led both sides to delay resolving it, but an agreement must be reached to avoid future conflagrations over water.