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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Middle East Troubled Waters: Mountain Aquifer

Air Date: Week of

Water is a source of conflict between Isreal and nearly all its neighbors. The struggle over land could just as easily be called a struggle over water, for without water, land produces little. In part one of our special series examining water in the Middle East, "Troubled Waters", Living On Earth's Sandy Tolan examines how water inequities are fueling tensions between the Palestianians and the Israelis.


CURWOOD: Since civilization began, men and women have gathered at the well. For at the well is the source of life: water. And so it still is here at the edge of a field of squash and cucumbers near the town of Hebron in the West Bank.

(A man speaks in Arabic)

CURWOOD: Water is also the source of conflict between Israel and nearly all its neighbors. Just one example: in April 1967, when Syria began construction to divert the Jordan River across the Golan Heights, Israel bombed the project. Two months later, during the 6-day war, Israel captured the Golan Heights, thwarting any future plans to capture the River Jordan. Today, we continue our special series examining water in the Middle East. In this installment of Troubled Waters, Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan examines how water is fueling tension between the Palestinians who need it and the Israelis who control it.

(A beeper goes off. Several voices on site and over radio, in Hebrew)

TOLAN: In a cool, carpeted, softly-lit room, a young engineer named Moshe sits in a swivel chair in front of a control panel and a pair of computer screens. We're in Israel's Water Control Station outside of Tel Aviv. The powerful computers in front of Moshe link him to hundreds of miles of pipeline.

MOSHE: We control here something like 70, 75% of the pipes and the reservoir.

(More voices)

TOLAN: This is the nerve center of a dream, a dream to capture the River Jordan and other Middle East waters and make the land of Israel bloom. The flow begins at the Sea of Galilee and courses south through pipelines on its way to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and farms in the desert. If there's a problem along the way, Moshe is likely to know about it. His computers receive messages from hundreds of pumping stations along the pipeline. It's one of the most sophisticated water delivery systems in the world.

MOSHE: Well, all the sides are connected to this control center, and they get the information here every 20 minutes.

MAN: Hello, Shamati, Shamati, Shamati!

TOLAN: This morning a vegetable farmer's pipes are dry. He's irate.

MOSHE: If I can't solve the problem from here, I solve it from here.

TOLAN: So you hit a couple of keys? What do you do to solve the problem?

MOSHE: Usually we use the mouse, yeah like this. I show you.

TOLAN: Moshe zooms in on the pipeline, locates the pump, and with the click of the mouse turns it back on.

(Beepers sound)

TOLAN: In a few minutes water will be flowing again.

(More voices, on site and over radio. Fade to a woman shouting)

TOLAN: Bhutta Aziz walks barefoot on a roof in the tiny West Bank village of Bidu. The roof is concrete, flat with a slight incline and a drain at the end. When it rains, water runs down a pipe and into an old stone cistern. Just west is an Israeli settlement, its orange roofs sloping toward the ground.

AZIZ: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: One Israeli settlement gets as much as 7 Palestinian villages here.

TOLAN: The family's had no running water for 2 months. They can't afford the water trucks. The price of a tankful is half a day's wage for Mr. Aziz, who paints houses for the Israelis. So this morning Bhutta dips into the cistern, pouring water into a small row of 3-gallon jugs.

(Water pours)

TOLAN: She says that's all the family of 9 will use today.

(A pail hits the ground)

AZIZ: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: This season I haven't been able to wash my curtains or rugs or the windows because I have other priorities. I do dishwashing but I don't allow my daughter to help me because I'm afraid she would waste the water.

(Liquid pours)

TOLAN: Bhutta serves us Tang in a glass of rainwater, and then she and her husband and sisters invite us inside.

(Many voices, children)

TOLAN: In the verandah a vine grows from a coffee cup, spreading out across the ceiling. It gets one cup of water a week. We can see our reflections in the black faux marble floors.

AZIZ: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: We clean our houses every day, and as Moslems we have to wash up 5 times a day before we pray.

(More voices and children)

TOLAN: In the kitchen there is a sink and a water spout, but nothing in the pipes.

Fish. Fish means nothing?

(More voices)

TOLAN: It's not as if the region is dry. Beneath the family's feet there is a huge underground lake. It's called the Mountain Aquifer because it comes from rain falling in the mountains of the West Bank. Nearly all the aquifer lies beneath the West Bank, with a small tip extending below Israel. But during 3 decades of Israeli occupation, Palestinians have not been allowed to drill a well without permission from military authorities, and that's rarely been granted. Under the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel has allowed a few new wells, but little has changed across the West Bank. And nothing here in the village of Bidu.

(A motor revs up)

AZIZ: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: We've sent protests and letters to the water authority, but Israel is deaf to all complaints. The Israelis fly reconnaissance planes, and if they discover a new well, they come and close it. Even if you want a new modern toilet, they can close it down if you don't have a permit. We were hoping the Palestinian authority would solve our problems, but they're powerless. We scream and nobody answers. There's no life. Maybe we have to defeat Israel to live like human beings. We have God. That's all we have.

(Motor continues)

TOLAN: Clouds of dust rise up in the wake of the water truck rumbling by. The family watches it pass, moving south toward Jerusalem. In many parts of the West Bank now, the simple dignities of life a bath, a freshly-mopped floor, a cold glass of water are more and more like luxuries.

(Voices speaking in Arabic)

TOLAN: In Hebron, south of Jerusalem, many people are down to one bath a week.

(Voices continue)

TOLAN: As part of the peace process, Hebron was divided in two: one Palestinian-controlled area, and one under Israeli military control. One afternoon we find ourselves in the remnants of Hebron's old Arab market. Israeli soldiers walk a slow, deliberate patrol, protecting the settlers and their homes behind guard posts and fluttering plastic flags of Israel. Arab fruit vendors do a grim business, their faces sour and weary. Business is down sharply. No rocks or rubber bullets are flying today, yet you can feel the tension. In January an Israeli soldier went crazy here and started shooting Palestinians.

(Voices in Arabic)

TOLAN: Suddenly an Arab man grabs a watermelon and smashes it on the ground.

(Sound of watermelon smashing. Voices continue.)

TOLAN: He takes some bananas he's bought and stomps on them, and stalks off in anger.

(Stomping and squishing sounds)

TOLAN: Pink juice from the melon trickles down the asphalt and gathers in a pool.

(Voices continue)

ISAAC: Water for us is becoming thicker than blood, you know?

TOLAN: Jad Isaac is an analyst with the Applied Research Institute, a private think tank in Bethlehem. He says rage is building from inequities over water.

ISAAC: They see swimming pools in the settlements, lawns and sprinklers going during the hot days, while they do not have water to give to their children to drink. There's no justice, that a settler can enjoy all the water that he needs, and this water is not his water. It's Palestinian water, and he is a settler, a colonialist, while the native Palestinian who has been for centuries, he's not allowed to have his own water.

(Voices speaking in Hebrew)

TOLAN: Ten miles and a world away, in his office in the Israeli Knesset, I ask Agriculture Minister Rafael EItan about these accusations. Are Israelis stealing Palestinian water? EItan jabs his finger toward me, fixing me in his gaze.

EITAN: [Speaks in Hebrew]
TRANSLATOR: You are perhaps a naive person who has been sucked into a culture that may be based on lies and deception. There are 3 aspects of Arab culture that meet you in this story: deception, lies, and pretentiousness.

TOLAN: Minister EItan is hard line even for the ruling Likud government. He once called Palestinians "cockroaches in a bottle." He was instrumental in supporting early settlers in the West Bank. Today he has a few simple words about land and water in the mountainous West Bank.

EITAN: [Speaks in Hebrew]
TRANSLATOR: He says it's ours. This is ours. Our whole connection to the land of Israel is on the mountain region. That is what it is based on. He says I have no doubt about Israel's right to be there, and to rule that area.

TOLAN: In 1990 the Agriculture Ministry under Rafael Eitan's direction published a full-page ad in the Jerusalem Post warning of the mortal danger of giving up control of the water lying beneath the West Bank. But it's not just Israeli hard-liners who lay claim to the mountain aquifer. Hillel Shuval is a strong supporter of the Oslo peace process and of accommodation with the Palestinians. He's a professor of environmental science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He says Israel's rights to use that water began long before the occupation.

SHUVAL: Going back 80 years, Jewish farmers in the Jordan Valley and the Jezreel Valley and the lowlands started pumping water from the Mountain Aquifer, and Palestinians pumped water from the Mountain Aquifer, and there were no constraints. But in effect, the Israeli water companies, the Israeli farmers, use modern drilling techniques, invested a lot of money, they thought water was very important. And de facto, before 1967, some 80% of the water of the Mountain Aquifer was pumped by Israelis within the boundaries of Israel, and that was the status quo at the time of the occupation. This water was not stolen from the Palestinians. They were not cheated out of the water. It's just a historic fact that the Israelis used it first. Now, according to international law, international law recognizes the right of prior use.

TOLAN: Israelis say it's not fair to compare our water lifestyles. We're a developed nation and you're still developing. Palestinians counter: who was it that kept us down during 3 decades of occupation, using soldiers to prevent us from drilling wells? Both sides say they have international law on their side. Both sides say they simply want to realize their dreams. It's an endless argument full of claims and counter-claims. Whatever the truth amidst the invective, it's clear that with a blend of technological prowess and military force, Israel now controls vast amounts of water beyond its borders. That control allows it to use more than 3 times as much water per capita. It's allowed Israel to absorb massive waves of Russian Jews. And it's helped fulfill a dream that's survived for centuries in the Jewish diaspora.

BASKIN: It has to do with the ethos of Zionism, of the national liberation movement and the Jewish people, was to turn the Jewish people from non- landowners to landowners. To turn them into farmers, to dig their hands into the soil, to reconnect them to the land of Israel.

TOLAN: Gershon Baskin is co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, a Jerusalem thinktank.

BASKIN: The most connected people to land are people who work the soil. So it has a lot to do with the whole national mythology of who we are, of where we are, of our connection to the place that we live. Jews for 2,000 years wandered. They weren't connected to any one place. Here in the land of Israel, all the historical heritage, planting the roots was more than a metaphor. It meant to plant people physically in the earth.

(A water sprinkler)

TOLAN: It's here in the Negev Desert, where some Israelis are playing out the Zionist dream.

DINSEN: As we speak, I get goosebumps. I've been here for 25 years. I can say that with my hands I made the desert bloom.

TOLAN: At 17, Seymour Dinsen didn't quite picture himself as an Israeli farmer. His parents owned a grocery shop in the Bronx. The neighborhood was in transition, he says. His parents wanted him to have some Jewish friends. So Seymour joined a Zionist youth movement.

DINSEN: I fell in love with Israel. Today I can't imagine myself not being a farmer.

(Sprinklers continue)

TOLAN: Now Seymour grows vegetables in desert sand. We stand before rows of potato plants stretching nearly to the horizon. Each acre gets about 2,000 gallons a day: part Jordan River water, part from the Mountain Aquifer, part from aquifers in Israel. It arrives via pipeline to this desert kibbutz not far from the Egyptian border. When combined with healthy doses of chemical and organic fertilizer, this sweet water makes the desert come alive.

DINSEN: Without that water, we wouldn't be able to grow potatoes. We wouldn't be able to grow anything.

(Traffic sounds in the background)

DINSEN: I mean you can see, there's green all around, whether it's potatoes or watermelons or onion seed.

(Traffic sounds continue)

DINSEN: All of this without water, it wouldn't be here. There would be sand. Just sand and sand.

TOLAN: Israel is famous for its water-saving drip irrigation, and many crops now grow in treated wastewater. Yet water is still cheap, so there's little incentive for conservation. In many Israeli towns, lush greenery adorns the boulevards. On the kibbutz, Seymour doesn't pay full cost for water, so he's not forced to save. The fresh water on the fields of this single kibbutz would supply 40 average-sized Palestinian villages that currently have no running water. Even in their homes kibbutzers here use 10 times the water of an average Palestinian.

You know, one might also say, look, why should this kibbutz be using fresh water when there's such a water shortage very close by?

DINSEN: I have to make a living.

(Water sprinklers continue)

DINSEN: The State of Israel gave me my allotment of water to make a living as an agricultural community. I want to make a living. If I can't make a living because the water prices are too high, if we're talking again about the water, I won't use the water. I feel for people who are in a worse economical state than I am. Question is, how responsible am I? It's unfair. It's unfair. But life is unfair. Life is unfair, what can you do?

(Traffic sounds continue. Fade to a door opening and closing, bird song)

TOLAN: At a farm near the West Bank town of Jenin, Mohammad Tershon, a young hydrologist just out of university, says like his Israeli counterparts Palestinian farmers have their own dreams.

TERSHON: Until now, as a Palestinian, we haven't our key for our house. How can you feel secure without having any key to open your house? And as Palestinians, until now we haven't our key. Our key is water and land, and also the control of our borders.

TOLAN: A half-mile from Israel's border, we stand by a patchwork of vegetable fields interspersed with fallow land. Fallow, Mohammad says, because since the Israeli village to the west sunk a thousand-meter well back in 1973, many of the old Palestinian wells here have gone dry.

TERSHON: You see, that land was irrigated. But after drilling the Israeli wells, it become rain-fed agriculture, wheat and barley and some forages, which depend on rainfall to survive. Financial situation become very low. The Palestinian farmers are searching for new jobs in Israel, mainly in agriculture, and in very low salaries. Most of the farmers now frustrated.

ISAAC: Our land has become desert, while Israel has been taking our water resources in order to make the desert bloom.

TOLAN: Palestinian policy analyst and water expert Jad Isaac

ISAAC: We need all the water resources of Palestinian people in order to promote real economic growth and to move from the occupation and charity, dependent and donors community to like every other nation in the world. Israel is currently taking 85% of our water resources. Israel agriculture is a very marginal sector in the Israeli economy. They have the technology, they have the GNP per capita which can let them give us our water rights without really suffering. In fact, it would be such a very cheap price for peace.

TOLAN: Agriculture represents only 3% of Israel's GNP. It's more important to the Zionist dream than it is to Israel's economy. In light of that, some Israeli policy analysts say Israel should give the Mountain Aquifer to the Palestinians and turn to desalinization of the Mediterranean. Gershon Baskin of the Israel- Palestine Center for Research and Information.

BASKIN: Let's say that over the next 10 to 15 years Israel turns the entire Mountain Aquifer over to the Palestinians. We're talking about a loss factor to Israel of about $400 million. That's about half a percent of Israel's growth. What we're arguing about is minuscule. Israel's economy is now $90 billion a year. Now, I would propose to Israel, and I have, that Israel be generous to the Palestinians and water. Work out a schedule over the next 15 years in which all the water of the Mountain Aquifer will be turned over to the Palestinians. In return for Israel's generosity, the international community should help to establish an international research and development fund whose goal would be to bring the cost of desalinization technology down.

TOLAN: But these proposals are getting a cold reception from the Likud government, including Meir Ben Meir, Israel's water commissioner.

BEN MEIR: This (laughs) is an absurd, of course. We are not going to give up our resources and turn to the Mediterranean to fulfill our needs.

TOLAN: Israel's latest proposal, made informally through press leaks, is designed to maintain full Israeli control over water. They'd be willing to give more drinking water to the Palestinians in the process, but only if they're in charge of the system. Commissioner Ben Meir says the Palestinians cannot be trusted to control any share of the water. But if the future is simply Israeli control, Palestinian Water Authority Chief Nabil Sharif says there will be no peace. Peace, he says, can only come with a sovereign state of Palestine in control of its own water.

SHARIF: I don't know what will be in the future. They will give the Palestinian a state, then a state should have its own sources and still cooperate with Israel. If they want the control they have earlier, this is another thing. Nobody will accept that.

TOLAN: And thus, water remains a central obstacle to Middle East peace. In water each side sees the refection of its own national agenda. The weaker side speaks of cooperation. The strong side speaks of control. And the future to many, like Israeli agriculture minister Rafael Eitan, looks more and more like the past.

ITAN: [Speaks in Hebrew]
TRANSLATOR: We live here 100, 200 years. We know them better than people who come naive from a Western culture. In our struggle, in our fight, in our war, the war is not over a well in Hebron or a water hole in Gaza. It's between 2 cultures. The question is which culture is going to win? That's how it begins and that's how it ends.

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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