'Sink or swim' warning to Mid-East on water: Agreement must be reached on a precious resource if disputes are not to spill over into war, writes Charles Richards, Middle East Editor

THE BRIGHT-GREEN shoots of grass that, since the first winter rains, have covered the hillsides of Jordan, cannot disguise the underlying reality of the region: that in the arid zones bordering the fertile crescent, water is a precious and rare resource; its availability depends on providence, which ignores political and state boundaries.

Water has become a pressing issue, with fears expressed by governments and others that without agreement on sharing resources, conflict could arise. Disputes over water are often cited when there are other political differences. Last month, for example, Jordan's Agriculture Minister accused the Saudis of overpumping from their common aquifer. Had relations been better, it would not have been raised.

Most agree that although water is unlikely to be the sole cause of war, it could be the drop that makes the glass spill over. Hence its special status in the multilateral Arab-Israel peace talks, and especially in the bilateral talks between Jordan and Israel.

Possibly as a sign that the gods smiled on the proceedings, the heavens opened on the eve of Arab-Israeli peace talks. The issue of water temporarily lost urgency. The heavy rainfalls of the 1991-2 winter soaked Jordan with 13,100 million cubic metres against an annual average of 8,500 million cubic metres.

Climatic changes are not expected to make much impact on future water supplies. The major factor is expected to be the growing thirst of expanding populations. The population of the Arab world, Israel and Iran is projected to double within 30 years. Water supplies, bar some ambitious schemes such as Libya's great man-made river project, are not due to increase. Other pressures include expanding irrigation, industrialisation and domestic use as countries develop.

The main areas of potential confrontation are over the three river systems of the region: the Euphrates, rising in Turkey, passing through Syria and Iraq, and flowing into the Gulf; the Nile; and the Jordan river basin.

Jordan faces particularly serious difficulties. These have been exacerbated by the wave of Palestinian refugees who arrived from Kuwait in 1991. Jordan has had to supply water and sewerage for an extra 275,000 to 300,000 people.

Since the establishment of Israel, more or less formal agreements have been reached between Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria over the sharing of water in the Jordan river basin. The most comprehensive agreement was mediated by Eric Johnston, a special envoy of President Eisenhower, between 1953 and 1955. This allocated 3 per cent to Lebanon, 10 per cent to Syria (which never signed the agreement), 31 per cent to Israel and 56 per cent to Jordan. There were inherent problems in the agreement. In case of drought, would parties take their percentage share, or would upstream users take their fixed quota?

In fact, the Johnston agreement was never fully implemented. Israel far exceeded its quota. Jordan got nothing from the Jordan river, and reduced amounts from other sources.

The difficulty now is how to establish a satisfactory agreement. Israelis argue that the re-establishment of the rightful shares of riparian states under the Johnston plan is not enough. Water will have to be allocated according to need. Israel insists on a definition of equitable that confirms the existing much lower per-capita water consumption of Palestinians and other Arabs than Israelis. Israelis use for domestic purposes some four or five times more than the Arabs. This is explained in terms of greater economic development and different - that is, more Western - cultural practices. But the Jordanians reject this disparity as rooted in neo-colonial attitudes.

Jordan's Minister of Water and Irrigation, Samir Kawwar, insists on a re-establishment of a just and equitable distribution of water. 'We are asking to go back to the Johnston plan,' he says. 'We hope that negotiations will result in an amicable settlement. We need regional solutions. Problems cannot be solved in each country by itself. We must first solve water rights in the area.'

Two broad schools of thought argue over the strategic and military implications. One, mostly academics and technocrats, says water is too precious a resource to fight over, that war will not actually increase the supply, and the cost of war would far exceed the possible returns. The other school says water is an emotional issue, and that politicians do not always act rationally. Water disputes were one of the causes of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Thomas Naff, the leading historian of the Jordan river basin, issued a sobering warning in an essay published earlier this year: 'Unless Israel and Jordan shun confrontation and conflict in favour of co-operation, a water crisis of such proportions as to dwarf current problems is what awaits them. In the end on this issue they will sink or swim together.'

(Photograph and map omitted)