Leading Article: The rising power of water

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The Independent Online
LURKING in the wings of the resumed Middle East peace talks is an issue that, in the long run, could be more important than any on the main agenda. Without agreement on water resources, settlements of other disputes could be swept away. Water talks have been taking place in Geneva as one of the five sets of multilateral negotiations that make up the Middle East peace process. Yesterday they were brought to a halt by a Palestinian demand for a neutral mission to study water rights in the Israeli-occupied territories. A Palestinian official said that water rights were 'at the basis of any kind of co-operation between the parties'.

These are minor skirmishes, but they are a reminder of the growing importance of water politics. Some experts believe that disputes about water will provoke another war in the Middle East or elsewhere. Others argue that everyone's vulnerability to interruptions of water supply will make war less likely, rather like nuclear deterrence. Either way, we shall be hearing more of the subject. Thomas Naff, an expert on the Jordan river basin, wrote last year that unless Israel and Jordan co-operate, 'a water crisis of such proportions as to dwarf current problems . . . awaits them'.

The root of the problem is that demand is gradually outstripping supply. The population of the Arab world, Israel and Iran is expected to double in the next 30 years, yet some countries are already consuming water faster than reserves are being renewed. An area without rain is particularly dependent on rivers. These provide a fairly constant supply, which mostly renews itself annually. The Jordan valley aquifers are much slower to refill, and its ancient fossil water can only be mined once. In most years, Israel's consumption exceeds the renewal rate of its supplies. Saudi Arabia draws heavily on its non- renewable fossil water. Without co-operation, competition will increase.

Water politics are also about power. Unlike other natural resources, water often flows across frontiers, enabling upstream states to disrupt the lives of those downstream. Israel diverts water from the Jordan river, and takes it from the hills of the West Bank. The strategic value of the Golan Heights is enhanced by the presence there of the headwaters of the Jordan. Egypt is increasingly worried about the demands of upstream African states, particularly Ethiopia and Uganda. Iraq and Syria have objected to Turkey damming the Euphrates. The issue also crops up in other parts of the world: witness Hungary's dispute with Slovakia over the Danube.

Solutions demand both sharing and greater economy. A great deal of Middle East water is wasted. Saudi Arabia irrigates lavishly to produce wheat at eight times the world price, because it regards self-sufficiency in food as a strategic necessity. Israel is shifting away from heavily irrigated agriculture, but it still expends a lot of energy on pumping water. Many basic assumptions about economic development will have to be revised if water is to be conserved. Then, if political agreements are to have a chance of holding, many will need to have water agreements built into them.