Land, history, ideology, religion - these are what most people associate with the Arab-Israeli conflict. But dive beneath the surface and a whole other barely mentioned conflict is keeping a settlement at bay.According to ancient Arab wisdom, wells are good keepers of secrets. And appropriately water is, and has been for decades, one of the hidden undercurrents driving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as neighbouring Lebanon and Syria.
Why did talks with Syria break down: over the large inland lake known as the Sea of Galilee - you know, where Jesus reportedly fed the 5,000 and walked on water - into which the Jordan River flows. But no such miracles visited the ill-fated talks over the Golan Heights in 1999.
During the Oslo years, why was Israel so reluctant to cede any of its main settlement blocks in the West Bank? Partly because they sit on the Jordan River's main aquifiers.
Under the Oslo accords, four-fifths of the West Bank's water was allocated to Israel, though the aquifers that supply it are largely replenished by water falling onto Palestinian territory. Under the same deal, Palestinian were earmarked 57 cubic metres of water per person per year from all sources. Meanwhile, Israel had a fourfold allocation of 246 cubic metres per head per year. And in the four decades that Israel has controlled the West Bank, Palestinians have been largely forbidden from drilling new wells or rehabilitating old ones.
The politics of water
A study released this month found that the situation was far worse than even the lop-sided Oslo accords envisioned. Carried out by the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), it found that Israel consumes annually around 82% of the renewable water resources in the underground water aquifers of the West Bank.
"In the case of a water crisis in the Palestinian territories, the problem is not the quantity of the available water, but the priorities and policies of the state of Israel," the report claims.
The Jordan River basin - which is shared by Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria - provides 50% of the water needs of Israel and Jordan, but only 5% of Syria and Lebanon's, which is a cause of major political tension, according to ARIJ.
If the situation is not addressed honestly and equitably in the quest for peace, then it could be the cause of conflict in the decades to come, especially as climate change kicks in and makes the Middle East drier.
Ever since ancient times, tribes and nations in the region have gone to war over control of vital wells and waterways (and this is one of the causes of the current Darfur crisis). Oil may fuel conflict in the Middle East today, but 'water wars' could well be next if we are not careful.
First published on 11 April 2007