Water and Agriculture
Water can be a cause of war in the Middle East. It has been widely reported that Israel's invasion of the West Bank and Syria in 1967 was designed to control the headwaters of the Jordan River and the tributaries and aquifers of the West Bank. Israel's desire to maintain control of these water sources is one of the main reasons for its refusal to seal an agreement with Syria and the Palestinians. Each of these sources, in the West Bank and at the Syrian border, amounts to 500 million cubic meters per year (mm3/y), much of which is wasted, as will be demonstrated.
Water resources in the territory of Palestine on which the State of Israel was declared in 1948 are 350 mm3/y. This amount was increased, before 1967, by Israeli drilling under the West Bank and after the 1967 war, by full control of Palestinian and Syrian water sources. It reached 2,020 in 1990, of which 1,471 mm3/y is taken from sources located in Arab territory.
Where does this water go? In 1995, 594 mm3/y went to municipal (domestic) purposes, 133 to industrial use and 1,300 to agricultural use. As Peter Beaumont has shown, municipal consumption works out to be a constant 100 m3/y/person for every year since the creation of the state in 1948. This is higher than the consumption of Jordan (60), and much higher than the impoverished West Bank (37.5), which has lost 90 percent of its water resources to Israel. And the overcrowded Gaza Strip has a critical water deficit with dangerously increased salinity.
Israel has maintained the use of 1,200-1,400 mm3/y for agriculture. The more extravagant use of 860 m3/dunum (1 hectare = 10 dunums) for irrigation in the 1950s has now been reduced to 600 m3/d. These precious resources are provided to the farmers at 70 percent of the cost at 19¢/m3, while the cost to domestic user is $1.0-$1.76/m3. Thus domestic users underwrite vast water subsidies to farmers, who raise water-intensive crops like potatoes, corn, cotton and watermelon.
Following the expulsion of the Palestinians and confiscation of their land in 1948, the amount of land under irrigation increased rapidly, from about 300,000 dunums in the early 1950s to 2 million dunums in the late 1970s, the difference between the two figures being Palestinian property. In the 1990s this figure shrank to 1.8 million dunums because of general lack of interest in agriculture. The total amount of land under cultivation has grown from about 1 million dunums in 1950 to 4.2 million dunums in 1997, shrinking from a maximum of 4.4 million dunums in 1990, the difference between 1 million dunums and the other figures being confiscated Palestinian property.
Startling news has been revealed recently showing that the irrigated land is in fact much smaller than officially stated. The State Comptroller has issued a report that 865,000 dunums stopped cultivation in 1988-1999, while still being allocated the same irrigation water! This means the 'official' irrigated area in Israel (1,943,000 d) is in reality only 1,078,000 d. or only 55% of the declared area!
Who utilizes this vast land? In 1998 there were 72,500 agricultural employees, of which 36,800 were Jews. Of those Jews, only 8,600 were kibbutzniks.
These vast land resources, with their generous water subsidies, account for only 1.8 percent of Israel's GDP. To produce this meagre contribution, Israel has had to import 24,300 foreign workers (mostly from Thailand) while denying the right of the Palestinian farmers to till their own land. (Ironically, some of the Palestinian workers allowed in Israel actually work their own land, as hired labourers, for the benefit of Israelis.)
The waste in water has been noted by other authors. Some advocate reducing agricultural activity or changing it to more profitable crops, which would free water for other uses. One study notes that "the evidence strongly suggests that Israel's water quantity crisis is more a result of misallocation than absolute scarcity". Another recommends that the wasted water could be "sold" to Jordan and the West Bank in a peace deal. Apart from the irony that Israel would be selling illegally-confiscated water back to its rightful owners, the fact is that Israel's enormous water and land resources are exploited by so few to produce so little. If this land and water were turned over to the lawful owners, there would be little loss to Israel-despite common claims to the contrary–and tremendous gain in the country's political legitimacy, with a real chance for genuine peace in the region.
Professor Fadle Naqib, an expert on the Palestinian economy, formerly with the UN Conference on Trade and Development, says that although it is common for developing countries to reduce the agricultural share of their economy, it is necessary for Palestine to develop its agricultural sector. Capital requirements at this stage would be small, an ideal situation for a recovering economy. The vast majority of the refugees are farmers, and agriculture has been their occupation from time immemorial. When they recover their land, they will no doubt greatly enhance the value of the agricultural product. The refugees in Gaza already do so. With scarce and saline water, they produce better and cheaper vegetables than the neighbouring kibbutzim. That is why Israel refuses to admit their products to its market. I am not of course suggesting that all refugees should revert to agriculture or that agriculture is their only occupation. Palestinians are one of the most highly educated peoples in the Arab world, and have flourished in a number of skilled occupations. The point here is simply that Palestinians have a deep attachment to their land and will be able to cultivate it more economically than the Israelis. With their education, they will be able to meet the challenge of industrialized agriculture when this economic threshold is reached.
Another area of Palestinian excellence is Jaffa oranges, known for centuries. After the Israelis conquered Jaffa environs in 1948, "the overwhelming majority of the 150,000 dunums of citrus trees remained unattended... roughly one-fifth of the abandoned citrus groves in the whole country were still being cultivated". The Israelis looted the pumps and pipelines and earmarked large tracts for housing construction. The remainder of citrus groves, which produced 950,000 tons in 1975, deteriorated to the extent that only 340,000 tons were produced in 1997 and 250,000 tons in the drought year of 1991. The famous Jaffa oranges could be revived by the Palestinian farmers who originally planted these citrus groves.
A more serious problem, however, will soon arise which may lead to a war bringing further destruction to the region.
Israel water requirements, now stand at 2,000 million cubic metres (mm3), two thirds of which are Arab, are barely met from the water resources at Israel's disposal. Assuming the most modest increase in Jewish population and using the present rate of consumption, Israel would need 2,427 mm3 in the year 2020 [Fig-12] and 3,335 in the year 2050.
When all the refugees return and with less extravagant use of water (60 cubic metres per capita, instead of the present 100, there will be a requirement for 2,803 mcm, or a mere 15% increase.
The point is that any requirements over the present 2,000 will have to be obtained from elsewhere. The treatment of waste water will only defer the problem a little while. The desalination is very expensive, both as initial and running cost. It is barely successful in the Gulf where energy is cheap. Transportation of water from Turkey by sea requires reservoirs, now being built in Isdud and has health hazards associated with contamination.
With no refugees' return, hence no peace, Israel may be tempted to attack Arab countries once again, seizing water resources in Lebanon, Syria and even Jordan. That will be the height of folly.
If, by the return of refugees, peace prevails, it is conceivable that regional agreements may be signed with neighbouring countries, including Iraq perhaps, so that water resources are shared based on justice and equity. It is also possible that water pipeline may be extended from Turkey or Iraq on Syrian soil. It is also possible that the energy required for desalination may be transmitted from the Gulf. Thus, the return of the refugees, a necessary prerequisite for the end of the conflict, may bring peace to the region and prevent war.
The well-known slick schemes proposed by Shimon Peres to bag all the benefits of the regional agreements without paying the price of justice and equity have all, not surprisingly, met their well-deserved demise.
To be sure, there are problems to solve. Many refugees would have to change their present occupation (now 25% in construction) and revert back to agriculture. Tighter controls on water consumption will have to be applied. At some cut-off point, say a maximum of 1,300 mm3/y, agriculture has to be industrialized. New and improved crops will have to be grown. In all this, Israeli research may be useful. Certainly the Palestinians would be enthusiastic workers, since they would be returning to their land cultivated by their forefathers for centuries. All in all, the return of peace and stability to the region far outweighs any application problems.