Peace, War and Water in the Middle East


It is mid-summer here in the Middle East and water supply (or lack thereof) can be even more powerful than politics.

Each morning, as I walk out of my West Jerusalem apartment, I must dodge the gardener's hose, as he generously waters our scraggly plants. So conspicuous is his water consumption that little pools form along the pavement, sometimes wetting the cuffs of my pants. The truth is that these native desert plants need infrequent watering but our Arab maintenance man conscientiously carries out his duties.

At first, the 9 a.m. watering ritual struck me as odd, only because even in my native Boston suburb, where water is plentiful, we have rules prohibiting midday plant watering during the hottest months. But as my summer in Jerusalem and the Middle East continues, I have become increasingly attuned to drinking, washing, watering, swimming, cleaning and flushing--anything that involves the precious molecule, H2O. Water availability and attitudes towards this natural resource are subtle yet omnipresent symbols of the different worlds which coexist here, as well as a source of conflict between them.

Traveling back and forth between Israel and what will soon officially become Palestine, the sharp contrasts in quality of life, cultural norms and economic conditions are staggering. The same gardner who waters my plants with gusto each morning probably returns to his East Jerusalem or West Bank neighborhood where tap water is carefully boiled in order to disinfect and toilets are turned on and off between usage. By contrast, in the magazine office where I work, the water cooler of fresh mineral water is restocked daily and, although our tap water is drinkable, we use it only to wash off our coffee mugs.

The irony is that everyone in this region, from the wealthiest Tel Aviv suburbanite to the bedouin farmers that roam the wadis, is suffering from a summer drier than most. The Fertile Crescent in its entirety received a record low amount of rainfall this past winter. Hydraulicists constantly make guest appearances on radio and television talk shows, issuing warnings about some obscure "red line" threshold of water supply, a minimum that we are precariously nearing. Here, in the privileged middle-class West Jerusalem, with a lifestyle and surroundings very much like Boston, these warning fall on deaf ears. And, for many of the Palestinians, especially the inhabitants of villages that draw their water from wells, statistics and fancy talk about drought patterns matter very little. There is never enough water during these summer months.


But, beyond the different responses to the shortage manifested in Israeli and Palestinian society, the droplets themselves have been transformed into key political pawns. Many of the Palestinians and Jordanians I have met accuse Israel of stealing their water. When I was driven around Amman by my host family's father, he pointed to a little boy in the street, playing in the runoff sewer water, as a dramatic explanation of Jordanian pessimism concerning the peace process. How can we, the Jordanian people, be optimistic about some high-falutin peace between kings and prime ministers when we do not have enough water to drink, to grow and to prosper?

The fact remains that Israel does control a disproportionate amount of the West Bank underground aquifers (80 percent), a major source of drinking and irrigation water in the region. Israel also has more advanced agricultural and technological needs for this water. Still, many of Israel's neighbors blame their daily thirst, or at least fear that their wells will soon run dry, on the territorial nature of the Jewish state. Classic anti-Israel rhetoric. Israel still looms in the popular imagination as the capitalistic conquistadors. By all accounts, this is an unfair charge but proof that resentment and bitterness still exists in this region, especially among average people.

Despite the optimistic progress of peace talks in Washington this summer, fueled by the election of the supposed dove Ehud Barak, resentment, jealously and downright anger towards one's neighbors continues. These hard feelings are only exacerbated and fueled by the frustrations of performing daily tasks such as washing clothing and mopping floors with limited water.

So, I eagerly watch the overtures to peace progress this summer. Like everyone else here, I excitedly look forward towards a speedy withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, a meeting between Ehud Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad and the declaration of a Palestinian state. But this excitement is tempered by the reality of the abject living conditions, which will probably prove the biggest obstacle to any real peace, especially in the hearts and minds of the people.

Dafna Hochman '99 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. She is in Jerusalem doing thesis research.

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