It's stormy weather ahead for Israel tomorrow and Thursday. Literally. Wind and rain, not bombs and bullets. That's the forecast - and it's good news.
Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon all share the waters of the Jordan river and its source tributaries. The resources are limited. Over the past decade the normal pressures on water availability have been exacerbated by drought years of biblical proportions.
Perhaps the best measure of what has been happening is provided by Lake Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee), one of Israel's three major water reservoirs, whose records are maintained meticulously. Indeed Israelis tend to keep as close a watch on the rise and fall of Kinneret's water level as on the fate of their favourite football team.
Lake Kinneret, the lowest freshwater lake on earth, is situated deep in the Jordan Great Rift Valley. Although fed partly by underground springs, its main source is the Jordan river, which flows through it from north to south. The Golan heights rise up beyond its northern shore.
Until 1998, the normal weather pattern ensured that winter rains over the five months October-February, and the melting snows on Mount Hermon in the spring, fed Lake Kinneret year by year. In all the geography books, Kinneret's level is quoted as 209 metres below sea level. The drought that affected Israel between 1998 and 2001 was the most serious in the previous 125 years. The water flow of the Jordan river dropped sharply, and the level of Lake Kinneret fell to 214.9 metres below sea-level, the lowest lake level in historical periods.
The following years saw only a moderate return to normal weather patterns. 2004 was another bad year, and an even severer drought hit again in 2008 when Kinneret's water levels saw the sharpest drop since measurements were first recorded. By October the level stood at 214.06 meters below sea level, more than a metre beneath what is known as the government's "red line" – the level below which it is not recommended to draw water from the Kinneret. The red line stands at 213 metres below sea level.
And now? Well over these winter months the rain has been falling, and Lake Kinneret has been rising. In December the level rose 30 centimetres; in January 57 centimetres – the highest for that month for the past five years. At the start of February the water level stood at 213.4 metres below sea level – still 0.4 metres below the red line and about 700 million cubic metres short of the maximum volume. But February usually brings the greatest increase for the lake, and the rain forecast for this week could get the month off to a good start.
Does this matter in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict in general, and Israel-Palestine in particular?
Water is generally perceived as one of the high priority issues in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Water resources in the Jordan river basin are trans-boundary. Sharing them has been an inevitable feature of life in the region in the past, is so now, and will remain so following any peace accord. Issues remain outstanding – one particular problem is in respect of the West Bank which largely contains the three principal underground aquifers of the region. One of these aquifers provides Tel-Aviv with most of its water. The eventual peace agreement, therefore, and a regional water settlement are closely interdependent, and the fact of life that water resources have to be shared should serve as a considerable inducement on all parties to reach agreement on the bigger issues.
Indeed perhaps the most imaginative water scheme in the region - the so-called Red/Dead project – was approved and agreed upon in 2005 by the three concerned parties: Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The project is intended to bring water by a canal from the Gulf of Aquaba for desalination, with the brine runoff being diverted into the Dead Sea, which is retreating at an alarming rate of more than 30 centimetres a year.
Gaza's water problems are unique. The Gaza Strip is underlain by a shallow aquifer, contiguous with the Israeli coastal aquifer to the north. As Gaza is the “downstream user”, water abstraction in Gaza does not affect Israeli water supplies, but Gaza's aquifer is essentially the only source of fresh water. Over the years, massive increases in population and a lack of investment have led to over-pumping. The result: falling water levels and degrading water quality from seawater infiltration.
The options for improving the water situation in Gaza are well known and will need to be included in any comprehensive peace agreement. Additional supplies of water must be made available through desalination, wastewater treatment and reuse, import from Israel, or import from the West Bank.
Water is an issue that cannot be brushed under the carpet. It demands cooperation. An integrated regional water plan can only be made possible by regional peace.