A new high dam planned by Jordan on the Yarmuk River may be the key to the success or failure of the Palestinian autonomy talks when they resume this summer.
US negotiator Sol Linowitz, over breakfast with reporters July 9, confirmed that the water supply in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza is a crucial sticking point facing the Egyptians and Israelis as they resume talks in Egypt shortly.
The United States, the Monitor has learned, is facilitating communication among Jordan, Israel, and Syria concerning how the water released by the dam would be divided between lands owned or controlled by each.
Jordanian Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Sharaf, who passed on suddenly after returning home from last month's visit to Washington with King Hussein, had told this reporter his country is convinced Israel wants to use Yarmuk River water to irrigate lands for expanded Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In the autonomy talks, which President Sadat of Egypt suspended in May, then agreed to resume after Egyptian and Israei negotiators met President Carter here July 2, Israel insists on retaining total control of the West Bank's water resources. Israeli authorities have banned Palestinian farmers from drilling new wells on their own land, while authorizing wells for the new Jewish settlements.
However, Egyptian and US negotiators now appear to hope for some informal understanding with Jordan, Israel, and Syria on how to allot the Maqarin Dam water.
This, in turn, might help improve the climate for progress on what Ambassador Linowitz defines as the other four key issues -- land, security, the powers of the hypothetical elected Palestinian council, and, most difficult of all, the status of Arab East Jerusalem and its inhabitants.
Jordan asked the World Bank to postpone a meeting of aid donors scheduled last month in London until there was more progress in the secret talks. The division of Maqarin water, according to the bank's acting vice-president for Middle East affairs, A. David Knox, is "clearly a tough political issue."
Since the 1950s, the US and, later, Kuwait have given Jordan financial and technical aid for the East Ghor canal, an irrigation system roughly parallel with the Jordan River. It keeps the valley between the canal and the Jordan River green and fertile, giving Jordan major cash crops of fruit and vegetables.
The projected Maqarin Dam is the center-piece of Jordan's water planning for the next decade. Jordan is a country where even the recent completion of a new dam on the Zarqa River, which feeds the East Ghor system, has not ended summer water shortages in Amman, the capital, and Irbid in northern Jordan.
Its water storage capacity is to be 388 million cubic meters per year (mcm/a). What has to be settled is Syria's share of this.
Tentatively, Jordan has allotted 26 mcm/a for Irbid, and 100 mcm/a to Amman. The US Agency for International Development has earmarked funds, and Jordan wants a World Bank loan, to help meet the estimated $1 billion cost.
The dam is still in the design stage. Construction should take five years -- the length of the "transition period" before the West Bank's future status can be determined under the Camp David accords.
Jordan's main concern is that, in the words of a report of the Jordan Royal Scientific Society, Israel's new settlements "are totally dependent on West Bank resources for their water needs."
The same report, quoting official Israeli sources, estimates a West Bank water surplus of about 630 to 775 mcm/a. Water actually available was 750 to 895 mcm/a. West Bank water consumption in 1978 was only 120 mcm/a.
"In contrast," says the study, "it is expected that Israel will experience a deficit in its water balance of 265 mcm/a in 1979, rising to nearly 500 mcm/a in 1985. This is due to the high use of water for all purposes in Israel; domestic , industrial, as well as irrigation."