AT the multilateral Middle East peace talks in Moscow in January, the participants set up a working group to deal with water issues. Its first session, held in Vienna this week, was attended by 37 nations - including, besides most of the states in the region, Turkey and the major Western powers.
This reflects the growing realization that cooperation in exploiting scarce water resources will be a crucial component of any lasting Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Most of the states of the Middle East, including Israel and Jordan, depend heavily upon water resources from outside their own borders.
Competition for control of the scarce water resources of the largely arid Holy Land has been a source of friction since Biblical times. It is today a critical political issue in the bilateral Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli talks.
Some 30 to 50 percent of the water used by Israel's population originates as rainfall that replenishes the shared Yarkon-Taninim aquifer. While most of the water falls on the hills of the West Bank, it flows westward toward the Mediterranean and comes out in springs in the coastal plain within Israel's pre-1967 border. Palestinians seek to control their "Palestinian water," but Israelis stress that they have been using nearly 90 percent of that source since long before the 1967 war. They claim a legal ri ght to continue to do so based on the principle of established historical usage, just as Egypt does with regard to the "Ethiopian waters" of the Nile.
Israel's main source of water is the Jordan River, two of whose three sources originate in Syria. Damascus's efforts in the 1960s to divert the headwaters to cripple Israel economically led to Israeli-Syrian clashes and regional tensions, ending in the Six-Day War. By capturing the Golan Heights, Israel not only stopped Syrian harassment of Israeli farmers in the valley below, but gained control of the vital Baniyas and Hasbani sources of the Jordan River.
Jordan's principal water source is the Yarmuk River, which also rises in Syria and then forms the border between Syria and Jordan before flowing into the Jordan river. Palestinian water experts stress that in the early 1960s, when the West Bank was under Jordanian rule, Amman promised to pipe some Yarmuk water to the West Bank.
International funding for a joint Jordanian-Syrian Unity Dam to store the Yarmuk's winter flood waters has been blocked by absence of agreement on Israel's share of the flow. Syria (and, at its urging, Lebanon) stayed away from the Vienna parley because Damascus refuses to discuss water sharing or other multilateral issues before Israel formally commits itself to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Officials in Jerusalem counter that Israel cannot compromise vital security interests unless its Arab neighbor s are prepared to conclude a comprehensive peace treaty.
HOW can one cut this Gordian knot? Outside powers, such as the United States, Japan, the European Community, Turkey, the Gulf states, and the World Bank, who all participated in the Vienna talks, can help spur the contending parties toward agreement in three ways:
* Providing a vision of what the mutual benefits of peaceful cooperation might be.
* Establishing a center for collection, analysis, and exchange of data on all aspects of water-resources mapping, management, and recycling, and on related environmental issues.
* Offering technical assistance and generous financial aid to those prepared to conclude water agreements with their neighbors.
There are a host of imaginative ideas whose technical feasibility and economic viability need to be explored. These include plans for large-scale desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast near Gaza and in the Gulf of Aqaba to benefit Jordan and Israel; a possible pipeline to convey surplus Turkish water to cities in Syria and Jordan, as well as to the West Bank; channeling surplus Lebanese water for use by Palestinians and Israelis, to be paid for with hydroelectric power.
In conditions of peace, Israel's pioneering work in arid-zone research, drip irrigation, and other water conservation techniques could benefit all its neighbors. There is already open Egyptian-Israeli cooperation and some clandestine import of Israeli technology and equipment by Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco.
Although it may be years until the political climate for joint water projects will be favorable, preparations must begin now.