Israelis and Palestinians can reach agreement over use of water resources even before they solve other issues, and thus create a precedent for cooperation in a contentious matter that separates them, claim two international experts in water usage. The two visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority last week, and are formulating the final version of what could be a framework for an innovative agreement.

The experts, Belgian Julie Trottier and Canadian David Brooks, have been asked to draw up such an accord by Friends of the Earth - Middle East, an organization of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. The final version is due to be submitted before the end of the year.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FoEME, says "this is a subject that could be promoted as a first step in a peace agreement, because it is so vital."

According to the proposal, new bilateral committees would determine water allocation not by fixed quotas, as now, but rather according to guidelines designed to protect the ecosystem and benefit everyone. The goal: to provide water to all parties, and to secure efficient, equitable and sustainable management of shared resources over the long term.

A bilateral water commission would replace the existing committee and have responsibility over all shared sources of water. It would make key decisions on rates of pumping and transport of water based on advice from a subsidiary scientific body, which would operate under the auspices of the PA and Israel. A mediation board would deal with any complaints by groups opposing decisions made by the new bodies.

The proposal serves interests on both sides, says Brooks, because it will ensure that the Palestinians receive more water, and that the water used by Israel - which has complained of contamination by the Palestinians - will be of good quality. "Israel will find itself in an embarrassing position," if the current situation continues and "the Palestinians don't receive what they need," he adds.

The Palestinians have adopted the Israeli model of central water-usage planning, but find it difficult to implement it in villages that use traditional systems of water allocation. Trottier encountered such problems in a town near Jericho, she explains, which used to have enough water in its large well for local farmers for 90 days a year, but now has enough for only 16 days.

"We can't tell exactly why this happened," she says, "but it might have to do with Israeli drilling."

Trottier stresses that there must be a better mechanism to identify and solve such problems, and for both sides to plan future use of water reserves.

At times, she says, "the Israelis claim the Palestinians already received the water they need. We have to stop the argument about who receives how much, and try to determine clear, correct priorities."

The Israel Water Authority declined to respond to FoEME's proposal, but Prof. Haim Gvirtzman of the Hebrew University, who served as a consultant to the IWA, said yesterday that there is cooperation now between Israel and the PA for equitably sharing water.

"There are bilateral water committees and the situation today is that the Palestinians already receive much more water than the amount determined by the UN as sufficient for humanitarian needs," says Gvirtzman.