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Two senior figures in Israel's water economy, National Infrastructures Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the chairman the state water utility, Mekorot, Uri Sagie, recently declared that Israel would have to reduce the quantity of water it transfers to Jordan and to the Palestinians. Even in relatively quieter times and in the pre-intifada era, such declarations would have been dangerous, because they have critical implications for the Jordanians and Palestinians, whose water reserves are very low. However, in the present period, they are far more dangerous.

Lieberman and Sagie are liable to add to the bitter Palestinian-Israeli conflict one of the few subjects that have remained outside that conflict. Up until today, the Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis have maintained good working relations on all water-related issues and have consistently refrained from using water as an instrument for attaining political goals.

The background to the declarations of Lieberman and Sagie is Israel's severe water crisis. The Kinneret's water level is today lower than what it was last year and the water levels of underground water sources (the coastal aquifer and the inland, mountain aquifer) have not risen appreciably. This has been the trend for the past four years, and, the longer it continues, the greater the fear that Israel's water sources could be seriously and irreversibly affected.

The primary reason for this fear is the process of salinization, whose pace is steadily increasing as excessive amounts of potable water are being pumped out and are not being replaced by rain water. The officials responsible for the national water economy are anxiously awaiting the operation of several large water desalination plants scheduled to begin operating within two or three years; however, until that time, the threat to Israel's water resources will only intensify.

Nonetheless, it should be recalled here that the water crisis facing Jordan and Palestinian communities is already acute, while, in Israel, water usage for most sectors has changed very little. Israel annually transfers to Jordan some 55 million cubic meters of water and to the Palestinians in Judea-Samaria some 30 million cubic meters. Thus, the Palestinians draw water from wells in various areas.

Over the past two years, several major wells in the Samaria district have dried up. Thus, for example, the wells of the Uja Brook, which supply water to the Jericho region, have almost totally dried up. In Ein Samia, where a concentration of wells provides water for the city of Ramallah and its environs, the water levels have dropped dramatically. It is also very difficult to utilize the Herodion water drillings, which supply the water needs of the Bethlehem-Hebron region. In this region as well, the chief reason for the water crisis is an ever-increasing exploitation of water resources, which are not being replenished due to diminished rainfall.

For several years, Jordan has been suffering from a chronic water shortage, and the water supply in various parts of Amman has been disrupted on more than one occasion. Jordan has less underground water resources and a drought's impact is almost immediately felt there. The Jordanians are investing considerable efforts in the development of the underground water reservoir located close to the border with Saudi Arabia; however, this is a major project and it is still unclear how much water it will be able to produce.

A reduction in the quotas of water Israel transfers to the Palestinians and Jordanians will make it even harder for them to contend with their water crisis. The reduction will generate considerable friction in Israel's relations with Jordan, which was explicitly promised that the quota of water it receives will remain unchanged.

Israel's only alternative is to readopt water-saving measures, whose implementation has been held back for the past two years. These measures would not affect drinking water quotas in Israel but would primarily be expressed in reductions of water quotas for such uses as watering lawns and washing cars, as well in increased cutbacks in quotas for the farmers. The reductions would not necessarily be carried out through administrative directives but rather through a change in water prices, in accordance with ideas that have already been considered in the Agriculture Ministry.

These measures have not been adopted, largely because of the public's opposition to the idea of drying up gardens and because of the pressure exerted by the farmers' lobby on the politicians. However, the plans to reduce water quotas for the Jordanians and Palestinians point to the urgent need for a return to water-saving measures. It is preferable to temporarily reduce water quotas for watering lawns in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area than to have residents of Palestinian cities and villages suffer thirst and despair.