Turkish Water Deal Signed

Israel yesterday signed an agreement in principle on importing water from Turkey, following four and a half years of negotiations.

Israel yesterday signed an agreement in principle on importing water from Turkey, following four and a half years of negotiations.

Under the agreement, signed by Foreign Ministry director-general Yoav Biran and his Turkish counterpart, Ugur Ziyal, Israel will import 50 million cubic meters of water per year for a period of 20 years, for a total of one billion cubic meters. The imports will supply about 3 percent of the country's drinking water.

The water will be brought to Israel from a water-export facility built by the Turks on the Manbaget River in the south of the country. The Manbaget is considered to have extremely high-quality water.

The agreement does not include a timetable, but Israeli officials said that the water will certainly not begin to arrive this year and probably not next year, either. The accord also states that the price of the water, the method of transportation and the means of quality control will be determined in negotiations between the parties. The most likely means of transport is a special 250,000-ton tanker ship.

Finance Ministry officials estimate that the price of producing the water in Turkey will be 13 to 18 cents per cubic meter, while the transport costs will be 70 to 80 cents per cubic meter, bringing the total cost to as much as $1 per cubic meter, or $50 million a year. That is almost double the expected price of desalinated water at the coastal desalination plant that Israel is now building, and four times the price of fresh water supplied by Israel's own natural resources. For this reason, the agreement is considered "political" rather than economic, and the Finance Ministry has been highly critical of it.

One treasury official said caustically that if Israel has to buy the water in order to maintain its good relationship with Turkey, "it would be better to leave it in Turkey. Then the economic damage to Israel would be much less."

Ziyal, questioned by reporters yesterday, denied reports that Ankara had frozen infrastructure development projects in eastern Turkey in which Israeli companies are involved to the tune of about $1 billion, in order to pressure Jerusalem to sign the water agreement. The freeze on these projects, he said, is due to his country's economic woes.

The agreement is based on a joint statement issued by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Turkish energy minister in 2002, and later approved by the cabinet, in which the sides stated Israel would purchase water from Turkey.