Elmusa: Water Conflict

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VOL. 28


No. 3
P. 94
Recent Books
Elmusa: Water Conflict

    To be honest, I approached Sharif Elmusa's book on water with skepticism. Of the world's 261 international watersheds, none has generated more attention, and analysis, than the Jordan River and the aquifers shared among Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Tens of books, dozens of professional reports, and hundreds of articles, academic and popular, have focused on these relatively paltry water resources. What was left for Elmusa to contribute, I wondered? Moreover, I was familiar with much of Elmusa's work and know that we disagree on some rather important points (mostly relating to history and motive, as is so often the case in this region).
    Having now gone through his excellent work in detail, I make a rather difficult recommendation: If you can read only one book on this important subject, particularly from the regularly underrepresented Palestinian perspective, this should be it. (The recommendation is difficult since I also have a book on the topic. So if you read two, include mine.)
    Elmusa's major contribution is apparent from the first chapter on the region's hydrography. He is so thoughtful about all aspects of the work. He does not, as so many have done, simply regurgitate claims and counterclaims, be they about data, politics, or economics. His table on pp. 64-65, showing data as seemingly innocuous as flow rates for each of the river's sources, is illustrative of the care he gives all aspects of his topic. He dedicates two and a half pages to a discussion of the sources of his data, the period on which their analyses depends, and the reliability of their respective results, then incorporates that information into his table. This care might seem didactic to a casual reader, but those who work and/or live in the region know only too well the political power of data. To paraphrase one observer, the single most political act one can make in the Middle East is to take a measurement.
    Elmusa's thoughtfulness continues through subsequent chapters, and he makes at least one important contribution to each of the fields he takes on. Following chapter 1's description of the natural environment, chapter 2 discusses each water source in the basin, the politics of control of these sources, and the overall deterioration of water quality throughout the region. A detailed story of water's place in overall Israeli policy within the occupied territories is revealed, carefully chronicled, with only minor oversights, law by law, permit by permit (or lack thereof).
    Chapter 3 is an excellent chapter that, nominally, is about the economics of water in the West Bank and Gaza but, more admirably, is a clear critique of the political assumptions inherent in these arguments. Here, Elmusa blows out of the water (as it were) the truism that the disparate per capita consumption rates between Israelis and Palestinians are simply the result of differing lifestyles or cultures. Elmusa clearly distinguishes between "use" and "demand," the latter being what would be used if it were available, and tackles the common argument that it is not that Palestinians are allowed less water than Israelis, it is simply that they use less. Many analysts, even those who argue for a more equitable share have, unfortunately, fallen into this simplistic trap. Elmusa does not. Rather, he develops in detail the concept of "latent water demand," in which he compares Palestinian water use not only with Israeli use, but more appropriately with the populations of surrounding countries with similar GNP's and lifestyles, and arrives at actual demand rates that are significantly higher than current uses. This is an important contribution, and one which is particularly sobering when the bottom line is laid out on p. 206: Elmusa forecasts an extended water budget in which the deficit between supply and demand is greater than the entire annual flow of the Jordan River!
    Chapter 4 describes the "matrix" of six issues of the Israeli-Palestinian water conflict: control of "hydro-space," uneven water rights, Israeli settlers, water institutions, out-of-basin transfers, and future management. Elmusa tackles each deftly, showing an interdisciplinary expertise only too rare in water analyses. For the most part, each issue is handled diplomatically, as Elmusa dispenses with sacred cows on both sides. He rightly dismisses the disproportionately popular "hydraulic imperative" theory that Israeli conquests were actually about access to water, then reminds those deeply familiar with the Israeli water ethos that Palestinians, too, hold water at the sacred center of their "cognitive maps." His biases only occasionally seep through as, for example, in his use of the term "profligate" to describe Israeli water policies (think what you want about Israel, but one cannot ignore its global leadership in efficient water management) or in holding Israel to blame both for capping Palestinian use on the West Bank and for allowing rampant overpumping in the Gaza Strip (one simply cannot have it both ways).
    One surprising oversight comes in his discussion of the politically intricate charge that Israeli wells were responsible for drying up springs on the West Bank in 1979. His three-page discussion (p. 257-59) of the charges appear to favor causality. His own charts on p. 100, however, show that 1979 came after the single lowest springflow year on record throughout the West Bank, which makes one wonder why more springs did not dry up.
    In chapter 5 and the conclusions, Elmusa brings the discussion down to a single, admirable management goal: equitable use and joint management. The bottom line is that all the inhabitants of the region are running out of water; the time for arguing over fixed quantities is past. Interestingly, Elmusa harkens back to the past to inform the future, urging a new look at the Johnston accords of the 1950s for a possible basis on which to structure a new agreement. Johnston, like Elmusa, focused on what actually is needed within the basin rather than on what one or the other side would like or feels it deserves. This is a critical shift in thinking, and one which has shown to be effective in other water negotiations as well.
    This is a thorough, thoughtful book in which Elmusa shows a breadth of expertise only too rare in the world of water. He moves between subtleties of hydrogeology to economic theory and back again and, more importantly, shows how they are connected. To be sure, there are the sort of minor errors that creep up in technical work: there are ten, not nine Nile riparians (p. 4); the fossil aquifer lies not just within Israel (p. 16) but, depending on how one defines it, stretches across North Africa; and many place names are misspelled on maps (e.g., Tulkarm on p. 18). Most serious, perhaps, is the omission of the word "rights" in a discussion of what was and was not gained in the Declaration of Principles (p. 294). These oversights, though, are outweighed by some wonderful anecdotes offered as asides: Richard the Lion-Hearted apparently lost two soldiers to crocodiles while camped along springs that, today, reflect this history in their names in both Hebrew and Arabic (Tanninim/al-Timsah) (p. 35). Nice lagniappes for a satisfying read.

Aaron T. Wolf, assistant professor of geography in Oregon State University's Department of Geosciences, is author of Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River: The Impact of Scarce Water Resources on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (New York: United Nations University Press, 1995), and a coauthor of Core and Periphery: A Comprehensive Approach to Middle Eastern Water, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).