CORVALLIS, Ore. - An old conflict over water rights and borders in the Golan Heights is one of the key sticking points holding up the resumption and possible success of peace talks between Israel and Syria, but some experts say it is a manageable problem that can be solved.
Geographers from Oregon State University and Haifa University, who have written several books on exactly these topics, say history has shown that the very seriousness of water disputes can help lay the foundation for firm agreements that lead to cooperation and peaceful settlements.
"Israel's need to protect its crucial water supplies does not have to be a fatal stumbling block to these negotiations," said Aaron Wolf, an assistant professor of geosciences at OSU. Wolf is an expert on the resolution of water resource disputes dating back almost 5,000 years, a consultant on some of the current negotiations, and author of the new book "Water in the Middle East: a Geography of Peace."
"There are a variety of ways we could work this thing out," Wolf said. "If history has taught us anything, it's that even the most serious water disputes can and usually are settled peacefully. You hear a lot about water wars, but in reality one of the last recorded wars over water was in 2,500 B.C."
Wolf is collaborating in OSU laboratories with Arnon Medzini, a visiting professor from Haifa University in Israel and author of two upcoming books on the geopolitics of the Jordan River and Tigris-Euphrates river system in the Middle East. Both scientists say that lessons from history can probably help point the way to resumption of talks and solutions acceptable to both Syria and Israel.
"Right now Israel is seeking a full peace agreement with Syria, considering the return of the Golan Heights to Syria and essentially working out a land-for-peace accord," Wolf said. "But the devil is in the details, exactly what land and under what conditions."
A sticking point, the researchers say, is dispute over a comparatively small amount of land - about 60 square kilometers - scattered in three tracts along the border between Israel and the Golan Heights. But those very small pieces of land , indeed the very creation of this border which dates back to 1923, are oriented to water rights.
In this case, those water resources include access to parts of the Sea of Galilee, the Banyas Springs that are part of the Jordan River headwaters, and control of both sides of the lower Jordan River.
"These water resources together comprise about one-third of Israel's total water supply, and they will insist that those rights be protected," Medzini said. "There are other considerations also about the Golan Heights region, such as military security, but a lot of the concern goes directly to this water."
Even when borders are finalized, the scientists say, Israel will probably demand access to some water, such as the Banyas Springs, that clearly will be on the Syrian side of the border. And the protection of water quality is also a consideration, as Israel will want to ensure that Syrian agricultural or industrial activities don't pollute the water that flows downhill into its drinking water supplies.
A fundamental key to the solution and part of the historical precedent, Wolf said, is to separate the issue of sovereignty over the land from the rights to, and use of, the water that flows through it.
"There are places where one side or the other will demand, with justification, sovereignty over certain tracts of land," Wolf said. "But the actual borders in some cases were drawn the way they were because of concerns about water rights and water resources. If we look at those concerns separately from the issue of sovereignty, there are usually ways that a compromise can be reached."
In the arid Middle East, the researchers said, it's becoming increasingly common to trade not only land for peace, but water for peace. Formal leases can and have been drawn up providing for purchase or exchanges of water. And bartering is possible, where a water rights concession is made in one locale in exchange for other water rights elsewhere.
"Once you get past the issue of sovereignty over the land, there are a lot of things we can do with the water," Wolf said. "For instance, Turkey and Syria have an ongoing water dispute on the Euphrates River. But Turkey and the U.S. are important NATO allies. Maybe Turkey could be persuaded to concede a modest amount of water to Syria in this different dispute, in exchange for some Syrian concessions on the Israeli border. That's just one of several possibilities."
The researchers said because of its very value and complexity, water rights can often be negotiated to produce "win-win" situations that both sides can live with. Wolf, in fact, has created a computerized database of 3,600 water treaties over almost 5,000 years that show different ways problems have been solved throughout recorded time - and how water treaties have been honored even as wars raged around them.
There's almost no such thing as a new type of water conflict that hasn't been seen, he said, and those ancient conflicts can point the way to modern solutions.
Some critics, Wolf said, are alluding to the problems over water as a final reason that Israel should not even consider giving up the Golan Heights or pursuing other peace initiatives with Syria.
"There are extremely strong feeling in this area that go back to conflicts of the past, and there may be people who don't want any type of treaty between Israel and Syria," Wolf said. "Those are different problems. But I can guarantee you the issues over water should not stop this peace process from going forward. These are problems we can solve, and history will show us the way."