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Water wars in Israel-Palestine

By Wilson Dizard
Amnesty International recently released a report highlighting the disparity of water consumption between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with indignation, asserting that Israel has exceeded the amount of water the Oslo Accords obligate it to provide the Palestinian Authority.
“While Palestinian daily water consumption barely reaches 70 litres a day per person, Israeli daily consumption is more than 300 litres per day, four times as much,” Amnesty declares. The Israeli Water Authority (IWA) counters by claiming that the real averages for daily consumption are 408 liters per Israeli and 287 per Palestinian.

This isn’t the first time an international organization accusing Israel of wrongdoing over water. In the spring, the World Bank produced another study, conducted on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, that accused Israel of retarding Palestinians’ development of the water resources they share with Israel, while also admonishing the Palestinians for less than stellar water management and conservation. This report faced similar recriminations from the Israeli government, charging the World Bank with taking the Palestinians’ side.

This reaction conforms to a pattern of Israel’s recent interactions with the world. Israel criticized the United Nations report on Gaza for its alleged pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel biases. That this is happening isn’t all that interesting. Assuming Amnesty’s is right, the disparity isn’t surprising. Conflicts involving scarce portions of sacred space and strained supplies of civilization’s staples, like water and land and energy, fail to bring out the better angels of our nature. When one side had a decided military and economic advantage over its rival, resources seldom get shared in a fair way.

In the Levant, water is the most important guarantor of a state’s sovereignty, allowing it to independently direct development and provide food security for its people. For the last sixty decades, Palestinians have been trying to carve a new country from a rapidly evaporating pool of liquid sovereignty. Unfortunately for Palestinian aspirations for statehood, every groundwater resource in the West Bank and Gaza Strip sits beneath its borders with Israel. While Oslo II in 1995 laid out allocations from the shared aquifers, the divisions have grown obsolete after 14 years of population growth. And while Israel uses the martial mechanisms of occupation to restrict Palestinian access to aquifers, it routinely flouts the limits Oslo set.
While it’s contentious as any other issue in need of resolution, water relations between Israelis and Palestinians come down to numbers, not faith. There’s no fixed measurement of how much Temple Mount a human being needs each day to survive. But such numbers do exist for water. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 100 liters. In some parts of the West Bank, like the suburbs of Hebron, Palestinian villagers and semi-nomadic Bedouin far from water infrastructure get by on as little as 15 liters of water a day, often bought at exorbitant prices from roving water tankers, that’s according to the World Bank study. Without question, this dire problem deserves a solution.

Israel has its back up against a security fence when it comes to water. Since its independence, Israel has made exceptional efforts to control the region’s water resources, at first necessary for the cultivation of national pride and identity through agriculture. Farming still takes the lion’s share of Israel’s water supplies. With economic development, population growth, and an immigration policy designed to replace Palestinian laborers with foreign hands, Israel’s demand for water has risen, straining the ecological balance between human beings and their environment. Israel’s reluctance to release its grasp on water resources isn’t surprising.

The Palestinians are even worse shape, lacking sole, sovereign control over any water resources. The Palestinian Authority shares all of its groundwater resources with Israel. The entire West Bank sits on top of three different aquifer basins, together known as the Mountain Aquifer, circumscribed by the 1949 Armistice Line. And while Hamas and its rival Israel might not be on speaking terms just yet, the borders of the Gaza Strip also cross the Coastal Aquifer, another water resource Palestinians share with Israelis.
For the West Bank, a dysfunctional bureaucratic body called the Joint Water Committee (JWC) decides whether or not to approve Palestinian requests for well drilling permits. Set up under Oslo and composed of Palestinian and Israeli representatives from their respective water authorities, the JWC vetoes almost all Palestinian applications for increased access to groundwater. The Palestinians, of course, have no way to prevent Israel from drilling wells.

The Israelis, however, say that if left to their own devices, Palestinians would destroy the Mountain Aquifer by over pumping. They point to the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian over abstraction from the Coastal Aquifer has caused the sea to seep into the aquifer and render 90 percent of it saline. In answer to Palestinian demands for more wells in the West Bank, Israel offers two solutions. The first involves the construction of a desalination plant along the Mediterranean Sea, manufacturing water through an expensive, energy intensive process that produces hyper-saline wastewater, dangerous to marine life if dumped back into the sea. The other option Israel proposes is building wastewater treatment and reuse plants to recycle sewage for use in agriculture, freeing up fresh, natural water for domestic and industrial purposes. Israel also criticizes the Palestinian Authority for not cracking down on unregistered that abstract more water than Oslo allows, most of them near Jenin and Jericho.

To desalination, the Palestinian Authority says it simply can’t pay for manufactured water pumped hundreds of meters to Palestinian population centers like Nablus, a city with some of the most expensive water in the West Bank already. Furthermore, Palestinians and their advocates say that even if donor money does cut the cost of building a desalination plant, that money won’t continue to flow to maintain the facility or purchase the chemicals necessary for desalination. Relying on international loans and donations to pay the water bill doesn’t sound appealing either. As for wastewater treatment and reuse, Palestinian members of the JWC routinely reject Israeli proposals that couple approval of treatment plant permits with requirements that they wastewater from settlements. Palestinians on the JWC don’t want to create “facts on the ground” that legitimate the presence of Israeli settlements.

The Palestinian counter-argument is fairly simple. Israel should expand its capacity to desalinate seawater and should grant drilling rights to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians also argue that Israel is already set to start desalinating almost a billion cubic meters of seawater over the next decade, so there’s no reason not to relinquish a share of the Mountain Aquifer to Palestinian taps. It is, after all, the only natural water resource native to Palestinian territory, while Israel controls the Sea of Galilee and its new desalination plant at Ashkelon manufactures a million cubic meters of water a year. Geography, economics, and politics deny Palestine that option.

But Israel objects to being obligated to depend on desalination for the Palestinians sake. And that’s understandable, the Palestinians don’t want to either. The real question here concerns sovereignty. Sure, if the Palestinian Authority agreed to buy desalinated water from Israel, it would receive water from Israel. But it doesn’t want that water. “I wouldn’t buy it for a penny,” Dr. Shaddad Attili, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, said at a UN and PWA sponsored conference in April. What Palestinians want is the psychological assurance of sovereign, independent control over water resources.

Given the nature of the trans-boundary water in question, this isn’t likely to happen. But a real Palestinian state will never emerge without a sovereign and sufficient water supply based on equitable and reasonable allocations for both sides. Indeed, a Palestinian country could have all the bureaucratic and coercive organs of a state, but without independent control over its water, it wouldn’t be truly sovereign. Unable to direct economic development or provide for the needs its people, such a state would probably collapse, becoming subject to its neighbors and beholden to a foreign hand on the proverbial tap.

And another grim specter looms: climate change. Over the next fifty years, studies conducted by German, Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian scientists point to a potential ten percent decrease in rainfall, with summertime temperatures spiking by several degrees Celsius, threatening to evaporate strained surface water sources like the Sea of Galilee. Already, 250 million cubic meters of water evaporate out of the Sea each year. The aquifers also need rainfall to recharge.

Anecdotal evidence supports these models. Israeli and Palestinian octogenarians I’ve spoken to agree with one thing: the weather’s gotten hotter since they were kids, with much less rain. Recently, the precipitation the region does receive has come sometimes in the form of springtime torrents instead of autumn showers. More than 90 percent of Palestinian agriculture relies on rainfall, so climate change poses a real danger to that sector of the economy.

So what should happen? Clearly, Washington, London, and Brussels need to address this issue of water publicly. There is good reason to do so. After a hopeful beginning this spring, the Obama administration, mired in Afghanistan and brawling with Congress over health care reform, appears to have put the Israel-Palestine situation aside. Assuming President Obama’s promises to reinitiate meaningful peace negotiations come true, one of the first issues he should bring up is water. An urgent issue with a quantifiable solution, a deal involving water, a politically innocuous issue to Western polities in water rich countries, could even draw passive support from the American public. It’s difficult to imagine Michael Savage or Glenn Beck, two racially insensitive conservative shock jocks, marshalling caricatures of greedy Arabs stealing water from defenseless Israel with Obama their eager accomplice. But anything’s possible.

So perhaps “water for peace” could replace “land for peace” as Obama’s mantra in negotiations for the next decade. From the perspective of an Israeli politician, giving more water to Palestinians would be a great bargain. Today, just two percent of Israel’s GDP comes from agriculture yet the sector uses more than half the country’s water. Cutting some of the kibbutzim’s water subsidies would be politically painless compared to say, forcibly dismantling the city of Ariel, an Israeli settlement with its own hospital and university.
Indeed, the beauty behind allocating more water to Palestinians is that it enhances the value of the land they have left without forcing Israel to meet politically unfeasible Palestinian demands, like splitting Jerusalem. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, has already identified Palestinian economic growth as key to Israel’s security, creating jobs and distraction for otherwise unemployed, disgruntled youth.

This perspective might sound cynical, but it’s just realistic. Few people in power in Washington are willing to listen to any plan for Israel-Palestine lacking the preamble: “This would be in Israel’s security interest because…” But doesn’t mean improving the Palestinians’ lot is impossible. Solving water is a first step no peace scheme can afford to skip, lest a “final status” solution become another indefinite “interim period.” Then again, if the past serves as prologue, I wouldn’t advise Obama to get his hopes up.
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