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Water and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Competition or Cooperation?

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- Main Sources Of Conflict: Land, Water & Gas? -

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Water and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict:
Competition or Cooperation?

Maher Bitar, Foundation for Middle East Peace
December 22, 2005

The Importance of Water

In a resource scarce Middle East, water is a constant source of economic and political tension. In areas of conflict, such as in Israel and Palestine, the struggle over water involves, not only economic and distribution issues, but central political, legal, and territorial claims as well. Water, essential to all parties, emerges as a tool of control and exploitation, a powerful bargaining chip, and a politicized commodity.

Water needs of both Israelis and of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are rising, and current extraction levels are unsustainable. The need for a functional, cooperative water distribution regime has become crucial. A workable solution that meets both Israeli and Palestinian needs is feasible. Yet this goal, or substantial movement toward it, are unlikely to be achieved without major progress toward a resolution of the issues of sovereignty, territory, settlements and security that continue to perpetuate the conflict.

In order to spur sustainable development in the Palestinian territories, as well as to ensure the viability of an eventual Palestinian state, an equitable water distribution and sharing regime between Israel and the Palestinian territories must be implemented. Access to clean and consistent sources of water is imperative to meet the present needs and future demands of both parties. For the Palestinians especially, the Israeli policy of restricted water allocation has exacerbated health and nutrition problems and has adversely affected agricultural output and domestic, commercial, and industrial development. Furthermore, the continuation of current extraction rates poses serious hydrological and ecological challenges for both Israel and the Palestinian territories. Current water use in Israel and in Israeli settlements inside the West Bank, coupled with the rapidly increasing Palestinian population exceeds the natural replenishment rate.

For these reasons, water is a point of constant and growing friction. Even so, as a shared resource, water could provide an avenue for unprecedented functional cooperation in the context of renewed peace negotiations and a final status agreement. Looking forward, because Israeli and Palestinian water needs are interdependent, joint water management and cooperation have the potential for serving as a stepping stone and model for other forms of management of other cross border conflicts and problems affecting both societies.

Water Sources and Distribution

Water remains a scarce resource in Israel and the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Both people rely on common water sources. This underscores interdependence of both societies and the trans-boundary conflicts that arise over unequal control, extraction, and consumption.

Above ground, the Jordan River connects all communities of the Levant: Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Occupied West Bank. Most significantly, 80% of Jordan River Valley Basin, including Lake Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee) and its principal arteries, straddles Israeli controlled territory, including the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights, Jordan and the West Bank. From the north the Upper Jordan River flows into Lake Tiberias, the north-west portion of which is used extensively by Israel to withdraw and transport water through the National Water Carrier to coastal cities and the Negev desert. This surface water comprises about 30% of Israel’s total water consumption. Groundwater aquifers underlying the West Bank, Gaza, the Galilee, and the Negev, as well as desalination and wastewater recycling programs supply the rest. The large volume of water extracted sharply reduces the flow of the Lower Jordan River, which runs along the north-west border between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the West Bank. Since the beginning of the Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank in 1967, land adjoining the Lower Jordan River has been declared a “closed military zone” and, thus, for Palestinians, access to the Lower Jordan River has been consistently denied.

Israeli control over pumping and distribution of the two main groundwater aquifers has severely restricted Palestinian water use. This remains the main source of tension regarding water between Israel and Palestinians in the territories. Much of the West Bank sits atop the Mountain Aquifer, composed of the Western, Eastern, and North-Eastern basins. The Gaza strip and coastal south Israel share the Coastal Aquifer Basin, of which the portion underneath Gaza provides a mostly independent source of extraction and recharge.

The West Bank

The Mountain Aquifer underlying, for the most part, the West Bank, provides approximately 30% of Israel’s water supply. It supplies Israel’s growing settlements as well as its military infrastructure in the West Bank, and a substantial amount is redirected to the state of Israel proper. In terms of groundwater obtained, Israel “receives 79% of the Mountain Aquifer and the Palestinians 21%.”

The discrepancy in comparative usage and consumption is glaring. Out of a total available groundwater of 1, 209 million cubic meters mcm/year in Israel and the West Bank, 1,046 mcm/year is currently for the benefit of Israel, while only 259 mcm/year is allocated to the Palestinians. And Palestinian residents continue to be denied access to surface water from the Lower Jordan River. As a result of this lopsided water usage, water consumption levels are reaching dangerously low levels in certain Palestinian areas.

According to recommended standards of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), a minimum of 100 liters a day per capita are needed for balanced and healthy domestic consumption in rural households. In contrast, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, documents that Israeli per capita consumption of water already reaches 350 l/day, about five-times Palestinian consumption. Per capita consumption of water in Israeli settlements, most of which are strategically located directly above main water extraction sources, can reach even higher levels, estimated at “seven-fold” the Palestinian consumption rate. In contrast, Palestinian consumption rates per capita vary between 35-80 l/c/d, well below WHO and USAID recommendations, and in some communities, water consumption can dip to as low as 7 l/c/d under certain conditions.

Areas most affected by water shortages and pollution are “residents of villages and refugee camps in the Occupied Territories not connected to a running water network.” A recent survey of Palestinian villages and rural communities by the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG) in the West Bank underscores the volatile nature of water distribution and the adverse effects of the political, economic, and military policies of the Israeli presence in the territory. The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Monitoring Project (WaSH MP) estimates that 31% of non-urban “Palestinian communities are not currently connected to a water network.” Moreover, the water supply to those who are being supplied by Mekorot, the national Israeli water carrier, is, nevertheless, unstable. 76% of the communities surveyed “reported a reduction in or, in some cases, a complete halt to their supply of water,” forcing many to seek unreliable, often contaminated alternative means of satisfying basic needs, for example through tankers, cisterns and springs. As a result, communities throughout the West Bank have experienced a large increase in water-related diseases, including skin-infections, diarrhea and amoeba.

Inequitable distribution of water is becoming more severe by growing ‘facts on the ground’ that have entrenched the Israeli presence and control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As noted above, the growing settlement populace of over 400, 000 settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, continue to enjoy a massively disproportionate supply of water in comparison to the over 2.4 million Palestinian residents of the same areas. Moreover, some of the largest settlements, such as Ariel and Kedumim, are located directly above the Western Mountain aquifer. According to the PLO Negotiation Affairs Department, some 115 settlement are located over highly sensitive water areas, while others have been located with water access in mind.

In addition, the imposition of the Security Barrier within the West Bank has further cut off Palestinians on both of sides of the barrier from water and agricultural resources and is a growing threat to economic life and public health. The barrier is especially damaging for Palestinians isolated on its western side, where water extraction and consumption opportunities are increasingly circumscribed and controlled by Israel and the national Israeli Water carrier Mekorot.

The Palestinian Hydrology Group highlights the specific effects the barrier has had and will increasingly have as it nears completion. In their report, they stress that the Barrier:
  • Isolates people from wells and water sources which are located on the “other side” of the Wall (be it Western or Eastern);

  • isolates lands which are need of water for irrigation;

  • damages and completely destroys wells, cisterns, reservoirs and/or pipes;

  • interrupts water pipe routes which not be rerouted because of the Wall’s construction;

  • blocks transport of water via tankers;

  • blocks access to Public Heath Centers and medical assistance.

As case studies indicate, the barrier has already isolated or destroyed an estimated 50 groundwater wells and over 200 cisterns, which supplied the domestic and agricultural needs of over 122, 000 residents.

Also, farmlands have been either destroyed or cut off from their owners and workers. Until 2003 alone, nearly 105, 000 trees were uprooted and much land is not being cultivated and, as a result, is “dry[ing] up and los[ing] much of its productivity.” Moreover, unpredictable policies regarding the opening and closing of available gates further exacerbate the vulnerability of Palestinian farms and villages. In terms of humanitarian and economic needs, the damage and isolation caused by the barrier is thus direct and quantifiable. The social and psychological ramifications caused by the division and isolation created by the barrier are no less serious.


With a population of over 1.35 million, of whom over 960, 000 are UNRWA-registered refugees,  the Gaza Strip faces an especially problematic water situation. Gaza already has one of the highest population densities in the world, estimated at 3,612 persons per sq km (9,356 per sq mi)  and a rapidly growing population, expected to reach almost 2 million by 2015. Coupled with the long-term consequences of the former Israeli military occupation and settlements, which ended in August and September of this year, Gaza has suffered a steady increase in debilitating ecological and hydrological problems. These include: “desertification, salinization of fresh water, sewage treatment, water-borne disease, soil degradation, [and the] depletion and contamination of underground water resources.” These are due primarily to over pumping and by pollution resulting from fertilizers and sewage infiltration. The former has resulted in an annual replenishing deficit of 90 million cubic meters, leading to a serious deterioration of the amount and quality of water. In addition to the infiltration of seawater, untreated sewage continues to seep in and harm the water supply as well as contaminating and damaging the ageing water infrastructure of the territory. These problems have crippled agricultural and economic production and damaged the health of Gaza’s burgeoning population.

Diplomacy and Negotiation

As the water challenges of the West Bank and Gaza Strip show, water is a crucial and volatile asset. As a valuable and politicized commodity it has been a potent source of tension between the Israelis and Palestinians. As the occupying power, Israel has direct and explicit responsibilities towards the residents under its military and civilian control, which it has repeatedly violated in order to ensure its continued control and domination of water sources. Consequently, negotiations on water have proceeded outside the framework of International law, and have largely ignored the international legal rule of equitable and reasonable utilization.

As a result, the issue of water has mostly played a peripheral role in formal and informal negotiations that took place in the Madrid-Oslo period of the 1990s. Though water was mentioned in conjunction with other issues, such as the economy and the environment, security, Jerusalem, refugees, and the settlements have been given much higher priority.

The Oslo Accords

Under the Declaration of Principles (DOP) of the Oslo accords, the issue of water was subsumed under Annex III: The Protocol on Israeli-Palestinian co-operation in economic and development programmes. Through the creation of the Israeli-Palestinian Committee for Economic Co-operation, it called for a joint water development program in order to “specify the mode of co-operation in the management of water resources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and responsible for the preparation of “proposals for studies and plans on water rights of each party, as well as on the equitable utilization of joint water resources for implementation in and beyond the interim period.” In addition, within the confines of Annex IV, the Protocol on Israeli-Palestinian Co-operation concerning Regional Development Programmes, water-specific and related provisions were made within a proposed economic development program for the West Bank and Gaza Strip:

  • The development of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian Plan for coordinated exploitation of the Dead Sea area

  • The Mediterranean Sea (Gaza) - Dead Sea Canal

  • Regional desalinization and other water development projects

  • A regional plan for agricultural development, including a coordinated regional effort for the prevention of desertification

The DOP provided an introductory framework for cooperation and coordination and clearly brought to the fore the necessity of ‘equitable utilization’ of joint resources. To enable this, a Joint Water Committee was established to be the main vehicle for water cooperation. The first agreement of the Oslo process, the Gaza Jericho Agreement of 4 May, 1994 discussed the issue of water and sewage in Annex II, Article II regarding the Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities of the Civil Administration. It addressed only issues in the Gaza and Jericho areas and the agenda for cooperation was limited to the “context of environmental protection and prevention of environmental risks, hazards and nuisances.”

The Interim Agreement Period

During the period, from September 1995 to May 1999, there was a nominal transfer of responsibility for the water sector to the areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, but this accomplished only limited changes in the actual distribution of water. The Joint Water Committee proved unable to facilitate equitable water distribution arrangements since Israel retained a “virtual veto power” in the Committee and was unwilling to fulfill agreed obligations. For example, during this period, there was an agreement to increase the water supply to the OPT “by some 30 percent.” Nevertheless, according to B’Tselem, by June 2000, before the outbreak of the second Intifada, only half of this “promised additional quantity was produced and supplied to the Palestinians.”

The Geneva Accord

The ‘Geneva Accord’ plan, a non-official ‘virtual’ peace agreement announced in October, 2003 sought to build on the "Clinton parameters" and the tentative agreement negotiated at Taba in January 2001. Though unofficial, it offers detailed solutions for a final status agreement. Nevertheless, the Draft Final Status Agreement that was distributed left the issues of Water (Article 12), as well as Economic Relations (Article 13) and Legal Cooperation (Article 14), “to be completed.”

Notwithstanding the collapse of the Oslo process and the resulting intifada, there have been contacts and meetings on the expert, local, and regional levels that can be interpreted as a sign of hope and of recognition of the interdependence of water needs. According to Jordan’s Al-Ghad daily newspaper, meetings were held in July between Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian mayors to discuss methods of cleaning up the Jordan River from liquid and solid wastes. Non-governmental organizations, such as Friends of the Earth Middle East, have also sought to foster such cooperation, for example between adjacent Israeli and Palestinian communities, and raise awareness within and across these communities.

Looking Forward

The water crisis for Palestinians, which is growing worse, is, foremost, a direct product of the military occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel. The exploitation of Palestinian water resources by Israel, inequitable distribution of joint resources, the construction of the barrier inside the West Bank, the restrictions on movement within the occupied territories, and continued military activities by the Israel Defense Forces all contribute to the deteriorating Palestinian water and health situation. These problems will not be addressed by creating alternative sources of water, such as desalinization plants, that Israel is planning to reduce water shortages for Israelis. Relief for Palestinians will require the dismantling of Israel’s military and civilian occupation infrastructure throughout the Palestinian territories and equitable access to water for Palestinians. If pursued in accordance with international law, this would greatly alleviate Palestinian suffering and reenergize agricultural and economic output.

In the longer term, since water inextricably binds Israelis and Palestinians together, they must deal with it as a joint issue that demands an integrated, cooperative approach. The status quo, within Israel and between Israel and Palestine, only perpetuates the unsustainable reality of water exploitation, misallocation and overuse. When final status negotiations are resumed – or preferably before if the parties can move toward accommodation and a shared vision of peace in the interim - water must be addressed as a primary humanitarian, public health and economic issue, not as a secondary environmental problem. Dr. Gershon Baskin, the Israeli Co-Director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, notes that a solution to the issue of water, and by extension, other resources, must be tackled using a functional and integrative approach. In order for a workable water regime to be implemented and respected, both parties need to move toward “demand management” negotiations, where the respective needs and population sizes of the areas are equally considered and agreements reflect International law and conventions  as well as the health standards set forth by the World Health Organization. Moreover, to offset the challenges raised by future population and economic growth, both parties need to embark on simultaneous national and cooperative waste management, water desalination, and conservation projects, in addition to promoting water-conscious agricultural practices.

In this vein, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, points out that a functional and equitable joint water regime could “provide the tools for close and continuous cooperation and mechanisms for resolving disputes between the sides.” Such a water regime adhering to international principles could set an important precedent for a functional-oriented negotiating process that could create trust and serve as an example for other realms of cooperation between two societies sharing these same resources.

Without progress toward such cooperation, water shortages will continue to add to Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and undermine public health, the environment, and the economy for Palestinians. If the current path of Israeli control and unilateral policies continues, the dangers of “pollution, salinization, and a lower water table, and will limit the ability of Israelis and Palestinians to exercise their rights to water and to benefit from their natural resources.”

Water is therefore a matter of urgent national security for both Israel and Palestine. Confronting the problem of water, no less than other higher profile issues of territory, settlements and sovereignty, is another compelling reason for both sides, with active support of the international community, to return to the peace table. Once they do, they are likely to find that mutually beneficial joint water demand and supply management are within their grasp.

Maher Bitar, a senior at Georgetown University, served as an intern with the Foundation for Middle East Peace in 2005. He will attend Oxford University in 2006 on a Marshall Scholarship.


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