A Critical Analysis of the Israeli Palestinian Water Relations

Posted in 2005 Papers

The water situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) is approaching a critical phase which is threatening the livelihood of the Palestinian population and hindering economic development. The water crisis in the OPT is not due to scarcity of supplies but due to uneven and inequitable distribution of this scarce resource between Israelis and Palestinians. The current water allocations came about as a result of fete compli arrangements reflecting the balance of power rather than internationally formulated agreements.Israel is currently utilizing more than 80 % of the Palestinian groundwater resources and denying Palestinians their rightful utilization of the Jordan River. Regrettably, water has not received the same attention as other disputed issues such as the future of Jerusalem, the settlement issue and the right of refugees to return to their homeland. According to the interim agreement, Israel recognized, in principle, the Palestinian water rights. However, the enumeration of these rights has been delayed until the final status negotiation. No serious negotiations have taken place on this vital issue.
The Interim agreement provided Palestinians additional amounts of water, but these small quantities failed to meet the needs of a growing Palestinian population who are subjected to suppressed water demand. It was agreed that the immediate Palestinian needs were supposed to be 28.6 MCM/yr and the future water needs were estimated to be between 70-80 MCM but up to date, after 10 years of signing the interim agreement, only 15 MCM of additional water was supplied annually. As a result of Israel’s water policy, the water consumption of the 3.6 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza strip amounts to 270 MCM per year, whereas the 6.0 million Israelis consume around 1,800 MCM per year. Regrettably, the peace process did not translate into continuous supply or additional waters in the taps. On the contrary, water shortages especially during the summer months are exacerbating.
Other problems plague the Palestinian water sector. The groundwater table in the Herodion well field of the eastern aquifer is declining rapidly as both the Palestinians and Israelis are exploiting its water. Approximately 25% of the Palestinian water communities are not connected to the water network. While the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) submitted several project to improve the water and sanitation infrastructure, for example to connect Palestinian villages to the water network, these projects have been at large rejected by the Joint Water Committee (JWC) established for the interim period.
Moreover, among the recent Israeli schemes affecting the water resources in the West Bank are the fragmentation of the West Bank into several security zones and the construction of the Segregation Zone. This has resulted in the isolation of several Palestinian groundwater wells and springs used for domestic and agricultural purposes. The combined number of water wells utilized by the Palestinian population in the segregation zones is 136 with a combined average annual pumping rate of approximately 44.1 MCM while the combined number of water springs in the segregation zones is 46 with a combined average annual discharge of approximately 23 MCM. This will result in cutting the Palestinians off from these water supply sources or at least imposing more restrictions on their use.
There is a growing fear among Palestinians that the Israeli government is not serious in its peace aspirations. Israel has not implemented its commitments stipulated in the interim agreement. There is very little that the Palestinian layperson can point out to indicate visible fruits of the peace process. While the PWA is doing its utmost to rehabilitate the water infrastructure, its efforts are being impeded by Israel's practices. This in turn calls into question the prospect for a sustainable peace. The basic problem is that Israel so far has refused to approach the water conflicts with its Arab neighbors in an integrated manner. Israel's strategy is to strike a separate deal with each of its neighbors without any consideration to the geohydrological nature of basins and aquifers. Since Israel is holding all the water cards in its hands, it is using this tactic to ensure that it will have the overall control and responsibility for managing the water resources and providing its neighbors with certain quantities of water that are agreed upon. Certainly, such an approach is neither acceptable nor sustainable. Israel intends to hold large areas of the West Bank in order to create “security zones” and to maintain its control over the Palestinian water resources. Minister Sharon was quoted saying: “My view of Judea and Samaria is well known, the absolute necessity of protecting our water in this region is central to our security. It is a non-negotiable item”. (Boston Sunday Globe, Sunday, October 18, 1998). In one of his meetings with the Palestinian negotiators, the Israeli water commissioner Ben-Meir said: “I recognize needs, not rights. We are prepared to connect Arab villages to Israel as well, but I want to retain sovereignty on hand”. Such statements confirm Palestinian fears of a dry peace.
To alleviate Palestinian fears of a dry peace, Israel needs to immediately satisfy Palestinians needs for water and to start negotiations leading to a mutual recognition of the “rightful allocations” of both parties to the Jordan River, the Dead Sea waters and the shred groundwater resources.

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