Water: A Potential Vehicle For Peace?

INTRODUCTION

Water is emerging as the “new oil.” Water has always been a precious commodity, particularly in arid climates and underdeveloped nations. Access to potable water is a fundamental right. As such, disputes over access to water have become increasingly common. In regions with growing populations these disputes have become volatile. The Middle East is no exception, and the water disputes in that region are further complicated by longstanding geopolitical tensions.

The history of water-related conflicts in the Middle East stretches over the past 5,000 years. Currently, the Israeli-Palestinian water dispute is center-stage in the international arena. Israelis and Palestinians coexist in a small region with a large population density.  The physical proximity of the two populations necessitates close collaboration with respect to use and allocation of scarce natural resources. Specifically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be attributed, in part, to a dispute over the two major shared water sources: the surface water that originates in the Jordan River Basin and the mountain aquifers that extend from the West Bank into Israel.  The Palestinians believe that the Israelis wield their power to impede the flow of water to Palestinian communities.  In contrast, Israelis allege that Palestinians grossly mismanage their limited water supply to the detriment of all users.

The shortage of surface water and groundwater resources in the region inevitably exacerbates the already explosive conflict between the two communities. This makes finding a resolution to the on-going water shortage, which is now elevated to a crisis level, even more pressing.  Rather than permitting this shortage of water to add to the mounting tension in the region, this dispute over a scarce resource should be viewed as an opportunity to cooperate and find a solution that benefits both parties and helps establish the foundation of trust necessary to facilitate legitimate peace negotiations.  Though the security of Israel, maintenance of human rights and the Israeli settlement policies are each legitimate political concerns, the serious health dangers associated with open sewage, lack of water, and empty or polluted wells should be considered of equal importance by the actors in the region and the international community.

DISPARATE PERSPECTIVES

High-tech irrigation systems and public awareness aid Israelis in achieving more efficient water use than their Palestinian neighbors. Israel has a high per capita water use and has taken a firm stance on its unwillingness to reduce the water supply for urban or agricultural use. Most importantly, the Israelis view water as a security issue. Water is a political vehicle wielded to gain a stronger footing in the disputed territories. Furthermore, the Israelis believe the Palestinians misuse and mismanage their shared water supplies, thereby posing a direct threat to Israel.

The Palestinians believe water use is a right, which they are continually denied.  Palestinians view the denial of water rights as a major impediment to the Palestinian economy. A 2009 report by the World Bank asserted that the Palestinian economy endured substantial costs due to lost opportunities in irrigated agriculture as a result of water limitations. The study estimated the loss as 10% of GDP and 110,000 jobs. Moreover, health concerns also exist. According to UNICEF, over 90% of the water taken from Gaza Coastal Aquifer (“GCA”), Gaza’s sole aquifer, is insufficient for human consumption. Furthermore, the Palestinians believe that they are unjustly burdened by having to purchase their water from overpriced and unregulated sources. More than 80% of the people in Gaza purchase drinking water from unregulated, private vendors, despite the water’s likely contamination. This imposes an additional financial and health burden on the people of Gaza.

UNICEF officials assert that some families are paying as much as a third of their household income for water. The World Bank determined that Israel consumes 80% of the water available in the mountain aquifer which runs the length of the occupied West Bank  and is shared with other occupants of the West Bank.  According to the World Bank, Israelis use 240 cubic meters of water per person each year; West Bank Palestinians use 75 cubic meters, and residents of Gaza use 125 cubic meters. However, it is noteworthy that in some areas of the West Bank, Palestinians report living on as little as 6 cubic meters of water per person per year.

Historically, Gaza has been dependent upon its coastal aquifer because there are no streams or rivers.  However, due to water mining—where water is pumped out of the aquifer at a higher rate than replenished—seawater from the Mediterranean has permeated into the groundwater. As a result, the water salinity has reached undrinkable levels.  Moreover, this water is also contaminated by raw and partially treated sewage coming from Gaza every day and flowing into the shallow coastal waters. One recent United Nations report predicted that the aquifer will be inoperative by 2016 because of overuse and contamination.

While some politicians attempt to divert attention to other issues, 1.7 million Palestinians are running out of fresh drinking water in the Gaza Strip. Although the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 ostensibly alleviated much of the tension between the nations over water allotment and sewage infrastructure, the fundamental dilemma remains that both sides have differing viewpoints of what should be achieved through a policy of water sharing. The Israeli government believes it has satisfied its obligations under international law. The Palestinians’ focus is on their desperate situation with respect to water rights. The disparate perspectives make collaboration very difficult The Joint Water Committee, established in accordance with the Oslo Peace Accords, has failed thus far to produce effective results and reform.

POLITICS STYMIE IMPROVEMENT

Environmental improvements in the region are stymied by political disputes. These disputes occur not only between the Israelis and Palestinians, but also among internal Palestinian political factions.  One example of the political impediment on the issue of water rights is illustrated by the completion of a wastewater treatment plant in November, 2013 to alleviate pollution of the GCA, which serves 400,000 people in the northern Gaza Strip. Gaza is reliant on Israel for its electricity supply. However, Israel is refusing to provide the additional three megawatts required to power the treatment plant until Gaza’s current electricity bills are paid. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority disagree over who should pay the debt. Until this debt is paid, or an alternative electricity source emerges, untreated sewage will continue to pollute the coastal aquifer. As a result, the contamination threatens not only the individuals in the Gaza Strip, but an Israeli desalination plant in Ashkelon.

STEPS TO MITIGATE THE WATER CRISIS

Although there have been valiant efforts by a number of non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) to ameliorate this water crisis, the efforts are piecemeal and have largely had a minimal effect. Now, the involvement of the Friends of the Earth organization (“FoE”), has the potential to make a significant impact. This group has extensive financial resources and has identified the water conflict between Israel and Palestine as its first priority. As a result, it has begun to attract the international political attention necessary to alleviate this crisis.

The FoE campaign “Water Can’t Wait” is aimed at drawing global attention to the water crisis facing Gaza. FoE placed an hourglass full of polluted water in Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square. This effort was a visual representation on display of the tainted water both Israelis and Palestinians encounter.   Other organizations, such as UNICEF, have facilitated the construction and implementation of eighteen small neighborhood desalination plants, providing free drinking water to 95,000 people. These grassroots efforts have had some tangible positive impact.  However, these small NGO organizations will only be able to make small improvements absent a monumental shift in government policy. Nevertheless, there is some hope emerging from even these incremental measures.

Cooperative work on water issues has also led to greater collaboration on other aspects of the Israeli occupation. For example, the Palestinian village of Wadi Fuqin and the Israeli community of Tzur Hassadeh united to tackle water issues in 2010 and also came together to block construction of a separation wall, designed to separate the two communities by a physical barrier. The previous collective effort between these two communities to solve their mutual water issues built a foundation of trust. Working together to block the wall can serve as a model where everyone benefits.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Israel has a larger water supply due to large-scale desalination. Moreover, both sides need to deal with untreated sewage. Reigniting negotiations over water as a chief priority is logical from an economic, environmental, and partisan perspective. Both peoples could improve their living conditions. Palestinians would not have to purchase water from private companies. Furthermore, pollutants from rivers and streams would no longer affect the Israelis. A final agreement regarding water will provide the necessary foundation of trust required to put the political process between Israel and the Palestinians back on track.

Incremental problem solving between the two peoples, beginning with water and sanitation, can advance the overall peace effort by reaching a resolution on one of the issues that detrimentally affects both sides. The first step to finding a solution to shared water is to acknowledge that there is a water crisis and water disparities exist between Israelis and Palestinians. Next, Palestine will need independent water rights, which will require a proper infrastructure and enough water to manage. One potential avenue to accomplish this would require Israel to recognize Palestinian water rights to the Jordan River. Moreover, the Israeli government can provide the Palestinian Water Authority with water, free from charge. This can all be done without discussing more political and philosophical disputes, such as settlements or the sharing the sovereignty in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority would then distribute the water to Bethlehem, Hebron, and Yatta, in the West Bank, where the need for water is greatest. This action would bolster the Palestinian public support for the more moderate Palestinian Authority, demonstrating that tangible concessions can stem from negotiation, rather than violence.  The Palestinian Authority, in turn, could make a goodwill gesture and declare that the sewage treatment plant, piloted by the World Bank in Hebron, will expand to include the treatment of all Palestinian domestic and industrial sewage that currently permeates into Israel vis-à-vis the Hebron Stream. The United States could lend financial support to this effort, which is estimated to require an additional $30 million contribution. Israel would likely garner wide support, particularly in Beersheba, where the people are inundated with untreated sewage. There is potential for change. Water can be the key to facilitating this change.

CONCLUSION

Environmental problems transcend ethnic, tribal, or sectarian boundaries. Given the geopolitical significance of the Middle East, it is imperative to resolve a dispute that has significant ecosystem repercussions within the greater region. It is evident that fair, sustainable, and equitable relations between Israel and Palestine cannot occur without agreed upon arrangements for water sharing. While the insatiable need for fresh water in an arid climate is currently wielded as a political tool, cooperation in the reallocation and innovation of water and water-related technology has the capacity to unite the nations.  The thirst for adequate supplies of potable water is a common denominator. With courage and foresight the leadership of both the Palestinians and Israelis can use the region’s water crisis as a bridge to further collaboration and an easing of tensions.

 

The title picture is of the Jordan River in Israel. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license and the owner does not endorse this blog.


Sources:

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