Water Resilience

Advancing Israeli/Palestinian natural water reallocations and water management

Twentieth century assumptions that dictated water diplomacy led the Levant down a path of conflict and competition over water. Then the Levant was indeed wholly dependent on natural water, and therefore Israelis and Palestinians were in dispute over how to allocate the scarce natural water supply shared between them. This was the mind-set of how water was negotiated in the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s. Water was left unresolved as one of five final status issues because coming to an agreement over sharing scarce natural water was difficult and would produce winners and losers.

Today advancements in water technologies, often led by Israeli innovation, present the opportunity for Palestinians to obtain their rights to natural water sources, without reducing water availability for the Israeli side. Depending on negotiations between the parties, Palestine could fully access its water rights by increased Palestinian pumping from the three basins of the Mountain Aquifer, with Israel correspondingly reducing its pumping from those basins and increasing its own supply through desalination. As regards riparian water rights from the Jordan River, Palestine, like Jordan, cannot presently access its water rights from the river directly due to water diversion and river pollution. Here one suggestion could be that Palestinian water rights be sourced through increased Palestinian pumping from the Mountain Aquifer or from the Sea of Galilee, in line with the precedent of the Israel / Jordan peace treaty. 65 The ground-breaking work of M.I.T. Professor Franklin Fischer further shows that from an economic and sustainability perspective, optimal water management could take place through the creation of water markets between Israel and Palestine, with even greater efficiencies achieved if Jordan is also included.

Israel’s leadership in the utilization of treated wastewater for agriculture and the development of reverse osmosis desalination technology means that water is under fewer constraints as a resource. Presently 70% of the drinking water in Israel comes from desalination, and half the agriculture is grown with treated wastewater. The availability of large quantities of manufactured water, complementing natural water, makes the fair share of natural water between Israelis and Palestinians attainable. Reaching a deal on water would result in more water in every Palestinian home, dramatically improving the lives of every Palestinian, and meaningfully benefit the Palestinian economy.

Compared to the other Israeli-Palestinian conflict “final status issues” — Jerusalem, refugees, borders/settlements and security — water is today the least controversial and most solvable of final status issues. For the last 25 years, both Israelis and Palestinians have negotiated on the basis of having to agree to all final status issues as a single package. At the time of the Oslo Accords, all five final status issues were seen as difficult and solvable only as part of a deal, where each side would compromise on each issue as part of a single package. The failure to agree on all final status issues simultaneously has meant that there has been no advance on any of the final status issues. EcoPeace proposes a policy paradigm that prioritizes solvable issues, like water, to revive peace negotiations. This approach does not ignore the deep connection that water allocation has with other final status issues, such as borders, refugees and settlements. Both Palestinian and Israeli negotiators link the water issue to sovereignty and borders and to the water quantity needs of refugees and settlements. The fungible nature of water as a resource, however, means that water quantities can be agreed upon in a manner which takes into account these complexities and still represents agreement to full Palestinian water rights, paving the path towards solving the other final status issues too.

Moving forward on water issues would create a middle way; improving the conditions on the ground for the disadvantaged Palestinian side through allocation of their full water rights, while maintaining Israeli water security through increased desalination. Advancing on water as one of the core issues of the two-state peace process would show the public on both sides that there is a partner for peace and help rebuild the necessary trust between the two parties to advance the other final status issues associated with a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No less important under a climate crisis, the need to act on water is more urgent than ever, and its resolution will serve the climate security needs of both peoples.

Despite population growth and development over the past 25 years, Palestinian withdrawals of water from the Mountain Aquifer remain limited to the terms of Oslo II, often enforced through Israeli military control. This has created significant water scarcity affecting large areas of the West Bank, where municipal water services are provided in cities like Yatta, in the south of the West Bank, only one day per three months during the hot summer period.69 Additionally, due to its geological characteristics, most of the Mountain Aquifer’s recharge area is vulnerable to groundwater pollution and is degraded by inadequately treated sewage and unsanitary solid waste dumps, often caused by the limited ability to move forward in timely manner on projects in Area C communities. An estimated 47 million cubic meters of Palestinian-sourced raw and poorly treated sewage are released into the shared environment each year.

The Coastal Aquifer, under the Gaza Strip, is in a state of extreme overuse. As a result, 96% of the groundwater is no longer potable. Seawater infiltrates the aquifer, and salinity levels have thus risen well beyond World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for safe drinking water. This situation is compounded by contamination from the discharge of the mostly untreated sewage of 2 million people. The continued blockade on Gaza and the failure to reach internal Palestinian reconciliation result in the water and sanitation crisis being a core cause of Gaza’s not being a liveable place.

Israel too is severely affected by the water and sanitation crisis in the West Bank and Gaza. West Bank sewage is carried by cross-border streams into major Israeli cities and contaminates the ground water of the Mountain Aquifer that Israel takes the lion’s share of. A 2009 UN report estimated that 50,000 to 80,000 cubic meters of untreated or partially treated wastewater was flowing from Gaza into the Mediterranean Sea daily since January 2008. By 2018 it was estimated that more than 108,000 cubic meters of raw sewage flow from Gaza into the Mediterranean Sea every day through 9 sewage outlets distributed along the Gaza coastline, directly threatening the viability of Israel’s coastal desalination plants, which constitute 70% of the country’s drinking water, threatening Israeli water security and national security interests.

By not resolving water issues, both sides are paying a heavy price that under conditions of climate change will further threaten the national security of both peoples. The COVID19 pandemic should be a wake-up call to both governments that sustainably managing shared water resources is essential to maintain basic standards of hygiene that are essential to the health and economic welfare of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Maintaining the status quo at a time when technological advances have altered the very rationale for why water was considered a final status issue in the first place only highlights that water issues are today being held hostage to other final status issues of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. EcoPeace’s efforts towards achieving a fair water agreement between Israel and Palestine emphasize equitable rights and equal responsibilities related to joint management of shared water. ‘Equitable rights’ does not mean that all sides will receive equal volumes of natural water. Rather, it means that they will have equal standing in the institutions for joint management and equal opportunity to participate in decision-making processes, criteria that indicate that it is not water but water management of all shared water bodies that is really shared.

Priority recommendations to the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian governments: 
– Give political support to change the all-or-nothing paradigm and agree to negotiate water issues first. 
– Negotiate a water agreement to replace article 40 of the 1994 Oslo Accords. 
– Create an action plan to address Palestinian water and environmental projects in order to solve urgent issues like water supply and sanitation in Gaza and the West Bank. 
– Create a Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Commission to manage all shared waters.
Priority recommendations to the international community:
– Encourage the sides to break away from the all-or-nothing political paradigm in line with meeting Middle East and foreign policy climate security priorities.  – Create a “Friends of Water Group” as a coalition of states with influence on one or both of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, taking international leadership on the resolution of water issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the framework of a two-state solution based on internationally agreed parameters.