- JERUSALEM -- Israel has drawn
up a secret plan for a giant desalination plant to supply drinking water
to the Palestinian territory on the West Bank. It hopes the project will
diminish pressure for it to grant any future Palestinian state greater
access to the region's scarce supplies of fresh water.
- Under an agreement signed a decade ago as part of the
Oslo accord, four-fifths of the West Bank's water is allocated to Israel,
though the aquifers that supply it are largely replenished by water falling
onto Palestinian territory.
- The new plans call for seawater to be desalinated at
Caesaria on the Mediterranean coast, and then pumped into the West Bank,
where a network of pipes will deliver it to large towns and many of the
250 villages that currently rely on local springs and small wells for their
- Israel, which wants the US to fund the project, would
guarantee safe passage of the water across its territory in return for
an agreement that Israel can continue to take the lion's share of the waters
of the West Bank. These mainly comprise underground reserves such as the
western aquifer, the region's largest, cleanest and most reliable water
- For Israelis, agreement on the future joint management
of this aquifer is a prerequisite for granting Palestine statehood.
- Global funding
- The first public hint of the plan emerged earlier in
May in Washington DC. Uri Shamir, director of water research at the Technion,
the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, told the House of Representatives
Committee on International Relations that the desalination project was
"the only viable long-term solution" for supplying drinking water
to the West Bank.
- Shamir told New Scientist this week that the project
could be complete in five to seven years. "The plant will be funded
by the world for the Palestinians. Israel will not be willing to carry
this burden, and the Palestinians are not able to."
- But other leading hydrologists contacted by New Scientist
point out that desalinating seawater and pumping it to the West Bank, parts
of which lie 1000 metres above sea level, would cost around $1 per cubic
- "The question is whether an average Palestinian
family can afford it," says Arie Issar, a water expert at Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev in Sede Boker, Israel, who helped green the Israeli
desert a generation ago by finding new water sources in the region. "It
would be foolish to desalinate water on the coast and push it up the mountains
when there are underground water resources up there, which cost only a
third as much."
- Tony Allan of King's College London, a leading authority
on Middle East water, agrees: "Pumping desalinated water to the West
Bank is not the best technical or economic option."
- But the project is being supported by Alvin Newman, head
of water resources at the Tel Aviv office of USAID, the US international
development agency, which would fund the desalination project. "Ultimately
it's the only solution," he said in an interview with New Scientist.
- Unusual cooperation
- Water supply is one of the few areas where cooperation
between Israel and Palestine has survived the current intifada. Every day
on the West Bank, Palestinian engineers help repair and maintain Israeli
water pipes, and vice versa.
- But Palestinian water negotiators are deeply uneasy about
the plans being drawn up on their behalf, especially if they involve abandoning
claims to the water beneath their feet. "We cannot do that. We don't
have the money or the expertise for desalination," Ihab Barghothi,
head of water projects for the Palestinian Water Authority, told New Scientist.
- Palestinians badly need more water. Under the Oslo agreement
they have access to 57 cubic metres of water per person per year from all
sources. Israel gets 246 cubic metres per head per year. And in the nearly
40 years that Israel has controlled the West Bank, Palestinians have been
largely forbidden from drilling new wells or rehabilitating old ones.
- The region's sources of water are the West Bank aquifers;
the river Jordan, which rises in the Golan Heights and flows into the Sea
of Galilee, where it is largely tapped by Israel; and the coastal aquifer,
an increasingly polluted reserve of underground water that extends south
to the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip.
- Sewage effluent
- Over the years, Israel has developed a good reputation
for using water efficiently, and in the 1980s it began recycling sewage
effluent for irrigation. In 2004, Israel signed a deal to buy water shipped
by tanker from Turkey.
- Meanwhile, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip depend almost
exclusively on small wells tapping the coastal aquifer. As the water table
falls, the aquifer is becoming increasingly polluted by salt water from
the sea. UN scientists say Gaza will have no drinkable water within 15
- Despite earlier efforts to develop desalination, the
Israel government only decided to invest heavily in the technology in the
past four years. Some, including Israeli liberals and Palestinian optimists
such as Barghothi, believed that once Israel began desalinating seawater
for its own use it would be prepared to relax its grip on the West Bank
- But now it appears that Israeli water planners see desalination
as a means of retaining control of those aquifers.
- The desalination plant to supply the West Bank would
parallel a similar US-funded reverse osmosis plant to fill taps on the
hard-pressed Gaza Strip. The scheme has already been approved and funded,
but is currently on hold because of continuing conflict in Gaza. Taken
together, the two schemes would leave an independent Palestine more dependent
on desalination than almost any other nation in the world.
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