- Fresh water is precious everywhere but especially in
one of the driest, hottest places on earth - the Middle East. It's why
it's a strategic resource and the reason countries like Israel do everything
possible to secure a reliable supply. In the words of former prime minister
Moshe Sharett: "Water to us is life itself." It shapes Israeli
policy going back to the early Mandate period.
- A Brief History
- Post-WW I, Zionists wanted Sykes-Picot borders altered
to include the Jordan River, Lower Litani, east coast of the Sea of Galilee
and Lower Yarmouk headwaters and tributaries. These affect Palestine, southern
Lebanon, Syria and the Jordan Valley. Efforts to secure them fell short
because French opposition blocked them. But it didn't prevent further regional
hydrological studies. They were needed because by WW II's end accommodating
a growing Palestinian and Jewish population grew acute.
- Israel's "War of Independence" followed in
1947-48. It assured water sovereignty as well. Israel was free to act unilaterally
- to tap and develop all available resources plus whatever it could seize
later on. They'd be needed after Israel's 1950 Law of Return was passed.
It granted Jews worldwide special rights - to emigrate freely and become
citizens of the land of Israel. It brought in waves of new immigrants requiring
considerable water resources for them, but Israel's supply was inadequate.
At the time, four states shared the Jordan-Yarmouk watershed. Developing
it was essential. Each had growing needs so securing a dependable supply
- Several regional water-sharing proposals failed in part
because Israel linked them to recognizing the Jewish state. It also rejected
solutions not in its strategic interest and acted unilaterally instead.
Take its National Water Carrier project. Construction began in the late
1950s and early 1960s and became the country's largest water project -
to transfer Sea of Galilee northern water to highly populated areas in
the center and south and to facilitate efficient water use. To neighboring
Arab states, however, it was a hostile act, and they responded with their
own diversion plans. Israel viewed them as a national security threat.
- Confrontation followed. The National Water Carrier was
targeted. Israel retaliated against Syrian construction sites. Skirmishes
broke out, and the 1967 war resulted. Officially it began on June 5, 1967.
Others, including Ariel Sharon, said it started two and a half years earlier
when Israel acted against diverting the Jordan River. Earlier, Ben-Gurion
warned that Jews and Arabs would battle over strategic water resources
and determine Palestine's fate. Its people as well. Aside from other strategic
aims for land and regional control, Israel secured water rich lands in
southern Lebanon, Jordan, the Golan, and West Bank.
- It fully exploited them and is a key reason why the Golan
was never returned. West Bank water is another issue. It has three principle
aquifers supplying about one-quarter of Israel's needs, including for its
settlements and nearly all of what West Bank Palestinians get. They are:
- -- the Yarkon-Tanninim Aquifer supplying Israel with
about 340 million cubic meters (mcm) of water annually - to Jerusalem and
Tel Aviv mainly; Palestinians get far less - about 20 mcm a year;
- -- the Nablus-Gilboa Aquifer supplying about 115 mcm
annually, largely for agricultural irrigation in Galilee-based kibbutzim
and moshavim cooperative settlements;
- -- the Eastern Aquifer supplying about 40 mcm a year
to Jordan Valley-based settlements; another 60 mcm go to Palestinians.
- Water also comes from the upper Jordan River and its
tributaries - the Sea of Galilee, the Yarmouth, and lower Jordan River.
Palestinians are denied most of it. As their population grows, shortages
have become more acute because of Israel's restrictive policies.
- Israel's Water Policy in the Territories
- The policy works this way - to preserve an unequal division
of western, eastern, and northern West Bank aquifer supply. It was the
same for Gaza's aquifer prior to disengagement. The result is a hugely
disproportionate distribution policy causing growing shortages for Palestinians.
Israel does little to alleviate it. It invests little in infrastructure
leaving 20% of West Bank Palestinians unconnected to a running-water system:
- -- around 227,000 in 220 West Bank towns and villages;
- -- another 190,000 only partially connected; and
- -- even in towns and villages with a water network, most
often supply is irregular - only on some hours of the day and sometimes
rotationally; in distant areas, supply may be disconnected for days or
weeks; it's part of Mekorot's (Israel's National Water Company) discriminatory
policy to assure settlers are adequately supplied.
- In addition, Israeli maintenance (for Palestinians) is
shoddy. Water pipes are old and leak, and in some cases more than 50% of
fresh water is lost. Qalqiliya and Tulkarm have been especially affected.
- Consider the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian
supply. For Palestinians, per capita West Bank consumption is 60 liters
a day - for domestic, urban, rural, and industrial use. It's far below
the minimum 100 daily liters required according to the World Health Organization.
In contrast, look how much Israelis get - 280 liters a day per capita for
domestic, urban and rural use or about four and a half times more than
Palestinians. Including industrial use, and it's 330 liters or five a half
times Palestinian consumption.
- Israeli Violations of International Law on Water in the
- By integrating Occupied Territory water resources into
its legal and bureaucratic system and denying Palestinians the right to
develop them for their own use, Israel violates international law under
Articles 43 and 55 of the 1907 Hague Regulations. Also Article 27 of the
Fourth Geneva Convention relating to treating "all protected persons....with
the same consideration by the Party to the conflict in whose power they
- Then there's Article 6 of the UN Convention on the Law
of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. It requires
water division between states to be reasonable and equitable. Not according
to a specific formula but with regard to seven factors:
- -- the watercourse's shared natural features - its geography,
climate, hydrology, and so forth;
- -- each state's social and economic needs;
- -- its population;
- -- how watercourse use in one state affects another;
- -- watercourse existing and potential uses;
- -- watercourse resources conservation, protection and
development and the cost of measures to assure them; and
- -- planned or existing use alternatives.
- Taking international law and all the above factors into
account, Palestinian rights are severely compromised.
- Water security is crucial for Israel. Securing and preserving
supply essential. In the occupied West Bank, Arabs are prohibited from
drilling new wells without special permission, but it's practically impossible
to get and won't likely change. Many existing wells were also sealed to
restrict Palestinians to a very low quota, far below Israelis. Most West
Bank water goes to Israel and the expanding settlement population. Jordan
River water is also diverted - from 50 to 75%. As its population grows,
so does its water needs. It was one among other factors behind the 1982
Lebanon invasion - to control the Litani River in the country's south.
It remains out of reach today, but a richer resource would be to secure
access to major rivers like the Nile, Euphrates or Seyhan and Ceyhan in
- Since the 1990s, water and other environmental issues
were among the most important in Israeli bilateral relations. Its October
1994 peace treaty with Jordan included five annexes. Two addressed water
and environmental concerns.
- The water rich Golan has been a stumbling block toward
a similar deal with Syria. It's much the same in bilateral Palestinian
talks. The Territories' water resources have been over-exploited for years,
but precious little of it for Palestinian use. It's a major destabilizing
factor and obstacle to real peace and security. So many issues are at stake.
One rarely discussed is the inequitable distribution of scarce and valued
- Summer 2008 Drought Compounds the Problem
- Israelis nearly always have enough water for their needs
- agricultural, drinking, bathing, watering lawns, washing cars, and filling
swimming pools for those who have them. In contrast, Palestinians have
precious little. In summer it's always worse, but this year the most severe
draught in a decade made it grave. In the northern West Bank, consumption
is at about one-third the minimum required. It's because rainfall this
year has been less than two-thirds normal. In southern areas, it's barely
over half. Cities like Tubas, Jenin, Nablus and the Southern Hebron hills
have been especially impacted.
- According to Palestinian Water Authority estimates, the
West Bank's water shortfall is from 42 to 69 mcm. Its consumption is 79
mcm making emergency supplies needed. Throughout the West Bank, per capita
consumption is about 66 liters (for domestic, urban, rural and industrial
use), far below the World Health Organization's 100 liter minimum for personal
- Making matters worse is the price of privately purchased
water that constitutes 50% of West Bank supply - from 15 to 30 shekels
or three to six times higher that Israelis pay. Because of this year's
shortfall, it's heading higher and putting an impossible burden on impoverished
Palestinians to buy enough of it. The alternative is drinking from questionable
sources after amounts collected in cisterns run dry - stagnant water or
from dirty springs that may expose users to frequent and serious illnesses.
- Oslo II's Broken Promise
- The 1995 Oslo II agreement assured "the equitable
utilization of joint water resources for implementation in and beyond the
interim period." It never happened because Israel's Palestinian dealings
are nearly always duplicitous. It sets traps and uses devious language
to assure interpretations go its way.
- Post-Oslo II, a Joint Water Committee (JWC) was established
to approve new West Bank water and sewage projects. It's composed of an
equal number of Israeli and Palestinian representatives, but that's where
equality ends. All decisions are by consensus, but no procedure is in place
to settle disputes when agreement can't be reached. As a result, Israel
can veto Palestinian requests for new wells - even though Oslo II assured
- Desalinization Plans
- The publication New Scientist has covered "the latest
science and technology news, reports, developments and research" for
over 50 years. In May 2004, it reported that Israel had a "secret
plan for a giant desalination plant to supply (privatized) drinking water
to (Palestinians in) the West Bank." It was to preserve fresh water
supplies for Israelis, but here's the catch. Israel won't fund it nor can
Palestinians. It means the world community or possibly the US would have
to do it. Just as bad, if it's ever completed, is the cost as leading hydrologists
point out: "desalinating seawater and pumping it to the West Bank....would
cost around $1 per cubic meter," an impossible amount for Palestinians
to pay at an exchange rate of 3.3 shekels to the dollar. Many if not most
Israelis as well.
- Nonetheless, Alvin Newman, USAID's Tel Aviv head of water
resources, supported the project, and with good reason. If funding is secured,
it would mean lucrative business contracts for favored USAID contractors.
Palestinians, on the other hand, are fearful. They object to desalinization
plans dependent on their abandoning claims to West Bank water - resources
beneath their own land. Ihad Barghothi, Palestinian Water Authority's head
of water projects said at the time: "We cannot do that (nor do we)
have the money or expertise for desalination."
- Gaza is another issue. It depends almost exclusively
on small wells tapping the coastal aquifer. But as the water table falls,
it's being increasingly polluted by salt sea water. UN scientists conclude
that within 15 years (from 2004) Gaza will have no drinkable water and
will have to import its needs. But even now the World Health Organization
reports that Gaza's water quality falls below its acceptable standards
due to the aquifer's degradation. Besides that, 40% of Gaza homes lack
running water, according to the Palestinian Water Authority.
- Another possible solution is an approved and apparently
funded so-called ocean depth reverse osmosis plant to provide the Territory's
supply. It's another method of desalinating sea water, but here again there's
- New Scientist points out that if these two projects become
reality they'll make "Palestine more dependent on desalination than
almost any other nation in the world." And given the cost of desalinated
water, it will be out of reach for the great majority of impoverished Palestinians.
- Palestinian Resilience and Nonviolent Resistance
- Palestinian resilience is impressive despite overwhelming
obstacles. Take Nahhalin village, 20 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem
where the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ) is active. For
the past 17 years, it's represented Palestinian interests - economic, social,
natural resources management, sustainable agriculture, politics, and water
- In 2007, it began a waste water treatment project it
will replicate in other rural areas to provide new sources of water for
irrigation. In Nahhalin, ARIJ's water and environment research unit will
install on-site waste water treatment systems for about 180 homes accommodating
1800 people. The project is scheduled for completion in 2010. Wherever
else it's used, it'll manage waste water and improve access to fresh supplies.
ARIJ believes its plan is one of the most feasible and economical ways
to provide a sanitary use for household waste water. When in place, it'll
increase agricultural productivity and food security, a vital Palestinian
- ARIJ sees other benefits as well. Treatment units will
be manufactured locally to provide much needed jobs. In addition, these
type projects further peace and are powerful nonviolent resistance acts.
- The Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG) complements ARIJ's
efforts with its own projects. It's an NGO "promot(ing) the role of
women in civil societies in managing local water and its related environmental
resources to ensure transparency, good water governance and just and equal
provision of water and sanitation services to the rural and marginal communities
in the West Bank and Gaza."
- One of its projects is in the northern West Bank villages
of Jayyus and Karr Jammal near Qalqilya where Israel's Separation Wall
cuts off off farmers from their lands. PHG is helping them maintain pumps
and irrigation systems so they have greater control of their natural resources
despite overwhelming Israeli restrictions. It's another expression of their
nonviolent resistance and it's spreading.
- International law is supportive. It recognizes non-discriminatory
access to adequate fresh water as a fundamental human right and requires
occupying powers to assure it. The UN General Assembly also affirmed Palestinians'
right to self-determination and control of their natural resources - in
Resolutions 1803 (1962), 2672C, (1970), 2787 (1971) and 3098D (1980).
- In December 1966, it adopted the International Covenant
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 1(1) affirms self-determination,
and Article 1(2) states: "All peoples may, for their own ends, freely
dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any
obligations arising out of international economic cooperation, based upon
the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may
a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence." It's now up
to the international body to enforce its own rulings.
- Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre
for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at
- Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com