Defining water needs necessary for reconciliation

Is there enough water for everybody in this drought-blighted region to be able to broker Israeli-Palestinian agreement on that issue? It seems there is – if all parties concerned can just agree on parameters. Let’s start with the basics: how does one disentangle water “needs” from water “rights,” and how does one focus on that when more contentious terms like “demands” and “wants” keep popping up? The first step, says a group of Israeli and Palestinian researchers, is to clearly define “needs.” But that too is a subjective exercise.

The joint research team, led by Prof. Eran Feitelson and Dr. Abd El-Rahman Tamimi, attempted to solve this imbroglio. Serving as their starting point was conclusive evidence found in previous international studies that agreements over shared water resources are reached when the parties discuss concrete needs rather than vague principles. That helps in moulding the definition, but raises an additional aspect, “priority.” In other words – reflecting the labyrinthine complexities of the Middle East – this subject too has multiple layers.

The team made progress by identifying four types of “needs” and grouping them into two “priorities.” Feitelson explains: “The top priority is the freshwater needed for a high level of human and economic development (let’s call this basic domestic need). We sub-divided the second need into three priorities: the water needed for religious and cultural purposes, the minimal flows needed to sustain ecosystem requirements (environmental need) and the minimal amount of water needed for farming in places where farmers have no alternative source of livelihood (peripheral farming needs). We applied these definitions to several possible scenarios in the Israeli-Palestinian context, including a prolonging of the current situation, a possibility of ‘warm’ peace, and one that sees an influx of Palestinian refugees.”

The team then compared the water implications of these scenarios to the water sources available for Israelis and Palestinians combined, primarily from the shared Mountain Aquifer, taking into account the possibility of extended drought and climate change.

“Our analyses showed that the basic domestic need could be supplied in Israel and the West Bank under all scenarios, except when there is a large number of returnees. (In that case, it would be necessary to include water augmentation schemes as an integral part of any return program.)

“Under prolonged drought, however,” Feitelson continues, “more water than that will be required in the very near future, say, the next decade. In contrast, the resources underneath the Gaza Strip cannot meet even the basic domestic need under any scenario. Hence, there is an urgent need for augmentation for the Gaza Strip regardless of ability to pay. The Gaza Strip needs immediate augmentation through seawater desalination in order to meet the normative basic domestic needs, even in the short run.”

The research was conducted by JIIS’ Environmental Policy Center and funded by the Peres Center for Peace and Green Cross Switzerland.

Source: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies -JIIS Bulletin #6 – July 2011