Could solving the water crisis in Israel and Palestine also help resolve the entrenched occupation and conflict?

by Arwa Aburawa Last Modified: 29 Jul 2011

Around three weeks ago on a late Tuesday morning, Israeli soldiers armed with a truck and a digger entered the Palestinian village of Amniyr and destroyed nine water tanks. One week later, Israeli forces demolished water wells and water pumps in the villages of Al-Nasaryah, Al-Akrabanyah and Beit Hassan in the Jordan Valley. In Bethlehem, a severe water shortage have led to riots in refugee camps and forced hoteliers to pay over the odds for water just to stop tourists from leaving.

Palestinians insist that the Israeli occupation means that they are consistently denied their water rights which is why they have to live on 50 litres of water a day while Israeli settlers enjoy the luxury of 280 litres. Clearly, water is at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but commentators are now insisting that shared water problems could help motivate joint action and better co-operation between both sides, which could in turn help end the conflict.

“It’s a shame that water is being used as a form of collective punishment when it could be used to build trust and to help each side recognise that the other is a human being with water rights,” says Nader Al-Khateeb, the Palestinian director of the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME).

“We should be using water as a tool for peace and to bridge the gap of confidence in the region – not to create a water crisis,” he adds. As part of his work with FoEME – which also operates in Israel and Jordan – Al-Khateeb says he has already witnessed the success of co-operative water projects. Over the past ten years, the FoEME “Good Water Neighbors” initiative has brought together 29 cross-border communities to encourage them to work together to resolve shared water problems.

According to Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of FoEME, the project has managed to leverage around $120 million in investments to help build sewerage plants and replace old and leaky water pipes. Most of this aid, which has come through agencies such as USAID, World Bank, the EU and other foreign governments, has gone to the occupied Palestinian territories. “There are mutual benefits to be had through co-operative work which identifies common interests and we’ve seen physical improvements on the ground. Nothing speaks louder than the investment of $120m,” said Bromberg.

Co-operative work on water issues has also been able to tackle wider political aspects of the Israeli occupation. Bromberg recalls the case of the Palestinian village of Wadi Fuqin and Israeli community of Tzur Hassadeh who worked together to tackle water issues in 2010 but also came together to stop the separation wall from being built between their communities. “Till this day that wall hasn’t been built which shows that working together on water can build real trust between individuals and presents a model where everyone benefits.”

International backing

It’s not just locally based environmental groups that think that water may be the solution to the Middle East’s problems. This year a report titled “Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water” was released by the Strategic Foresight Group and concluded that water could be a useful “instrument of peace and co-operation” in the region. Funded by Swiss and Swedish governments, the report promoted the concept of a “Blue Peace” which states that, if countries work together to protect water and the environment, this could secure peace in their own countries as well as the region.

Ambika Vishwanath, the principal researcher of the report says that we must move on from the focus on land in the Israel-Palestine conflict. “History shows that using land as a means to achieve peace and co-operation has not worked and therefore it’s only prudent that we try to achieve the same through water. New avenues are worth attempting … if not the problem is only likely to worsen.”

While the arguments for increased co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian communities when it comes to water are compelling, they do sideline the fact that it is the Palestinians that disproportionately suffer due to deliberate Israeli government policies. Cara Flowers, part of the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (EWASH) Advocacy Task Force in the West Bank said: “Don’t get me wrong, there are great projects doing some really important work – but what can small organisations achieve without government support? I think that we’re very limited without a large shift in government policy and I think that’s what we should be working towards and focusing less on communities who have limited ability to change the circumstances.”

Under the Oslo agreement, Israel did recognise the water rights of Palestinians, but this failed to translate into fair policies. Today, Israel over-extracts water from underground aquifers located in the West Bank for its own citizens and also sells back some of the water to water-short Palestinians at a high price. Water development projects in Palestine face cumbersome Israeli bureaucratic restrictions and delays which mean that more than 200,000 Palestinians in the West Bank remain unconnected to a water network and 95 per cent of water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption due to high levels of pollution.

This systematic denial of water rights by Israel also hinders the Palestinian economy. According to a 2009 report by the World Bank, the cost to the economy of foregone opportunities in irrigated agriculture due to water shortages was as high as ten per cent of GDP and 110,000 jobs. Indeed, water remains one of the five issues up for debate to reach a final peace agreement alongside the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders and the Israeli settlements.

Problem can’t wait for change in government policy

Despite these Israeli policies, Bromberg and Al-Khateeb of FoEME insist that joint water community projects can’t wait for a radical shift in government policy – which, they add, is unlikely under the current right-wing Netanyahu-led coalition. “One of the most frustrating aspects of our work is to see the lack of political leadership at all levels,” says Bromberg. “It’s something we all have to deal with in the Middle East. Governments here don’t lead, they have to be led and civil society plays a crucial role in how that happens.

“Community action is the way to create the political will because it embarrasses the government, it raises questions about why they are not doing enough and acting in the interests of their own community.”

Bromberg points out that both Palestinians and Israelis are suffering under the current water arrangements as the lack of waste-water infrastructure in the Palestinian territories means that Israelis have to deal with Palestinian sewage discharge. “The environment can’t wait for a final peace agreement,” he remarks.

Maybe not, but joint community action alone cannot change the Palestinian water dependency on Israel either says Amjad Aliewi, a Palestinian water expert at the Ramallah-based NGO House of Water and Environment. Aliewi insists that water will bring people together and encourage peace only if the Israeli government is willing to talk about Palestinian water rights and grants them full control over their own resources. “I mean, once we have that independence, if we want to construct joint projects and pipes then that it is fine – but we don’t want to solve the problem in a way that there is a pipeline and Israel controls the tap. That is not a solution.”

For Aliewi, Palestinian water independence must come first, as, without it, any co-operation is problematic. When I ask Aliewi if he thinks that Israel is over-extracting water from Palestinian sources because it needs the water or for political and economic reasons he replies that if Israel really needed the water it wouldn’t allow Israeli settlers to dump their sewage on Palestinian land and pollute shared water sources. “This is an act of occupation and it needs to end,” he adds.

The disparity of the water situation in Palestine is nowhere more apparent than in the illegal Israeli settlements of the West Bank – where settlers enjoy water on tap whilst Palestinians struggle to pay for water from tanks. Israeli settlers, however, fail to see a problem with the water situation.

Israeli’s deny water crisis

David Ha’ivri, leader of the Jewish communities of Shomron which covers the northern West Bank, said he suspected that any notions of water disparity between Palestinians and Israelis were “misinformation spread by those interested in giving a twisted impression of the actual facts”. He pointed to a water park in a Palestinian town north of Tubas as evidence of the lack of water shortages in the West Bank, and said that Arabs needed to make the most of Israeli water infrastructure developments. Ha’ivri did however state that more mutual work to preserve water between Arabs and Israelis would be wise. Both Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, and the Israeli Water Authority were contacted but were unavailable for comment.

Whether community projects, political lobbying or a focus on Palestinian water independence is the way forward, it is clear that action is needed to rectify the scale of the water inequality between Israel and Palestine. As Bromberg states: “Peace won’t just fall upon us, we all need to be working towards creating a lasting, just and fair agreement on water.”

Source: Al Jazeera

Earlier coverage of the “Blue Peace” report in this blog can be found here, here, and here.