By Anders Berntell and Anders Jägerskog

This September, when the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, presents the Palestinian bid for UN membership at the UN headquarters in New York, many Palestinians worry as much about issues closer to their daily lives, such as access to water.

The shortage of water is evident in the entire Jordan River basin. The risk of conflicts is increased by the high population growth, by the shrinking water share per capita and by the vulnerability due to increased climatic variability, resulting from climate change.

Water is necessary for the survival of the Palestinian farmer who needs to irrigate his land to grow food to feed the family. A normal Palestinian family spends on average 8 per cent of its income on buying freshwater, which is double the internationally accepted norm and far more than what a normal family in the northern hemisphere would pay.

Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have access to sufficient water and the main water resources are shared by the two. Israelis and Palestinians primarily share groundwater that originates in the West Bank and then moves in aquifers into Israel. As in the many cases where transboundary waters are regulated by international agreements (as is the case between Israel and Jordan through the 1994 peace treaty), agreements between Israel and the Palestinians do exist. The 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles and the 1995 so-called Oslo II address the water issue to some extent. However, those agreements should be seen more as roadmaps towards a final agreement between the two parties. Due to the current political impasse, such an agreement is unlikely to be reached any time soon.

As part of the cooperation that has been institutionalised despite all challenges, there is a so-called Joint Water Committee (JWC) tasked with managing water issues that need to be addressed jointly. This committee has been meeting throughout the last two decades which, in a sense, is an achievement in itself.

So in one sense there is cooperation. Still, when analysing this cooperation, it is clear that all is not just. Decisions are always taken by consensus, which sounds fair. However, the mandate of the committee’s decision only extends to projects in the West Bank, thus giving Israel a veto over Palestinian projects. And should a project get approved by the JWC, it could still be stopped by the Israeli Civil Administration on “security grounds”.

In 2009, the World Bank made an assessment of the Palestinian water sector which concluded that Israel, through a variety of measures, has made it impossible for the Palestinians to develop a water sector of their own. At the World Water Week in Stockholm, in August 2011, the Palestinian water minister, Dr Shaddad Attilli, voiced the increasing frustration of the Palestinians over their water situation, asking the international community for help.

Recent research on transboundary water relations in basins focuses not only on established basic levels of cooperation, but also how this cooperation is constructed. It emphasises how cooperation in a basin is often steered, or manipulated, in line with the interests of the dominant part in the basin.

The forces at play are not necessarily violent, but more often subtle, and can happen under the general guise of cooperation. For example, it can be that Israel stops (on alleged hydrologic/scientific grounds) Palestinian water project in the JWC while admitting increased drilling for settlements, or that they would build their wall/security barrier making central water sources end up on the Israeli side.

What are the future scenarios in this area? The prospect for increased cooperation looks rather dim. The Palestinians are divided themselves, with Fateh in power in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. And the Israelis are not likely to want to enter into negotiations if the Palestinians succeed in their application for formal UN membership.

While both parties acknowledge that some level of coordination and cooperation is necessary, the overall political conflict seems to make a deal on water more unlikely than ever.

What can the international community do? One thing would be to focus on getting more countries to sign up to the UN Convention on transboundary waters. Another would be to engage more actively in the basin and support the building of negotiating capacity. In the short term, it is also imperative to support the (re)building of Palestinian water infrastructure, which is often either outdated or destroyed by the conflict.

Support should be given both to the planned desalination plant in Gaza and to wastewater treatment.

While prospects for a breakthrough are at a low point, more effort – not less – should be exerted to address this important issue.

Anders Berntell is executive director, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). Anders Jägerskog is director, Knowledge Services, SIWI. They contributed this article to The Jordan Times.