By Khalil Fawadleh

RAMALLAH, June 27, 2018 (WAFA) – The three-day First Palestine International Water Forum organized by the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), under the slogan Integrated Water Resources Management: Best Practices and Technology Transfer, to discuss the adoption of integrated water resources management progressive tools as an approach to address the water crisis in Palestine opened on Monday in Ramallah with the participation of a host of officials and international NGOs representatives.

WAFA interviewed the Deputy Secretary-General of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in charge of Water and Environment, Miguel García-Herraiz, on the forum and its work:

Could you please comment on progress achieved so far with regards to the pledging conference and the Gaza desalination facility project?

Well, I think the most important thing to say is that this project is becoming a reality. In this way I said at the conference that beyond the humanitarian and political importance of the project which everybody realizes, the project is a technical reality. Technical reality means that a lot of the work has been done by PWA in the past years to advance the progress technically, so that it becomes feasible on the ground. That is the reason we believe that the donors conference took place on March 20 with the support of many partners of the project, like the European Commission and the banks involved – the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the European Investment Bank. That is why the conference was successful because countries have to realize that this project is important, but it is also viable. So, that is what made the donors conference successful.

Do you think there are any obstacles which make it difficult to move forward with the next implementation phases?

The project is obviously challenging. Gaza is a unique situation. As we know, not all depends on the Palestinian Authority and needs cooperation from Israeli authorities. So, this is a challenge that must be met and we hope that it can be met with cooperation from them. As for obstacles, they are there to be dealt with and addressed. There are negotiations underway and there is no a major issue which is not being dealt with. So, I think we are confident that through these negotiations and through the work being done, conditions are there for the project to be implemented in the timeframe set out.

With regards to the power supply, some argue that desalination is counterintuitive for Gaza since enormous quantities of energy are required to sustain it while Gaza regularly experiences fuel and electricity shortages. So, what is the power supply scenario?

I am not an expert on energy and electricity. I know there are different solutions on the short, medium and long term. Electricity supply from Israel and gas from the Gaza project are also there. But, let me insist once again on what I have said today: desalination is a solution for providing water- complementary water supply across the Mediterranean. All countries across the Mediterranean are doing it, including Israel. Certainly, it is expensive in any situation. But, energy supplies are getting cheaper, and renewable energy is an option which can be added to the mix of energy supply. So, it is a possibility as well for Gaza, a possibility which not only can be explored, but also has been decided as the most viable. That is the path that is being taken.

What are the environmental and economic impacts of the project?

Water is essential for livelihood as well as for the long-term sustainability of the socio-economic livelihood of any situation. With secure water supply, I am sure the people of Gaza will develop the economic potential. We know that Gaza has always had an area of industry and agriculture. So, that is also a reason behind the project.

What about ownership? Would the project be eventually handed over to the Palestinian Authority?

I would leave this question to the Palestinian Authority, who are the owners of the project much more than me.

What about the operation and maintenance costs? Can the highly impoverished Gazans afford them?

In the end there has to be a culture of payment for services. In any country of the world, water is a subsidized service. In Gaza, it is probably not going to be different from other countries, but of course there has to be a participation in the cost. This will be seen when the final project will be decided on and begins. This is a question that has to be addressed seriously to PWA.

Israel has imposed a crippling siege on Gaza, including restrictions on the import of dual-use items. How would you get forward with implementation? Stated another way, have you obtained any guarantees from Israel on the import of dual-use items?

The desalination plant is of a regional concern, and that includes the interest that Israel has as well. So, I think all those interested in ensuring that there is a humanitarian and environmental solution for the people of Gaza and for the sustainability of the aquifer have to invest in solutions for the effective operation of the plant. I think that is the best way forward for all parties who see the need for the plant to be engaged in the solution.

Could the West Bank see similar integrated water resource management initiatives? I mean innovative solutions, other than desalination plants, to tackle the water crisis in the West Bank.

The forum precisely seeks to bring in expertise, lessons from other countries and research, as well as to stimulate an exchange of ideas on areas of work where we know that the Palestinian Authority is also working on and which are essential in dealing with any situation of water scarcity today. This includes that of gray water, a circular economy approach to the water sector where water is a resource which is not finished when it leaves the domestic housing … In a situation of water stress like that is suffered by Palestine and by all the Mediterranean countries on different levels, it is the innovation and use of these techniques which are part of the global solutions. Desalination is one part, but utilization of grey water is an alternative part as well.

Which companies are going to be entrusted with the construction of the desalination facility?

This would be subject to an international tender.

You know that water is one of the final status issues and the equitable allocation of shared water resources in essential for a viable Palestinian state. So, it is argued that when donors build desalination facilities for Gaza, they are practically prejudging the outcome of negotiations on water and denying Palestinians equitable and sustainable allocations of fresh water. What do you think?

The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) has a mandate on the Gaza desalination plant, a project that was labeled by the 43 members of the UfM already in 2012. Our mandate is restricted to facilitating the fundraising and the work between partners on this project, which is a key necessity for the people of Gaza.

It is argued that such projects would relieve Israel of its responsibility for the wellbeing of the Palestinian population under occupation, give it a free hand to continue pillage of water resources and help it evade its obligations. What do you think?

My mandate is restricted to working for this project.