Water Deal Elemental to Mideast Peace, Experts Say

Mati Milstein in Amman, Jordan
for National Geographic News
June 3, 2008
Open warfare, military checkpoints, borders, and bureaucracy quash most efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to discuss any issue, but an impending water crisis in the region may bring both sides to the table.

Solving Israel's desperate water shortage could be a critical step toward peace, and the two parties could forge a water management agreement in short order—if it were a priority, according to policy analysts.

A recent conference in neighboring Jordan brought together an army of Israeli and Palestinian experts to examine the water crisis from scientific, social, economic, and diplomatic perspectives.

The Water Wisdom participants, convened in Amman by Professors Alon Tal of Israel's Ben-Gurion University and Alfred Abed-Rabbo of the West Bank's Bethlehem University, all contributed chapters to a book of the same name slated for release in the coming year.

Diminishing Returns

More than 10 million people (7 million Israelis and 3.8 million Palestinians) live densely packed on just 10,840 square miles (28,075 square kilometers). And they all drink from the same dwindling water supply.

Precipitation is sporadic at best, and there are just three primary water sources: a coastal aquifer, which extends underground from Israel's northern coast south to the Gaza Strip; a mountain aquifer, which extends north-south under the West Bank and Judean Hills; and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the Jordan River Basin.

The two aquifers supply the Israeli and Palestinian populations, which also pull water, along with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, from the Jordan River and its tributaries.

A drought period of several years is exacerbating the intensity of competition for this scarce resource, which is dwindling even more due to leaking infrastructure, rampant water pollution, and poor management.

The coastal aquifer, for example, once had extremely high-quality water but has suffered from decades of municipal, industrial, and agricultural pollution. Rampant overpumping has lowered the water table and allowed seawater to rush in, contaminating the once sweet water.

Upstream-downstream water rights are fiercely contested, and human-made political borders complicate the conflict. Some 80 percent of the rain that falls on the West Bank—generally seen as the site of a future Palestinian state—flows underground to Israel via the mountain aquifer.

Five countries exploit the Jordan River as it travels south, creating a situation in which the waterway is little more than a small stream by the time it flows into the Dead Sea.

Pathways to Peace

At the April conference, Dr. Amjad Aliewi, director general of the House of Water and Environment in Ramallah and technical advisor to the Palestinian Water Authority, said water allocation and access issues are currently not a diplomatic priority in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, effectively sharing and managing the resource could form a cornerstone from which to build political stability in the region, he added.

"The water issue is not a priority in the wider conflict. This is the last subject [Palestinian] people and politicians think about," Aliewi said.

"But water is so important because it's the only means to have a viable state. Say we have our refugees back, we have established borders—but Israel still holds the tap in its hand."

Tal said the solutions could be simple. If Israeli and Palestinian water experts were locked in a room for 48 hours they could come up with a final-status agreement, he added.

"People pretty much know how it's going to shake out," Tal said. "There's going to have to be territorial flexibility on both sides. But people of good spirits, moderates, and professionals all want the same things—a future for their children with the same resources."

In September 1995, Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo II interim peace agreement, which included Article 40, the basis for cooperation on water and sewage management issues.

With Article 40, Israel recognized West Bank Palestinian water rights and the sides agreed on the importance of developing new water resources.

Israel agreed that additional water needed to be made available to the Palestinians during the interim period, and the two sides also agreed to joint water and sewage management and to establish a water committee.

But in late 2000, the Al Aqsa intifada broke out and no one was talking about anything, let alone water.

Today, despite Palestinian Authority jurisdiction of certain sections of the West Bank, Israel remains in de facto control of the territory and of Palestinian water projects. Diplomatic contacts are now focused almost exclusively on halting violence.

Hillel Shuval, a veteran expert on the Middle East water conflict and environmental health sciences director at Jerusalem's Hadassah Academic College, believes the water issue is unique in the conflict.

Because water deficits can be compensated for with money—unlike emotionally charged issues such as borders and refugees—it is a sticking point much more easily solved.

"I don't believe water is a block to peace. In fact, a flexible Israeli attitude about water can be a strong motivation to reach an agreement," Shuval said.

Concrete Solutions

Desalination is already providing Israel with a short-term safety net, potentially reducing the feeling of "hydro-hysteria." (See also "Desalination No 'Silver Bullet' in Mideast" [May 22, 2008].)

"Israeli negotiators know they will have the backup of desalinated water," Shuval said. "They know they won't have a gun to their head waterwise and will be able to make more water concessions [to the Palestinians]."

Still there are differences of opinion. While Tal believes experts and scientists can forge a bilateral water agreement, Shuval disagrees and says such a deal must be imposed on the diplomatic level.

He gave as an example the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace accord, the water sections of which were personally pushed through by Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when technical experts failed to reach consensus.

As the region's volatile environmental and diplomatic situations continue to evolve, so will the realities of living with less and less water.

Aliewi said he anticipates a situation in which the Palestinians forge closer relations with neighboring states and makes a point of including Israel in this equation.

Shuval warned that another drought year will deal a serious blow to both Israeli and Palestinian agriculture.

But, noting that both Israelis and Palestinians import the vast majority of their food, he added that "no one will starve and no one will go thirsty."

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