by Erika Weinthal
In the Middle East, water often crosses political borders; because water is a shared resource, its effective management demands cooperation among different users. In the absence of cooperation, conflict is likely. Indeed, conflict and cooperation over shared water has defined Israeli-Palestinian relations since 1967 when Israel gained full control over the Eastern and recharge zone of the western Mountain aquifer, as well as the southern Coastal aquifer. These resources, combined with water from the Sea of Galilee have provided about 60% of Israel’s water consumption.1 With the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel placed restrictions on the drilling of new wells for the Palestinian population in the West Bank, and instead chose to supply water to Palestinian households through its national water company, Mekorot.2
The signing of the 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (Oslo I) and the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Oslo II) between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization offered an historic opportunity to move from conflict to cooperation over shared water resources. Unlike many other peace agreements, water was codified in the Oslo Accords, as it was understood that water sharing was of critical importance for human security, economic development, and regional cooperation. Specifically, the Oslo Accords called for the creation of a Joint Water Committee (JWC) during an interim period before the final status negotiations, comprised of equal number of members from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, whose functions would include the coordinated management of water resources and water and sewage systems in the West Bank.3 Oslo II, Article 40 on water and sewage recognized Palestinian water rights in the West Bank and the need to develop additional water supply. Oslo II also detailed specific water quantities to be allocated to the Palestinian population, mostly from the eastern Mountain aquifer in the West Bank.
Research on environmental peacebuilding has found that the inclusion of natural resources such as water in a peace agreement, combined with the creation of a joint management institution, can help build trust among former adversaries and provide a formal institutional structure for addressing water shortages.4 Joint management institutions like the JWC can facilitate the sharing of information about water resources and encourage donor activity in the water sector to bolster the peace process. Both the US and European countries have supported collaborative projects to share data and undertake joint scientific research, alongside providing foreign assistance for water and sanitation projects in the Palestinian territories. The NGO sector has also mobilized to bring civil society actors together to deepen cooperation over transboundary water resources. In particular, Ecopeace Middle East (previously known as FOEME) has encouraged Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian community members along the Jordan River to work together on the rehabilitation of the Jordan River through their Good Water Neighbors Project and Young Water Trustees.5
Despite these activities by international actors to deepen water cooperation, many of the peace dividends from the Oslo Accords in the water sector have been unrealized for the Palestinian population. Israel still controls nearly 80% of the water reserves in the West Bank aquifers.6 The complicated approval process for new projects in the West Bank has hampered cooperation: any new water project that affects Area C not only requires approval by the JWC but also by the Civil Administration that has frequently rejected Palestinian water supply projects.7 More so, much needed wastewater treatment plants have seldom made it through the entire approval process. The JWC has also ceased to meet in its official capacity, as approvals for Palestinian water supply projects were delayed and other projects’ approval were made conditional upon Palestinians accepting water projects for Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.8
Because water has had the same final status importance as Jerusalem, borders, and refugees, dealing with the water situation between Israel and Palestine has ultimately been held hostage to solving these broader and more entrenched political questions. Water continues to be securitized rather than considered a basic human right. As final status negotiations have stalled since 2000, so have negotiations over water. Yet the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are growing, and water demand is increasing. Water quality in the Gaza Strip has also deteriorated such that it is unsuitable for human consumption owing to over-extraction from the Coastal aquifer and lack of adequate sanitation systems.
Fifty years later, it is increasingly apparent that water needs to be delinked from security in order to address the human costs of lack of access to water and sanitation.9 The provision of safe water and sanitation should be one of the greatest priorities for governments. The concept of water as a human right is central to the international community’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) introduced in 2015.10 SDG 6 calls for universal and equitable access to water and sanitation as well as improved quality and international water cooperation.
At the same time that there is a need for a concerted effort to jump-start the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, efforts to provide access to clean water and sanitation in accordance with SDG 6 should not be left for final status negotiations. A 2009 World Bank report on Palestinian water sector development concluded that “by regional standards, Palestinians have the lowest access to fresh water resources.”11 Populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip face uncertain access to clean water and sanitation. Protracted conflict between Israel and Hamas (that has ruled Gaza since 2007) has led to a deterioration in Gaza’s water supply. Israeli incursions into Gaza in the summer of 2014 destroyed already dilapidated water infrastructure, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without access to water.12 Although Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005, Israel still controls the movement of goods and people across borders, including supplies and technicians needed to maintain and repair water and sanitation services. In 2016, during a protracted heatwave, villages in the West Bank were also left without access to water.13 In contrast, through the construction of a chain of desalination plants along the Mediterranean, approximately two-thirds of domestic water use now comes from desalinated water,14 reducing Israel’s need for groundwater resources as well as vulnerability to droughts and man-made climate change.15
Meeting SDG 6 and fostering a human right to water will require not only funding for water and sanitation technologies, but also prioritizing a human right to water in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In response to Gaza’s drinking water crisis, international actors, including the European Union and UNICEF, have been involved in helping to devise water solutions that include the construction of a desalination plant for the Gaza Strip.16
Privileging water as a basic human right is essential for meeting basic needs, fostering economic livelihoods and building regional cooperation. Only by delinking water from the overarching political process between Israel and Palestine will it be possible to attain SDG 6 and attain the goal of water as a human right.
September 7, 2017
1. European Parliament. 2016. Water in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/573916/EPRS_BRI%282016%29573916_EN.pdf
2. Alwyn R. Rouyer. 2000. Turning Water into Politics: The Water Issue in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. New York: NY: St. Martin’s Press.
3. For an overview, see Erika Weinthal and Amer Marei. 2002. One Resource Two Visions: The Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Water Cooperation. Water International 27 (4): 1-8.
4. See: Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell, and Mikiyasu Nakayama, eds. 2014. Water and Post-conflict Peacebuilding: Shoring Up Peace. Routledge/Earthscan Press.
6. European Parliament. 2016.
7. Oslo led to the division of the West Bank into three areas. Area A, which contains the largest Palestinian cities, is administered solely by the Palestinian Authority. Area B is under Palestinian civil authority, but under Israeli military security. Area C is administered entirely by Israel and projects here require approval of the Civil Administration.
8. Jan Selby. 2013. Cooperation, Domination and Colonisation: The Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee. Water Alternatives 6(1): 1-24.
9. Also see Ecopeace, 10 Reasons Why Water Cannot Wait. http://ecopeaceme.org/projects/water-the-peace-process/10-reasons-water-cannot-wait/
10. United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). 2015. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development A/RES/70/1. Available at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld.
11. See World Bank. 2009. West Bank and Gaza Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development. Washington, DC: World Bank, p. v.
13. Hass, A. 2016. Israel Admits Cutting West Bank Water Supply, but Blames Palestinian Authority. Haaretz. June 21.
14. Zafrir Rinat 2017. Desalination Problems Begin to Rise to the Surface in Israel. Haaretz. September 8.
15. Eran Feitelson, Abdelrahman Tamimi, Gad Rosenthal. 2012. Journal of Peace Research