Control over trans-boundary water sources is a seldom-discussed aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian picture. Jameel M. Zayed takes a closer look.
Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey - but what about water? The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the driest in the world and due to climate change, an exploding population, and increased urbanisation, the region is getting more and more arid.
Three quarters of the region’s available freshwater is located in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and it is estimated that half of the Middle East depends on freshwater drawn from trans-boundary rivers and underground aquifers.
Water scarcity occurs when the demand for water exceeds the available amount. Within five years, only Iraq and Sudan will passthe water scarcity test, defined as 1,000 cubic metres a year per capita – and that’s assuming supplies from Turkey and Ethiopia are maintained.
Water is also inextricably linked to other needs…Food. Up to 85% of water in MENA is used for agriculture, and, with water such a scarce commodity, some countries are failing to meet domestic food demands. Egypt, for example, imports more than half its food, and Yemen’s cultivation of qat and the large amounts of water necessary for its irrigation are on their way to making Sana’a the world’s first capital city to go dry.
There is currently no international legal framework for the equitable use of transboundary water sources. The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted in 1997, has not yet come into force.
How much control should those upstream of a water source have over the needs of those downstream? How much water can multiple countries draw from a single source without encroaching on each other’s rights?
Hydropolitics is an explosive issue in the Middle East. The Euphrates-Tigris Basin is an unresolved source of friction between the upstream Turkey, and its downstream neighbours, Iraq and Syria. Although smaller, the Jordan River Basin, shared between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories, has also become a highly politicised issue, with the future water supply of Jordan and Palestine being handcuffed to that of Israel.
What do we know about the role of water in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Amongst all the heated rhetoric of a nuclear Iran, an extremist Hamas, and a militant Hezbollah, I don’t recall ever hearing about where water security is placed in the crisis.
‘Water wars,’ seldom reported in the news, have been a central feature the conflict since its beginnings. In fact, in 1919, the Zionist delegation at the League of Nations Peace Conference in Paris,said that the Golan Heights, Jordan Valley, and Lebanon’s river Litani were “essential for the necessary economic foundation of the country” they sought to establish.
The British mandate did not give them these territories, but the 1967 Six-Day War gave Israel part of what it wanted - exclusive control over the West Bank Mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee, which together provide it with 60% of its freshwater supply today.
Ariel Sharon, the General in charge at the time, said, “while June 1967 is the official date that the Six-Day War began, in reality, it started two and a half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan River”. This ‘diversion’ was Syria and Jordan’s response to Israel’s withdrawal of more than its agreed share from the Jordan River in 1964.
The Syrian Golan Heights, also occupied by Israel since 1967, supplies Israel’s other lifeline, the Sea of Galilee, with 30% of its water.
Lebanon is the only country in the region with a water surplus, but Israel destroyed vast portions of its water infrastructure during its repeated military incursions in South Lebanon. As the last source of water lying outside the Jewish homeland, all eyes are on Lebanon as Israel’s next target, on its way to realising the Zionist dream of having all of Palestine’s headwaters within “the Jewish Homeland”.
So what lies beneath? Indeed, there is more to the West Bank than meets the eye, and one must look underground in order to understand the decisions made above it. Parts of the West Bank rise 1000m above sea level, and underneath it is the Mountain Aquifer.
Subdivided into three sub-aquifers, the primary basin is the Western Aquifer, which has the highest quality water of the three basins. Around 90% of its recharge area lies within the West Bank territory, while its entire storage area lies downstream, in Israel,which uses 95% of the water coming from this source.
What’s left for Palestinians in the West Bank varies, with 25% of Palestinian villages having no connection to water grids. Gaza relies solely on the Coastal Aquifer,which due to over-extraction, is on the brink of collapse.
Some speculate that the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza was in fact a strategic move in response to the unsustainable water system there.In Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, 150,000 Palestinians have no access to tap water at all,and any water that is available tends to be highly salinated and polluted, causing the spread of disease.
Two-thirds of Israel’s water come from sources shared with the Palestinians, in some cases totally denying Palestinians access to the aquifers, while the average Israeli consumes over 6 times more water than the average Palestinian.
Any attempts to maintain existing water-supply infrastructure is hampered by Israeli ‘military orders’ that have been in place since 1967, throwing bureaucracy and discrimination in the way of any programmes which aim to develop the water system.
The problem is exacerbated by access restrictions imposed on Palestinians, where they are boxed within ‘security zones’ separated by the Apartheid Wall, illegal Israeli settlements and military checkpoints.
While Israeli settlements, complete with swimming pools and well-watered lawns, are provided with subsidised water to encourage farming, along with computerised irrigation and distribution systems,the Palestinian side, in stark contrast, is failing to meet even its basic domestic water needs.
The Israeli water company, Mekorot, responsible for the West Bank’s water supply, closes the valves to Palestinian towns and villages when supplies are low during the summer, supplying the lavish Israeli settlements instead. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are then forced to buy water from Israel at inflated prices.
The Israeli government works to integrate the entire West Bank water system into the larger Israeli network. The Apartheid wall, supposedly built as a ‘temporary security measure’, actually encroaches deep within the occupied West Bank rather than on Israel’s internationally-recognised Green Line border established in 1948. It is not often pointed out that the wall’s route in fact follows the areas of high water yield, placing this precious resource conveniently on the Israeli side, and giving Israel the lion’s share.
‘Roadmap to peace’? Every major US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiation has failed to properly address the water issue, instead sidelining it to ‘final status talks’ that are yet to materialise.
With Israel suffering its worst water crisis in 80 years, the establishment of any independent Palestinian state was presented by former Prime Minister Sharon asconditional upon protection of ‘our water in this region’ –something he called a ‘non-negotiable item.’
Any future Palestinian state would possess upstream rights to its own water resources, which would flow from the highlands of the West Bank to the lowlands of Israel. In addition, its border with Jordan would give it downstream rights to the Jordan River. Little wonder, then, that former Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan declared that relinquishing control over water sources in the OPT would ‘threaten the Jewish state’.
It seems highly unlikely that Israel would ever risk such a compromise in the name of peace, and so, “no peace without water, no water without peace”.
Over the next decade, the region is sure to experience great changes, not only political, but also those of the inexorable force of the elements.
A legal framework for access to water resources?
• Chapter 18 of Agenda 21 provides that cooperation among States over transboundary water resources “may be desirable” (UNCED 1992).
• The primary substantive principle of “equitable and reasonable utilisation”, was embedded in the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (adopted, 1997, not in force): http://untreaty.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/c…
• For further reading on possible legal frameworks for use of water see http://discovery.dundee.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10588/5…
Jameel Zayed is a final-year chemistry PhD student at Cambridge University, and is active with the Cambridge University Palestine Society. His family’s roots are in Beit Nuba, a village in the Latrun area now covered by Canada Park.
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