Water Shortages Persist Amid Failed Middle East Peace Process

TEL AVIV — The U.S.-mediated peace talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry stalled in the first week of April. On Thursday April 24, after Fatah and ...

Apr 26, 2014

TEL AVIV — The U.S.-mediated peace talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry stalled in the first week of April. On Thursday April 24, after Fatah and Hamas leadership announced their intention to form a Palestinian Liberation Organization unity government, Israel officially suspended the negotiations. Water issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which were never at the forefront of discussions, have again been neglected because of their inherent linkage to the overall peace process. To the dismay of environmental advocates, it seems as if untenable regional water conditions will not be resolved in the near future.
 Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a tripartite Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental NGO, and the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) advised the U.S. delegation to include emergency measures concerning the sharing of water resources between Israel and Palestine in the framework for peace. The organizations’ goal is to ensure sufficient quality and quantity of water supplies for Israelis and Palestinians throughout every critical shortage, even if a final peace agreement is not reached. Given recent halting of the peace process, it is exceedingly unlikely that the governments will address regional water problems in a joint manner until after the talks resume.
 Urgency for an unambiguous water agreement is justified. The most recent public example comes from Arab East Jerusalem, where residents have received almost no water from the national grid since March 4. Extended periods without running water are common in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but East Jerusalem lies west of the separation barrier, within the Israeli-governed Jerusalem municipality and in its utility grids, and as such should not experience such shortages. This case highlights a recurrent lack of planning and illegal siphoning in the region’s water system.
 Given such salient, unsustainable and inequitable practices, the water issue has become increasingly politicized. Security has always been Israel’s top priority. Consequently, when Israel perceives a threat to its water operations, it seeks to discredit its critics to protect its monopoly over resources, as it did Feb. 12 when addressed by EU President Martin Schulz on disparities in water access between Israelis and Palestinians. External pressures to solve the water issue have so far failed to motivate reform of the unmaintainable, dangerous and often unnecessarily bureaucratic water system that is currently in place.
 The present water situation was established after codification of the status quo of water management since the 1967 War. Israel and the Palestine authority, along with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, each hold legal claims to certain portions of the Jordan River basin. Israel retains majority control of the headwaters because of its occupation of the Golan Heights and West Bank. Alarmingly, the Jordan River’s flow and quality have significantly decreased in recent decades by diversion of water from its tributaries, but Israel has maintained relative water stability and security through its superior geographical position and advanced technology.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority also share the Mountain and Coastal aquifers, major groundwater sources threatened today by overuse and general mismanagement. Whereas Israelis receive water supplies from the Jordan River basin, aquifers and impressive desalination plants, Palestinians are limited to the extraction of groundwater from the Mountain and Coastal Aquifers and often purchase water tanks and use rooftop rainwater collection to meet household and business needs. Beyond domestic and agricultural consumption concerns, pollution into cross-border streams, pipes and wells by untreated human and industrial waste requires immediate action.
 Joint management by the Israeli water company Mekorot and the Palestinian Water Authority is ineffective and exemplifies an asymmetrical power structure created by occupation. Formed in 1995 through the Oslo peace process as a five-year interim body, the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee operates only within the West Bank. This structure limits the Palestinian Authority, which is unable to execute its assigned water responsibilities in Area C of the West Bank, where it retains no civil control. The committee is notorious for restricting Palestinian projects, while illegal Israeli settlements are delivered a proportionally inordinate amount of clean, dependable water. In the meantime many Palestinians receive well below the World Health Organization recommended quantity of 100 liters per capita per day.
NYU Tel Aviv professor Martin Wein commented on the ideological and fundamental importance of water to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“In the Middle East, water is not just a practical, economic or environmental issue — it is also traditionally viewed as existential, deeply symbolic and at times even transcendental. If we cannot agree on sharing our water, we really cannot agree on peace.”
 Collaboration on water policy can act as a confidence-building measure to encourage further cooperation between disputing parties, according to accepted environmental policy discourse. Wein’s remarks reflect an intensifying intransigence toward water management in the region that fosters a climate in which peace cannot survive.
A weakening peace process and widespread inadequacies in water access have left little room for optimism in the Israeli-Palestinian water situation. Addressing chronic shortages and pollution is a long-term goal of both Israeli and Palestinian delegates, but environmental concerns are consistently regarded as secondary to the core issues of the conflict. Conditions are unlikely to improve as long as water remains absolutely tied to the successes or failures of permanent status negotiations.
Ariela Garvett is a contributing writer. Email her at
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