Water Resilience

Advancing Israeli/Palestinian natural water reallocations and water management

Twentieth century assumptions that dictated water diplomacy led the Levant down a path of conflict and competition over water. Then the Levant was indeed wholly dependent on natural water, and therefore Israelis and Palestinians were in dispute over how to allocate the scarce natural water supply shared between them. This was the mind-set of how water was negotiated in the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s. Water was left unresolved as one of five final status issues because coming to an agreement over sharing scarce natural water was difficult and would produce winners and losers.

Today advancements in water technologies, often led by Israeli innovation, present the opportunity for Palestinians to obtain their rights to natural water sources, without reducing water availability for the Israeli side. Depending on negotiations between the parties, Palestine could fully access its water rights by increased Palestinian pumping from the three basins of the Mountain Aquifer, with Israel correspondingly reducing its pumping from those basins and increasing its own supply through desalination. As regards riparian water rights from the Jordan River, Palestine, like Jordan, cannot presently access its water rights from the river directly due to water diversion and river pollution. Here one suggestion could be that Palestinian water rights be sourced through increased Palestinian pumping from the Mountain Aquifer or from the Sea of Galilee, in line with the precedent of the Israel / Jordan peace treaty. 65 The ground-breaking work of M.I.T. Professor Franklin Fischer further shows that from an economic and sustainability perspective, optimal water management could take place through the creation of water markets between Israel and Palestine, with even greater efficiencies achieved if Jordan is also included.

Israel’s leadership in the utilization of treated wastewater for agriculture and the development of reverse osmosis desalination technology means that water is under fewer constraints as a resource. Presently 70% of the drinking water in Israel comes from desalination, and half the agriculture is grown with treated wastewater. The availability of large quantities of manufactured water, complementing natural water, makes the fair share of natural water between Israelis and Palestinians attainable. Reaching a deal on water would result in more water in every Palestinian home, dramatically improving the lives of every Palestinian, and meaningfully benefit the Palestinian economy.

Compared to the other Israeli-Palestinian conflict “final status issues” — Jerusalem, refugees, borders/settlements and security — water is today the least controversial and most solvable of final status issues. For the last 25 years, both Israelis and Palestinians have negotiated on the basis of having to agree to all final status issues as a single package. At the time of the Oslo Accords, all five final status issues were seen as difficult and solvable only as part of a deal, where each side would compromise on each issue as part of a single package. The failure to agree on all final status issues simultaneously has meant that there has been no advance on any of the final status issues. EcoPeace proposes a policy paradigm that prioritizes solvable issues, like water, to revive peace negotiations. This approach does not ignore the deep connection that water allocation has with other final status issues, such as borders, refugees and settlements. Both Palestinian and Israeli negotiators link the water issue to sovereignty and borders and to the water quantity needs of refugees and settlements. The fungible nature of water as a resource, however, means that water quantities can be agreed upon in a manner which takes into account these complexities and still represents agreement to full Palestinian water rights, paving the path towards solving the other final status issues too.

Moving forward on water issues would create a middle way; improving the conditions on the ground for the disadvantaged Palestinian side through allocation of their full water rights, while maintaining Israeli water security through increased desalination. Advancing on water as one of the core issues of the two-state peace process would show the public on both sides that there is a partner for peace and help rebuild the necessary trust between the two parties to advance the other final status issues associated with a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No less important under a climate crisis, the need to act on water is more urgent than ever, and its resolution will serve the climate security needs of both peoples.

Despite population growth and development over the past 25 years, Palestinian withdrawals of water from the Mountain Aquifer remain limited to the terms of Oslo II, often enforced through Israeli military control. This has created significant water scarcity affecting large areas of the West Bank, where municipal water services are provided in cities like Yatta, in the south of the West Bank, only one day per three months during the hot summer period.69 Additionally, due to its geological characteristics, most of the Mountain Aquifer’s recharge area is vulnerable to groundwater pollution and is degraded by inadequately treated sewage and unsanitary solid waste dumps, often caused by the limited ability to move forward in timely manner on projects in Area C communities. An estimated 47 million cubic meters of Palestinian-sourced raw and poorly treated sewage are released into the shared environment each year.

The Coastal Aquifer, under the Gaza Strip, is in a state of extreme overuse. As a result, 96% of the groundwater is no longer potable. Seawater infiltrates the aquifer, and salinity levels have thus risen well beyond World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for safe drinking water. This situation is compounded by contamination from the discharge of the mostly untreated sewage of 2 million people. The continued blockade on Gaza and the failure to reach internal Palestinian reconciliation result in the water and sanitation crisis being a core cause of Gaza’s not being a liveable place.

Israel too is severely affected by the water and sanitation crisis in the West Bank and Gaza. West Bank sewage is carried by cross-border streams into major Israeli cities and contaminates the ground water of the Mountain Aquifer that Israel takes the lion’s share of. A 2009 UN report estimated that 50,000 to 80,000 cubic meters of untreated or partially treated wastewater was flowing from Gaza into the Mediterranean Sea daily since January 2008. By 2018 it was estimated that more than 108,000 cubic meters of raw sewage flow from Gaza into the Mediterranean Sea every day through 9 sewage outlets distributed along the Gaza coastline, directly threatening the viability of Israel’s coastal desalination plants, which constitute 70% of the country’s drinking water, threatening Israeli water security and national security interests.

By not resolving water issues, both sides are paying a heavy price that under conditions of climate change will further threaten the national security of both peoples. The COVID19 pandemic should be a wake-up call to both governments that sustainably managing shared water resources is essential to maintain basic standards of hygiene that are essential to the health and economic welfare of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Maintaining the status quo at a time when technological advances have altered the very rationale for why water was considered a final status issue in the first place only highlights that water issues are today being held hostage to other final status issues of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. EcoPeace’s efforts towards achieving a fair water agreement between Israel and Palestine emphasize equitable rights and equal responsibilities related to joint management of shared water. ‘Equitable rights’ does not mean that all sides will receive equal volumes of natural water. Rather, it means that they will have equal standing in the institutions for joint management and equal opportunity to participate in decision-making processes, criteria that indicate that it is not water but water management of all shared water bodies that is really shared.

Priority recommendations to the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian governments: 
– Give political support to change the all-or-nothing paradigm and agree to negotiate water issues first. 
– Negotiate a water agreement to replace article 40 of the 1994 Oslo Accords. 
– Create an action plan to address Palestinian water and environmental projects in order to solve urgent issues like water supply and sanitation in Gaza and the West Bank. 
– Create a Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Commission to manage all shared waters.
Priority recommendations to the international community:
– Encourage the sides to break away from the all-or-nothing political paradigm in line with meeting Middle East and foreign policy climate security priorities.  – Create a “Friends of Water Group” as a coalition of states with influence on one or both of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, taking international leadership on the resolution of water issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the framework of a two-state solution based on internationally agreed parameters.

Gaza’s Water and Sanitation Crisis and Implications for Regional Stability

Access to water is a daily challenge in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth. With no perennial streams and low precipitation, Gaza relies almost completely on the underlying coastal aquifer, but severe contamination from sewage and seawater intrusion has irreparably damaged the aquifer. Nearly 97 percent of the water of the Gaza aquifer is unsafe to drink, owing to high levels of salinity.

Gaza’s water crisis also extends to sanitation. The inadequate capacity and disrepair of many wastewater networks and facilities, limitations on repair and construction caused by Israeli import restrictions on materials classified as “dual use,” and insufficient power supply to operate the treatment plants, has led to a severe worsening of the pollution from the outflow of untreated wastewater in recent years into the Mediterranean.

Given that Gaza remains a protracted humanitarian crisis, the humanitarian sector and development community has sought to find ways to augment water supply, ranging from rainwater harvesting to large-scale desalination plants. The current situation, where many households must purchase expensive drinking water of uncertain quality from private vendors, is not a long-term viable solution for meeting society’s basic human needs.

The Coastal Aquifer supplies 95% of Gaza’s water, and is in a state of extreme overuse with water extraction rates more than three times the renewable supply.

As a result, seawater infiltrates into the aquifer, and salinity levels have thus risen well beyond World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for safe drinking water.

This situation is compounded by contamination of the aquifer by nitrates from the untreated sewage of 1.8 million people.

Gaza’s residents are increasingly dependent on small-scale desalination of brackish water. While these small desalination plants reduce salinity, they do not remove the pollutants. The water is sold to the public mostly by private vendors for drinking and cooking purposes, with little supervision of health authorities.

The implications of a Gaza health crisis will not be confined to the Gaza but threaten regional stability. Some 90,000 cubic meters of raw sewage from Gaza flow into the Mediterranean Sea every day. Seawater currents carry this untreated wastewater along the Gaza coast towards Israeli beaches. Due to poor sanitary conditions in Gaza, an outbreak of pandemic disease is a matter of time. As is further witnessed by the current wave of Syrian refugees into Europe, desperate people will not be stopped by border fences. A recent UN report concluded that the Gaza Strip, in just 5 more years of further under development, will be uninhabitable with water, sanitation and energy issues of prime concern. This has dire implications not only for the Palestinian population of Gaza but to the region as a whole.

Israel therefore has a clear vested interest in cooperating with the Palestinian Authority and with the international community to alleviate the current situation.

The following measures are necessary:

  • Double the volume of water sold by Israel to Gaza, from 10 to 20 mcm: In March 2015 the Israeli government committed to double the amount of water sold to Gaza from 5 to 10 mcm. The current capacity of water pipelines crossing into Gaza from Israel is reported to be 20 mcm. The imported water could be blended with groundwater, making 40 mcm of potable water available.
  • Facilitate reservoir building and repair of network: Only 8 mcm of the 10 committed by Israel can presently be supplied due to lack of storage capacity. Additional storage capacity of up to 12 mcm (to accommodate the 20 mcm overall) is needed and urgent investment in network losses, estimated at up to 50%, are needed. The German Development Bank (KFW) is presently completing the refurbishment of the Al Muntar reservoir in Gaza City. Donors are considering an additional reservoir to accommodate water imported from Israel.
  • Increase electricity supply for water and sanitation: In June 2016 Israel approved the supply of additional 6 MW of electricity to Gaza, in order to power a newly built World Bank led wastewater treatment plant in northern Gaza (the NGEST project). However, considering the state of the existing grid connection between Israel and Gaza and the inability to control the allocation of this additional electricity once it has cross the border, without the construction of a dedicated power line that would connect the Israeli provider to the plant, this additional supply may be dispersed and not reach its final destination. The construction of this power line is therefore fundamental for the efficient functioning of the plant. Nevertheless, the construction of a dedicated power line should be considered simply as an interim measure.
  • In the long term, there is a need for a high voltage electricity line that would see an additional 100 MW of electricity (the planned 161 line) and a gas pipeline from Israel to Gaza to directly power the Gaza Power Plant as well as the proposed 55 mcm desalination plant.