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Analysis: The ‘apolitical’ approach to Palestine’s water crisis (Part I)

July 31, 2017 10:40 A.M. (Updated: July 31, 2017 5:55 P.M.)
(MaanImages/Charlie Hoyle, File)
Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law. This is the first of a three-part analysis on water rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, written by Al-Shabaka policy member Muna Dajani. The second part will be published on Ma’an News on Tuesday. The full report can be read here.


Earlier this month, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced a new deal in which Israel will sell the Palestinians 33 million cubic meters of desalinated Red Sea water per year, with 10 million cubic meters transferred to the Gaza Strip and the rest to the West Bank.

The deal masks the fact that Palestine is undergoing a man-made, rather than natural, water crisis. Government officials, the international community, donor agencies, and even academic literature portray Palestine’s lack of water resources as a foregone conclusion -- a result of the region’s climatic conditions. What these narratives fail to address is that Palestine’s water scarcity is a social and political construct that obscures how Israel entrenches its hegemony over water resources, resulting in severe water inequality for Palestinians.

For decades, Israel has proposed technological solutions to address this scarcity, such as desalination plants and wastewater treatment and reuse. International donors have played a major role in reinforcing Israel’s approach. These solutions are tied to the belief that science, technology, and infrastructure will ensure that water is no longer a source of contention, conflict, and even war. But these technologically driven solutions disregard the social, political, and cultural elements of water.

This is not to say that technological advances in water are not essential for the development of societies. Indeed, the harnessing of additional water sources is needed to accommodate increasing populations, particularly in the face of the effects of climate change. But in the case of Israel and Palestine such technologies have embedded political motivations and uses. Indeed, we must ask: How does Israel benefit from these technological advancements while maintaining its coercive control over the water of the West Bank, not to mention its responsibility for the water crisis in the Gaza Strip? Can Palestinians rely on the potential of technology to increase their water availability under the context of occupation?

This policy brief examines how, in fact, Israel’s technological innovations operate in a context of systematic theft of water resources, which weakens Palestinian efforts to attain water rights and the equitable allocation of water sources. It focuses particularly on international donors’ role in shoring up this situation, and offers recommendations on what Palestinians can do to challenge the status quo and obtain the water rights to which they are entitled.

The establishment of Israel’s water hegemony

When Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights in 1967, all the headwaters of the Jordan River, in addition to West Bank groundwater, came under its control. In 1982, the Israeli military transferred its control of the West Bank’s water resources to Mekorot, Israel’s water company founded in 1937.

The 1993 Oslo Accords established a Joint Water Committee (JWC) through which Israelis and Palestinians coordinate management of water resources in the West Bank. Yet the Accords allow Israel to control Palestinian water infrastructure development by sanctioning and freezing Palestinian water projects while also intimidating Palestinians so as to legitimize water projects in settlements, which are illegal under international law.

Israel is currently using 85 percent of the shared water resources of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians high and dry. Not only does Israel exert hegemony over access to West Bank resources, the Palestinian Water Authority is completely dependent on Israel as the main supplier of water, purchasing its stock from Israel since the Oslo Accords. And contrary to Israeli claims, the Palestinians are not receiving gratis water additional to that which was allocated by Oslo, leaving the PA with no choice but to buy more water from Mekorot to meet the increasing demand of its population.

Moreover, Israel has since the 1990s made huge investments in desalination and wastewater treatment, enabling it to become a water exporter to its water-scarce neighbors. Mekorot manages 100 mega-projects throughout Israel, including 40 desalination facilities that provide 60 million cubic meters of water per year. In addition, Israel’s wastewater reclamation and treatment facilities allow it to reuse 60 percent of its treated wastewater for agricultural purposes. Israel outsources this technical expertise to the developing world, and its collaborations with water companies and governments of Argentina, Cyprus, Uganda, Azerbaijan, and Portugal generate billions of dollars.

With its drive for technical solutions that ignore the politics of its appropriation of Palestinian water, Israel’s agreements with the PA have addressed water as a practical issue. The established transfers, quotas, and swaps fail to adhere to the principles of international water law, which call for equitable water allocations and the acknowledgment of Palestinian water rights. After a six-year freeze in the JWC’s work, cooperation resumed in January 2017. The freeze was due to a conditional arrangement in which Israeli settlement projects had to be approved for Palestinian projects to be considered. According to Jan Selby, between 1998 and 2010, Palestinians gave approval to more than 100 Israeli projects in the West Bank, but 97 donor-funded projects are still awaiting Israeli approval. The resumption of meetings and cooperation is far from benign. While the new arrangement will allow Palestinians to carry out the laying of pipes and networks without JWC approval, it does the same for Israel, meaning that Israel can develop its networks for settlements without joint approval from the JWC. Moreover, as Selby notes, “Though Palestinians will now have autonomy to lay pipelines, what they won’t have is any additional water to go in them -- except with Israeli consent.”

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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