by Jad Isaac
Total water resources in the Middle East region are made up of two components - surface water and groundwater. The main surface-water resource is the Jordan River Basin, with the Sea of Galilee as the major regional water reservoir. It 'has a storage capacity of 4,000 million cubic meters (mcm) or about 1 trillion US gallons, and receives an average annual replenishment of about 840 cm. The Yarmuk River is also an integral part of the Jordan River Basin. Its headwaters join the Jordan River 10 km (6 miles) below the Sea of Galilee. Groundwater is the most important source of freshwater supply in the area, and consists of the main West Bank aquifer systems, as well as the Gaza Strip aquifer. Around 600 mcm of the annual rainfall is estimated to infiltrate the soil to replenish the aquifers and about 40 mcm of rain each year percolates to recharge the coastal aquifer underlying the Strip.
Israel currently has control over a major part of the Jordan Basin waters. Israel, Syria and Jordan abstract 450 mcm annually from the Yarmuk River, and Israel siphons a further 470 mcm from the Sea of Galilee. This reduces the downstream Jordan to a fetid trickle.
In Gaza, groundwater is the only source of fresh water, with an estimated potential of 65 mcm per year. At present, though, the aquifer is being over¬pumped (100 mcm annually), in quantities exceeding the replenishment rate, resulting in the gradual invasion of seawater.
Following its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel implemented stringent policies that prevented Palestinians from fully utilizing the West Bank's groundwater. These included the expropriation of wells belonging to absentee owners, the denial of permits for the drilling of new wells, and the imposition of rigorous water quotas.
In sum, due to restrictions on water allocations imposed by Israel, the water situation in Palestine is approaching a critical phase that hinders economic development and threatens the livelihood of the Palestinian population. It is clear that an apportionment of water rights between the conflicting parties should be considered on a more equitable basis.
Water Supply and Demand
A serious discrepancy exists between the amount of water supplied to Palestinians as compared to Israelis. While a Palestinian uses on average 107-156 cubic meters (cm)/year, an Israeli uses 370 cm/year, and a Jewish settler uses between 650-1,714 cm/year. Such discrepancy is not limited to water quantities, but extends to water pricing as well. Israelis pay $0.40 per cm for domestic water and only $0.16 per cm for agricultural water; whereas, Palestinians pay a standard rate of $1.20 for piped water.
A re-allocation of this vital resource between the two sides is possible and imperative, but re-allocation by itself would be an insufficient means of averting conflict over water resources. Due to the increasing demand for water to meet the needs of a growing population and a rise in the standard of living in the Middle East, an increase in supply relative to demand must be achieved.
Water and the Final-Status Map
Israel's plans for the division of the West Bank water resources under the Oslo final-status agreement can be gathered from a strategic map published in the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv. In its December 4,1997, edition, the newspaper printed a map combining features of previous ones, according to which 60 percent of the West Bank would be under Israeli control, leaving 40 percent for the Palestinian Authority (PA). This 40 percent would be divided into three separate and distinct cantons, without free and unrestricted access between the southern canton and the two northern ones.
As for the specific issue of water, Palestinians will be denied access to
sufficient water for domestic, agricultural and industrial needs. They will also be hindered from reaching the Jordan River Basin - the "food basket" of the West Bank - even though Palestinians are riparians of this international water system. Indeed, according to the Johnston Plan of 1955, a West Ghor canal was to be built to provide Palestinians with an equitable share of water from the Jordan River. But this West Ghor canal is nowhere to be seen in Israel's new map, which has been drawn in such a way that the vast majority of West Bank Palestinian wells fall within the areas designated for Israeli control.
Under the final-status arrangements as envisaged in the above-mentioned map, Palestinians are deprived of their own natural resources, even though these are crucial for the building of a sustainable future. Such a situation is in direct contradiction to the spirit of Oslo ("Land for peace") as spelled out in the Oslo II Interim Agreement, as well as in defiance of international resolutions - UN resolutions 242 and 338.
Water and Peace
It is now more than six years since the initial peace conference was held in Madrid. Israel and Jordan have since resolved their water dispute based on a mutual recognition of the "rightful allocations" of both parties from the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, as well as from the Araba/Arava groundwater.
As regards the Palestinians, the first principle in Article 40 of the Oslo II agreement - dealing with water and sewage - states: "Israel recognizes the Palestinian water rights in the West Bank. These will be negotiated in the permanent-status negotiations and settled in the permanent-status agreement relating to the various water resources." There is no doubt that this may be considered an important breakthrough as it is the first time that Israel has recognized Palestinian water rights.
Accordingly, a Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) has recently been established and is mandated to deal with all water-related issues, including wastewater. A Palestinian Water Council, comprising representatives from the ministries of Agriculture and of Planning and International Cooperation, in addition to the PWA and universities, has also been formed.
It remains for Israel to transfer its control of West Bank water to the new authority.
So far, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have not seen the Oslo II agreement implemented, translating into water in their taps. Instead, they are witnessing severe water shortages, and Gaza Palestinians have no access to clean water.
The following steps, if implemented, can help ease the situation:
• Israel should provide the Palestinians with water data. It is regrettable that, although Israel has committed to such an undertaking, it has, to date, done very little in that respect.
• Israel should satisfy the Palestinians' immediate needs for water.
Assuming 50 mcm/year per Palestinian as the minimum requirement for domestic use, an additional allocation of 70 mcm/year should be considered.
• Israel should lift the restrictions imposed on Palestinians to enable them to properly utilize their land and water resources, especially in the Jor¬dan Valley. To this end, Israelis and Palestinians should start work right away on clearing the heavily mined areas there.
• Israel, Jordan and Palestine need to embark on the construction of the West Ghor canal as agreed upon in the Johnston Plan.
• All countries riparian to the Jordan River Basin need to cooperate in forming a basin-wide regional authority.
• A mechanism should be established to ensure that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on Palestinian water rights get moving. So far, there has been no progress on this front and the impression is that Israel is attempting to impose its own will on the Palestinians.
Thus, the potential for an agreement on a solution to the water crisis does exist. And finding a common understanding of water issues in the Middle East would go far to enhance the prospect of attaining stability in the region. A program based on the above steps would pave the way to resolving conflicts over this precious resource. Unless there is a will to move in this direction, all tangible political accomplishments of the last few years will evaporate, leading to increased regional tensions.
This is a revised version of an article published in Cornerstone, Issue 11, 1998. Printed by permission.