Who owns the water?

Short- and Mid-Term Water Solutions for the Area

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Water is scarce and unevenly distributed in the area; redistribution can be profitable to all.

Water is one of the most sensitive political issues in the Middle East, regardless of whether it relates to the Jordan Valley, the Nile River, or the Tigris-Euphrates River basin. No country wants to cede water already under its control. None of the political leaders of the region is willing at this time to discuss the need for a significant shift from low-value agriculture. Thus, addressing the issue of water, and especially the price paid for it by farmers, is a political bombshell; nonetheless, the solutions for resolving water disputes in the region lie in this realm.

There must be a new and fairer economic and rational approach adopted by the leaders of the region. In order to reach this goal, a clear definition of universal norms and enforceable international laws and institutions needs to be discussed, negotiated and accepted. The basis of these solutions should be a universal apportionment of minimal water allocation of at least 100 cubic meters per year of water for domestic use.

In this approach it is always wise to be conscious of the basic fact: water equals money. There are many ways of translating the value of water into money. Some of them are very complex and require projects costing millions of dollars. Other ways are quite simple and logical and, at least to begin with, don’t require mathematical genius, only people with common sense, and the ability to see not only the individual wells, but also the overall well-being of the peoples of the region.

This is a presentation of short- and mid-term solutions for the water conflict in the area, where water is a scarce and finite resource, and unevenly distributed. Agriculture accounts for the vast majority of the water used in the region. The problem is additionally complicated by the significant rate of population growth there, which is expected to continue to grow.

Redistribution Can Be Profitable

The finite amount of fresh water available throughout the entire Jordan Valley area from rivers and renewable aquifers is about 2,710 million cubic meters (per year at average sustainable yields). Additionally, the “climate change phenomenon” also introduces an added risk factor that, over the next century, temperatures could rise, precipitation in the region could further decrease and droughts could become more common.

Rough comparable data from the 1900 period shows that Jordanians use 173 cubic meters/person/year, Palestinians use 85, Israelis use 447; and, thus, the average for the Jordan Valley area is 215. For their part, the Lebanese use 271 cubic meters/person/year and the Syrians 449 cubic meters/person/year.

Israel presently gets about 40 percent of its freshwater needs from sources originating in the West Bank. Thus, many Palestinians and some Jordanians perceive that Israel utilizes a disproportionate share of the common water pool. Most Israelis believe they are using water from the sources they have always used.

More than 85 percent of available freshwater in the Middle East and North Africa is currently used for agriculture. The available statistics for water use, employment, and gross domestic product (GDP) in agriculture in the Jordan Valley area during the 1990-1992 time frame are revealing: there are no real significant differences, on average, for recent years over a ten-year time frame which accounts for periods of droughts such as the past two-year period.

Water Use, Employment and GDP

 %Water Workers                          %Labor                                               % of GDP
Jordan                        75%                                       10%                                                           6%
West Bank & Gaza 219,000                               33%                                                          33%
Israel                          79%       (1,650,000)         3%                                                             3%

The proposed solutions presented here will not provide answers for a period beyond 10-15 years when there will be no fresh water available in the Jordan Basin for purposes other than domestic use. The basic premise of this proposed solution is that a redistribution of water in the region can be profitable for all parties, taking into account that “water equals money” and agricultural products can essentially be related to as “virtual water” (e.g., a tomato or an orange or other fresh food products are basically conveniently transportable bags of water.)
This is also only a short-term solution due to the rapid and continuous high rate of population growth in the region, compounded by Jewish immigration to Israel and a likely increased return of Palestinian refugees to the Palestinian state. These proposals, therefore, relate to a maximum period of 10-15 years, after which other solutions will be necessary. These will have to be integrated with the ones proposed below, due to the lack of water available for all users and uses. We must already concentrate not only on the better use and allocation of existing water, but also on the need to create additional sources of water.

The Desalination Option

The most likely solution for the future, and perhaps not even the very distant future, is desalination. This option today appears to be cheaper than even the importation of water from Turkey. At today’s rates, desalination would cost about $0.65 per cubic meter, whereas importation of water from southern Turkey would cost about $0.95 per cubic meter, unless the Turkish government agrees to receive a significantly smaller amount of money per cubic meter. The importation option is more expensive due to the transportation costs.

Labor-intensive agriculture is becoming less and less economical in Israel. The rising costs of land and labor are creating a situation where Israeli farmers can no longer earn a living from field crops and other intensive agriculture aimed at the domestic market. Israel today already purchases the entire Palestinian agricultural surplus, which accounts for about 8 percent of Israel’s fresh fruit and vegetable needs.

For the next 10-15 years, Israel could continue to purchase the entire Palestinian fresh fruit and vegetable surplus and probably that of Jordan as well, and, if more water were available, the Palestinians and the Jordanians could steadily increase their market share in Israel. It is likely that Israeli agricultural imports will increase over the next decade, particularly regarding labor-intensive field crops. This proposal is based on an increasing ability on the part of Palestine and Jordan to produce a larger share of the fresh food needs of Israel. In order to implement this program, over the next 10-15 years, Israel, Palestine and Jordan would agree to increase the share of freshwater available to Palestinian and Jordanian agriculture. It is also possible to purchase water from the Litani River once a peace agreement has been reached with Lebanon. The water from the Litani could be stored in Lake Tiberias or the new Unity Dam, which is to be constructed in Jordan. Here’s the pay-off for all sides for increased water supply to the Palestinians and the Jordanians:
For Palestine and Jordan:
* A steady increase in agricultural jobs at a time of high unemployment;
* A guaranteed market for Palestinian fresh agricultural produce (which is the first problem faced by the producer of any goods anywhere in the world);
* The ability to irrigate and cultivate more land, preparing new areas for increased Palestinian settlement and development.

For Lebanon:
* Cash for water from the Litani River that currently flows into the sea during the winter months.

For Israel:
* A guaranteed source of fresh, high-quality food at prices cheaper than in Israel;
* Increased Palestinian and Jordanian purchases of Israeli agricultural inputs such as seeds (high profit), fertilizers and pesticides, as well as Israeli irrigation technologies that will all help to strengthen Israel’s hi-tech industries;
* Israeli purchase of Palestinian produce keeps the shekel in the economy where a large part will be re-spent by Palestinians in Israel, instead of using foreign currency for importing food;
* Regional agreements for water redistribution could be presented to the international community as a successful model in regional cooperation and could be “rewarded” by the international community (both from the public and private sectors) through the establishment of an international fund for research and development in the field of water desalination. The fund could be used to create hi-tech jobs and scientific cooperation between Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian and other international water scientists. The developments and patents produced through the R&D fund could be used to sustain ongoing cooperative research projects.

Only for the Short Term

In this proposal, no one loses. The Palestinians and Jordanians gain an increase in water share, they create jobs, have markets to sell to and become involved in an internationally funded hi-tech research and development fund. The Palestinians and Jordanians could also be the primary beneficiaries of new water coming into the region from the Lebanese Litani River. Israel gains by replacing real water for virtual water, as it is keeping money in the local economy, gaining sales in agricultural inputs, profiting from an international research and development fund, and adding a significant positive element to the peace process.
It must be stressed that the short-term nature of this plan must be taken into account from the outset, because there is already a need in the entire region to replace freshwater presently available for agriculture with other sources of water including recycled wastewater, desalinated brackish water and desalinated seawater. It is hoped that by the time the need to replace the freshwater by desalinating seawater arises, the R&D fund and research would have produced alternative cheaper solutions to technologies currently being used. It is also important to note that, in the longer run, the Palestinian and Jordanian economies should not be agriculture-based, because there will also be a need to rely more heavily on hi-tech and industries that produce higher income for upward moving societies.
We must also adopt systems of placing greater emphasis on reducing the demand for water. This is generally known as “Demand-Side Management.” Water in the region is not used economically and much is completely wasted, and is sold at prices below the cost of processing and delivering.
Water technology, including modern sprinkler systems, drip irrigation and plastic greenhouses, saves a lot of water and can be affordable for some high-value crops like vegetables and flowers. However, for wheat, cotton and other low-value crops that require about 1,000 cubic meters of water to produce one ton, recycled wastewater should be used.
It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of the water pumped to the delivery system in many municipalities in the region is lost due to leakage. This must be dealt with effectively and rapidly. New and inexpensive technologies for reducing water used in flush toilets and shower heads can also add up to meaningful savings. Capture and storage of rainwater from roofs can also lead to additional savings of water.
Avoiding water pollution is less expensive than creating new water. This applies to homes, industry, and agriculture. Pollution avoidance offers a high ratio of benefit to cost. There are significant problems of water pollution in all the countries of the region. The dangers of water pollution in one country have a direct impact on the water available throughout the region. Therefore, the region as a whole must devise policies and programs to prevent pollution before it happens and to clean it up together after it occurs, and to adopt universal health standards for clean water. The principle of “The polluter pays” must be strongly enforced through the court and justice systems, so that the private and public sectors face sufficient incentives for preventing pollution.

More People Need More Water

Population growth and family planning is an explosive topic in this region, which, nonetheless, must be addressed. More people create more demand for water. Each net addition to the population raises the demand for water by at least 100 cubic meters per year. Policies that encourage population growth must be addressed as the region is rapidly reaching its limits in providing natural resources for the large populations. Education in family planning is essential, not only for economic needs, but also as a means to protect the limited natural resources. Religious as well as political leaders must together face this issue.
With extremely limited water resources, an intelligent use of water is essential. Economically speaking, water is also a growth industry. The private sector, municipalities, the NGO sector and regional and international governments are investing more and more resources into the design of new strategies and products for a better and more efficient use of water in the area.
A Regional Water Technology Center, dealing with the elements below, is now being launched by IPCRI — the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information — and NISPED — the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development:
* A permanent display of water technologies provided by companies that produce the equipment;
* Temporary exhibits and displays by private-sector companies that wish to advance their own water design and technologies;
* Courses and seminars for professionals and municipality water authorities on various technologies and techniques;
* A portfolio of infrastructure projects seeking to link with donors and/or private-sector ventures;
* A regional water database and hydrology library;
* A facility for organizing water field trips in the area;
* A web page on water.
The center will aim to answer real needs for the advanced use of water technologies for home use, agriculture and municipal use in supply and in wastewater treatment.

The proposals above need to be explored and developed in much more depth than is possible in the scope of this article. Initial research shows that these proposals seem to be feasible and beneficial enough to be taken seriously in preparation for the future water negotiations in the region.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin