Who owns the water?

The Clash Over Water: an Attempt at Demystification

By |

Water guidelines to serve the interests both of Israel and the Palestinians

Water is a commodity. In water-rich regions of the world, water is bought and sold just as oil, wheat, rice and even gold. In water-poor regions of the world, wars are fought over control of the water resources. Our region is, of course, a water-poor region. Wars in the Middle East, if not fought directly over water, have had water within their marginal concerns. Is the “water conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians the kind of conflict which will lead to a war? Is the water issue even a major issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Many researchers answer “yes” to these two questions. This paper is a first attempt to bring the issue of water between Israel and Palestine into a more realistic proportion. It will attempt to “demystify” the water issue in this particular part of the conflict. The paper will not minimize the question of water with regard to Israeli-Syrian relations; the focus here is solely on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Israel and Palestine are both part of the Jordan River Basin, therefore, both are thought to be competitors over the same limited water resources. The Jordan River is some 360 krns long and drains a total area of 18,300 sq. kms. The portion of the River which concerns the Israel-Palestine track is the lower Jordan River flowing from the Sea of Tiberias southward through the West Bank into the Dead Sea. This water is quite brackish since its sources are mainly return irrigation’ flows and flows from saline springs. There is about 100 million cubic meters per year (mcmy) of brackish water available from the source.’

The main source of water for the West Bank is what is commonly called the mountain aquifer. The mountain aquifer is a transboundary water resource shared by Israel and Palestine. The major recharge area of the mountain aquifer, (where the rains fall) is in the West Bank. Some 78% of the recharge area is within the Palestinian territories.2 However, present optimal pumping areas are found on the western side of the “Green Line” inside of Israel proper. This is due to the topography of the region (the cheaper area for pumping the water is in the lowlands inside of Israel). Thus, Israel, which uses most of the water of the mountain aquifer, actually pumps this water inside Israel proper. This water source accounts for about 25% of Israel’s total water consumption.

The mountain aquifer can be divided into three sub-aquifers: the western, the north-eastern aquifer and the eastern aquifer.

The western aquifer flows naturally towards the Mediterranean Sea to the outlets at Rosh Ha’ayin (Ras al Ain) and the Yarkon River (el Uja) near Tel Aviv.

The north-eastern aquifer also drains naturally into Israel in the areas of the Jezreel and Beit Shean Valleys.

The eastern aquifer drains naturally into the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea area. Of the three sub-sections of the mountain aquifer only the western and north-eastern sub-sections are transboundary water resources shared by Israel and Palestine. The eastern aquifer is purely a Palestinian water resource and should not be of concern to Israel.

Quantities and Functions 

Let’s look at the numbers: the total potential of the mountain aquifer is estimated to be some 632 mcmy which includes 452 mcmy of fresh water and 180 mcmy of brackish water. Of this, the eastern aquifer (which is purely a Palestinian water resource) contains 81 mcmy of fresh water and 70 mcmy of brackish water. The north-eastern aquifer contains 61 mcmy of fresh water and 70 mcmy of brackish water, while the western aquifer contains 310 mcmy of fresh water and 40 mcmy of brackish water. So based upon these figures, the water in conflict in the West Bank is a total of 371 mcmy of fresh water and 110 mcmy of brackish water.

The total water available from the mountain aquifer is 623 mcmy of which Israel is using 413 mcmy (fresh and brackish) or 66% of the total of the aquifer. This accounts for some 23% of Israel’s total (total consumption being estimated at 1,800 mcmy). Of the fresh water available from this source, Israel currently consumes 303 mcmy or 67%. An additional 35 mcmy of fresh water is currently being used by Israeli settlements from the eastern aquifer which is a purely Palestinian source making the total Israeli consumption of fresh water from the mountain aquifer 338 mcmy. The Palestinians are left with a total of 110 mcmy (90 mcmy fresh and 20 mcmy brackish) accounting for 20% of the fresh water and 17.4% of the total.

In the West Bank (for Palestinians) water serves two basic functions: domestic use and agricultural use. (Industrial use of water in the West Bank is currently very low). In 1990, there was a total water consumption in the West Bank (by Palestinians) of 118 million cubic meters (mcm): 29 mcm for domestic use,S mcm for industry and 84 mcm for agriculture.4 The remaining 8 mcm above the water available from the mountain aquifer comes from home collection and from the Jordan River. Prof. Hisham Awartani has calculated the estimated water needs of the West Bank in the year 2005 when the population of the West Bank will be 2.24 million. His estimates are as follows: 144.7 mcm for domestic use, 29 mcm for industry and 244 mcm for agriculture. Today the per capita use of water in the West Bank is 31 cubic meters (cm) per person, and the current Israeli per capita usage is about 100 em per person. Prof. Awartani estimates a growth in the year 2005 to 64.6 em per person in the West Bank. 5

Water Requirement 

In calculating the total need for water in the West Bank, it is important to determine how water is used. The agriculture sector is the largest consumer of water. Today, nearly one-quarter of the Palestinian population is employed in agriculture which accounts for roughly one-quarter of the internal gross product. The percentage of people employed in agriculture will probably decrease as more modern technologies are used; however, the percentage of irrigated land will increase (and should increase) if there will be more water available.

In the West Bank there are 5.87 million dunums of land. Today some 95,000 dunums are being irrigated. According to Awartani, there are a total of 172,000 dunums which are currently fit for irrigation (fit meaning economically viable in terms of crop production) and an additional 440,000 dunums which could be fit for certain types of irrigated agriculture giving a total 612,000 of irrigable land. At an average of 700 em per dunum, the expected need for agricultural water in the West Bank in the year 2005 will be 424.4 mcmy. Together with the domestic and industrial needs, Palestinians in the West Bank will require 602.1 mcmy (at 1992 levels of usage for agriculture which will probably decrease with advanced technologies in agriculture). This coincides with the total available water from the mountain aquifer of 623 mcmy.

Fresh water is not only a commodity which is used, it can also be produced (unlike oil). How much is water worth? The efficient price of water is determined by the marginal cost of providing additional or alternative water to any location. The highest price that water can command is estimated to be about 80 cents (1992 prices) per cubic meter. This is the cost of desalination at the shore.6 Israel which uses 413 mcmy from the mountain aquifer must also take into account the cost of conveying water, which in some cases is almost as large as the cost of production. Using some complex mathematical calculations, it seems that the replacement cost of West Bank water for Israel would be about $1.00 per em. Thus at the present time, if Israel were to relinquish its total claim on the West Bank mountain aquifer, the total replacement cost of this water to Israel would be no more than $413 million which is 0.67% of Israel’s GNP in 1993.

On the basis of the above analysis, the entirety of the water conflict between Israel and the Palestinians over the mountain aquifer amounts to 0.67% of Israel’s GNP in 1993. Would any nation wage war over such a small sum of money? This figure is even smaller when one takes into account that the Palestinians are presently not ready to significantly increase their water demand. It will take a number of years before the Palestinian agricultural sector will be ready to reach the levels indicated above. This time would provide Israel with the ability to prepare for large scale desalination projects.

Desalination 

Desalination projects will be demanded in the region of the future. There will not be enough water for any of the Jordan Basin countries in another generation. There is, however, an unlimited amount of saline water available from the sea. There is also a substantial quantity of brackish water available in the fossil water lakes under the Negev desert and brackish water is cheaper to desalinate than sea water.

It would seem logical that, since desalination will eventually have to provide the answer for the region’s water needs, these projects should begin today. The international community seems to be willing to invest in these large regional projects. Israel, because of its relative wealth and due to its technological abilities should lead the region in these efforts.

Israel has often suggested that the Palestinians should look to desalination to solve their water problems. Certainly, if this suggestion is good for Palestinians it must also be good for Israel. Water negotiations between Israel and Palestine should not be blown out of proportion. This is not an issue which is going to break the Israeli economy. The Palestinians, on the other hand, with a GNP of $3 billion can hardly be expected to invest large sums of capital in desalination projects at this time.

With the understanding that Israel will probably not simply relinquish its claim on this water, it is suggested that the following guidelines be adopted in the negotiations on water during the interim period (and perhaps beyond):

1. These suggestions, if accepted, will not prejudice any legitimate claims on water by either party in the negotiations on the final status of the Territories which will begin in the third year of the interim period.
2. These suggestions are made with the understanding that a wider agreement will be signed involving all of the riparians to the Jordan River Basin.
3. Water is a basic human right. Every resident of the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River has the same and equal rights for high quality water.
4. The underlying principle in these suggestions is cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians with regard to the use, distribution, preservation, development and management of the joint water resources.
5. As specified in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (Article VII number 4), the Palestinians should establish an independent water authority. This water authority should be the responsible body which will control and manage the use, distribution and preservation of the water resources under its control.
6. These suggestions aim to establish the principle that equal minimum standards for the allocation of water must be accepted and implemented. It is recommended that a Minimum Water Requirement (MWR) be established and that every resident of the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River be allocated water (on per capita basis) at the MWR rate.
7. The Palestinians should be granted immediate and full control of the eastern aquifer (Wadi Kelt, Wadi Uja, Ein Fashkha). This aquifer today provides for 81 mcm of fresh water and 70 mcm of brackish water. Of this, 38 mcm of fresh water and 20 mcm of brackish water are presently being used by Palestinians and 35 mcm of fresh water are being used for Israeli settlements. An additional 58 mcm of brackish water are currently unused.
8. As specified in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (Article HI number 1), a Joint Monitoring Commisssion should be established by Israel and the Palestinians to monitor all joint water resources. These include the mountain (western) aquifer, the Jordan River and the Ein Gedi Systems.
9. As specified in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (Article HI number 1), the Joint Monitoring Commission would be charged with the implementation of this agreement. The Joint Monitoring Commission should be charged with setting pumping schedules which will be monitored by the commission.
10. No unilateral action shall be taken by either side which will change this agreement.
11. The Ein Gedi Systems is a joint resource and should be treated as such. Arrangements should be made to provide sufficient fresh water for the Israeli settlements on the Israeli side of the Green Line (e.g. Kibbutz Ein Gedi). 12.1. The Jordan River is a joint resource and arrangements should be made to supply fresh water to the settlements in the Jordan Valley regardless of any potential change in their status after the interim period, at the current rate of 25 mcmy from the Upper Jordan to the farm communities in the area. An additional 45 mcmy will continue to flow into the Sea of Galilee.
12.2. A regional water institution for the Jordan River will be established involving all riparians of the river and its sources. This body will become a river basin management authority.
12.3. Negotiations will commence regarding the reconstruction and the completion of the Unity Dam and the construction of the West Ghor Canal.
13. The current Palestinian allocation from the mountain aquifer is as follows: from the western basin the Palestinians receive 27 mcmy from a total of 310 mcm of fresh water and 40 mcm of brackish water. From the north-eastern basin, the Palestinians receive 25 mcmy from a total of 61 mcm of fresh water and 70 mcm of brackish water. From the eastern basin the Palestinians receive 38 mcmy of fresh water and 20 mcmy of brackish water from a total of 81 mcm of fresh water and 70 mcm of brackish water. The Israeli settlements use a total of some 50 mcmy from these three sources. If this is not possible for technical reasons, it is recommended that the Palestinians be given an additional 50 mcmy from sources suggested by Israel. Thus the Palestinians would reach a level of 180 mcmy from the mountain aquifer.
14. With regards to the Gaza Strip, the current safe yield of the Gaza aquifer is estimated to be 60 mcmy. This water will be used for the Palestinians and by the Palestinians. The Israeli settlements in Gaza will receive water piped in from water sources outside of the Gaza Strip and its vicinity. Today these settlements use about 6 mcmy.
15. The Palestinian water authority in conjunction with the Israeli water authority should undertake the monitoring and publication of all data concerning the planning, use and allocation of its resources. Data on water resources is not in the private domain. It must be in the public domain and the public must have access to adequate and verifiable data. Israelis and Palestinians will cooperate in the sharing of all data with regard to the joint water resources.
16. As specified in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (Annex III number 10), a joint commission will be established to set up and determine environmental standards, to establish criteria for waste water irrigation and to set up standards for the disposal of solid waste which could pollute the groundwater.
17. As specified in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (Annex III number 1), a joint planning body shall be established which should be charged with the investigation of additional sources of water. This body should be funded by monies raised locally and in the international community. This commission will work to assure that capital resources are available for assessment, research and joint monitoring. This commission should make recommendations with regard to increasing amounts of available fresh water in the region including desalination and other forms of importation of water.
18. Issues regarding claims and counter-claims for compensation will be delayed until the discussions on the final status of the Territories.
19. Resolutions of disputes will be dealt with through the mechanism set forth in the Declaration of Principles (Article XV).

A Proper Perspective 

The above proposals are quite specific. The underlying principles behind them are that Israel should be generous in the disposition of the transboundary water resources with Palestinians. Palestinians and Israelis should together approach the international community with mid and long¬term plans for desalination schemes which will allow the Palestinians to utilize to a maximal potential the water available in the mountain aquifer. Translating this specific water problem into pure economics allows Israel to relate to the problem in terms which are not life and death (as the water issue is often presented). It is suggested that Israel view its water future through policies which will lead to reforms in agriculture (growing different crops than it does today) together with investments in research and development technologies of water desalination.

Israel’s economic future is not tied to agriculture. Agriculture accounts for a decreasing percentage of the work force as well as a decrease in the income produced toward the GNP. Israel’s agricultural sector will have to be restructured so that it can exploit its maximal advantage – agricultural engineering through its high R&D investments. It is already cheaper to import many high water consumption crops such as bananas and citrus than to grow them or even export them. An exported orange is little more than a conveniently packaged bag of water. In today’s global market, it is becoming more and more easy and feasible to market agricultural products. It is significantly easier to transport containers of fruits and vegetables than water. All of the new water bag technologies have yet to prove themselves, both scientifically and economically. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand are transported around the world with amazing ease and speed. Major pipe dreams such as the peace canal project or the mini-peace pipe canal are expensive and outdated concepts. When food security is no longer an issue in the current world in which we live, water can be related to in its proper perspective.

Water security must be maintained primarily for domestic use. Israel and Palestine have enough good quality fresh water for some 14 million people between the sea and the river. We do not have to eliminate agriculture, but we must restructure the agricultural market in an economic way. Palestinians can still develop their agricultural sector because they are still in need of many labor intensive branches such as field crops, flowers, and fruit plantations. Israel, on the other hand, can afford to concentrate on less labor intensive, scientifically advanced agriculture, such as in the development of new seeds, genetically engineered, which will be sold abroad for very high prices at low water costs and low labor intensity. Israel can also afford to concentrate on high-yield greenhouse agriculture aimed primarily at export markets in Europe, the United States and perhaps the Gulf States which are already dependent on fruits and vegetables from abroad.

A Joint Interest 

Many Israeli farmers would be very opposed to these suggestions. To them, the answer is that even without a water crisis, the agricultural sector is going to be revised and changed. Two and a half percent of the labor force cannot dictate to the country’s macro needs. Individual farmers who lose their source of income will have to be compensated by the state in some form. This is already the case, because the economic trade agreement between Israel and the PLO will phase out certain select sectors of Israel’s agriculture simply because Palestinians will produce the same goods for a lot less money.

Eventually, Palestinians will also face the possibility of making vast revisions in their agricultural sector, but that prospect is still at least ten years away. In the meantime, after agreeing to let the Palestinians have most of the water in the mountain aquifer, Israel will adjust to having less water for agriculture. Israel will begin to become more an importer of certain agricultural products. In the near future these goods will be purchased from the Palestinians and in the more distant future, instead of purchasing water from Turkey, Israel will buy citrus and other fruit and vegetable products from Spain, Morocco, Italy, Turkey and other countries. Chiquita bananas will replace Jordan Valley bananas. Israel will continue to grow sophisticated flowers for export to Europe and winter tomatoes and other vegetables as cash crops. The Palestinians will have their fair share of the mountain aquifer (all of it within ten years). At that time Palestinians will need to begin to think about new sources of water and new water policies.

If the water conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can be brought to its proper perspective and proportions, Israel would find it possible to be generous to the Palestinians. This would serve as more than a good-will gesture. It will provide the Palestinians with another financial assistance program. It would pave the road to greater cooperation in water technology and agriculture. It would also help to phase out some of the anguish of the past. Israel will have to make investments in desalination technology (which it will eventually have to make anyway). By linking this plan to the peace process, the international community will help fund the cost of Israel’s generosity to the Palestinians. Adopting this plan would be in the interest of the Israelis no less than in the interest of the Palestinians.

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