Monday, April 27, 2009

Water Rights in the Middle East

Accusations are flying around that Israel is "stealing" the Palestinians water. A recent report from the Water Commissioner highlights the inability of the Palestinans in governing themselves. By working in conjunction with the Israeli authorities and utilising Israeli technology and money that donors are prepared to give to the Palestinians, much more water could be made available to everyone in the area.

Water Rights as Perceived by the Palestinians

The Palestinians are asking for most of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, all the water from the Gaza Aquifer, water flowing to it from Israeli territory, and a share in the water of the Jordan Basin (Lake Kinneret) as well as the Coastal Aquifer.

The Palestinians claim that their position is supported and endorsed by international law, and demand that international law and their future sovereignty over the West Bank be the basis for negotiations over the permanent agreement on the issue of water.

They claim, for example, that replenishment of the Mountain Aquifer is principally in the area that is or will be part of their territory, and therefore all or most of this water belongs to them.

This claim ignores the fact that according to international law, geographical-hydrological factors are only one of the relevant considerations. Against this, for example, is the principal of maintaining existing uses of water, i.e. the fact that the natural springs and water utilized prior to 1967 were all in Israeli territory.

The Palestinians wish to disregard the fundamental clause in the Water Agreement signed by them (Clause 40 of paragraph 6 in the third appendix to the Interim Agreement), which states that the "future needs" of the Palestinians in the West Bank are estimated at 70-80 MCM/yr (in addition to what they had at the time of signing the agreement, namely, 118 MCM/yr).

The Palestinians are avoiding treatment of wastewater and reuse of the treated effluents for irrigation, a move that would free large quantities of fresh water for domestic use, while also preventing contamination of groundwater and environmental pollution. At times, this is explained on the basis of a religious prohibition, which is puzzling as neighbouring Arab countries treat wastewater and use the effluent for irrigation of agricultural lands.

It also appears that for tactical reasons of negotiation, the Palestinians do not wish to discuss desalination as a concrete solution (for the West Bank) or regional schemes.

This Palestinian position may be summed up as follows: "Give us (Israel to the Palestinians) all the fresh water we need for the present and the future, take (Israel from the Palestinians) the wastewater that we generate, and desalinate seawater in place of the water we are taking from you."

The above position, which has been presented in international articles and at many international forums, attests to the fact that the Palestinians have not yet internalized the idea that a win-win solution to the water scarcity in the region will necessitate an increase in the overall availability of water, conservation, increased efficiency, and substantial upgrading of the entire supply system.

The Palestinians are clearly endeavouring to arrive at solutions that will be primarily at the expense of Israel, which is suffering from severe water scarcity and is making intensive efforts to bring about efficient and responsible utilization of its scarce natural resources.

Water from the Mountain Aquifer that Israel has used even before 1967 has drained naturally into its territory, principally from the Yarkon, Taninim, Harod, Gilboa and Beit Shean springs. The Palestinians have never used this water. This fact grants Israel rights of possession and use regarding this water, even according to international law.

Realistic solutions to the problem of water shortage are those that derive from the principles that were determined in the Water Agreement signed by the two sides, in terms of both international law and responsible and sustainable management, principally:
a. Reduction of water losses and conservation.
b. Full exploitation by the Palestinians of the eastern basin in the Mountain Aquifer.
c. Treatment of wastewater and reuse of the effluent as well as stormwater for irrigation.
d. Desalination of brackish water and seawater for domestic use.
e. Cooperation for optimal utilization of all the water sources, adoption of advanced technologies and management techniques.
f. Concerted regional efforts to increase the total quantity of available water.

Implementation of the first three activities will double the total quantity of water that will be available for domestic use by the Palestinians.

The above activities, which Israel is already carrying out in its territory, add at present about 800 MCM/yr to the country's water sector. Most of this water is diverted to agriculture, thus freeing fresh water for domestic use. (Israel is currently desalinating seawater to the extent of 130 MCM/yr and brackish water to the extent of 36 MCM/yr; in September 2009, an additional seawater
desalination plant, with a capacity of 100 MCM/yr, will commence operation at Hadera.)

The information, technology and experience that Israel has accumulated in the framework of the above activities can be made available to the Palestinian Authority as well. The donor countries have expressed their willingness to finance the construction of wastewater treatment plants for the Palestinians, such that the question of funding should not be a concern.

The proposition of solving the problem of Palestinian water shortage by exacerbating Israel's water scarcity is utterly unacceptable. Thus only realistic, fair and sustainable solutions must be sought.

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