New Internationalist

Running out of water, running out of time

Issue 354

Unequal control of scarce water resources is helping crank up Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Charmaine Seitz reports.

It is midwinter in Bethlehem. Sturdy sprouts of new grass carpet the earth. In a clearing past a grove of olive trees, a snowy white lamb stands skittishly behind its grazing mother. The eldest member of the Darwish family leads her on a rope. The scene is deceptively idyllic. To get here, my guide and I have trudged deep into a ditch and over jagged rounds of barbed wire, then through a rocky field. En route, we were stopped by an Israeli army patrol asking our destination. Once we arrived, this elderly man decided he did not want to talk. The reason for his hesitation is because he and the other 14 members of his family are near prisoners in their homes. The ditch and barbed wire are only a precursor to the towering wall slated for construction that will slice the Darwish farm in half and separate it from nearby Bethlehem – as well as a nearby Israeli settlement. There is just one route out of the farm; but the Darwishes are compelled to request written permission from the Israeli army to use it.

Now they are blaming us for stealing water. This is not stealing water. This is our water.’

Israel says that it is building this wall to separate Palestinians from Israel and provide vital security. But the wall is doing other things too: eating up agricultural land, biting into Palestinian communities and cutting farmers off from necessary resources. In the northern West Bank, the barrier has been constructed squarely on top of a major aquifer. Two years into this bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the region’s competing actors are jockeying to maintain control of the available water. The combination of a naturally arid environment, years of drought and poor planning is proving to be dry tinder in a combustible atmosphere. Take Israel’s far Right infrastructure minister Effie Eitam’s order halting all Palestinian well drilling in the West Bank in October 2002, alleging that Palestinians were running a ‘water Intifada’ against Israel through unauthorized tapping. Besides endangering the crippled Palestinian farming sector, the move threatened the tens of millions of dollars of foreign aid money spent on unfinished water infrastructure. The next day Fadl Qawash, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority, was irate. ‘Year by year, we have less and less water. No more water in the springs, no more water from the weather and at the same time the Israeli side has applied a policy to reduce the water that they supply us,’ he said. ‘Now they are blaming us for stealing water. This is not stealing water. This is our water.’

There lies the crux of the problem. Israel has access to both high-tech solutions and water from the occupied West Bank. Palestinians, on the other hand, have far less water to work with and remain caught in the terms of agreements signed with Israel years ago. Palestinian long-term planning remains tentative as long as the issue of their regional water rights is unresolved.

Rock bottom

From the start, negotiations over water have been rife with miscalculations, poor planning and plain old huckstering. Palestinian negotiators headed to talks in 1993 and 1995 with few real numbers on the groundwater available in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli occupation since 1967. All the data they had was Israeli, and Israel was holding its cards close to its chest. Four aquifers were under discussion: the western, northeastern and eastern aquifers in the West Bank, and the groundwater that lay under Gaza. Of these, only the eastern aquifer was not tapped to its full capacity according to Israeli engineers. It was determined that 78 million cubic metres might be pumped from that aquifer to fill immediate Palestinian needs. But this was not the boon that Palestinians were looking for. They argued that as part of the process of decolonization of the occupied territories, Israel must also relinquish its hold on the water resources. Some 85 per cent of this water was already being used in Israel proper and by Israeli settlements dotting the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There was no solving the conclusive issue of water rights and so the dispute was set aside for final talks (the talks that eventually collapsed at Camp David in the summer of 2000). Instead, a joint water committee was established for Palestinians to submit plans to develop the annual 78 million cubic metres of eastern-aquifer water that they had been allotted from the only underground water source entirely in the West Bank. A three-stage project was developed to dig new, deeper wells, with the United States Government pledging $211 million to move the project forward.

But by 1999, the US-hired contractors had finished their initial tests and determined that the eastern aquifer could not yield even half the promised amount. Worse, testing showed that the wells already drilled were coming up saline. The new pumping was using the precious resource faster than it could be renewed by annual rains.

Waste and want

Israelis on average use 350 litres of water a day, four times as much per capita as do Palestinians. Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, many of them living a suburban lifestyle complete with lawns and pools, use more than twice that average. Palestinian daily consumption, on the other hand, is not more than 76 litres. The reality for some communities is much worse. ‘In the Toubas area, for example,’ says Qawash, speaking of a northern West Bank district, ‘there is only one well for 50,000 people, which produces not more than five litres per capita [daily].’ Ongoing military operations have damaged essential water and sewage connections. Beit Djan, a village 6 kilometres east of Nablus, was kept under a hermetic military siege for 25 consecutive days during February and March 2002. The result was a shortage in drinking water for both the people and their livestock; the village is not connected to a water pipeline and gets most of its drinking water trucked in from outlying wells. Given these dire straits, there are some in the Palestinian Water Authority who have given up on Palestinian water rights. ‘When I first started this job,’ said one bureaucrat, ‘I attended a discussion between the Palestinian and Israeli sides. The Palestinians started in saying: “We want to work this out. We know we have to live together,” and so on. The Israelis listened to that for a while and then one of them stood up. “Look, we are here to work things out, but right now, you use 120 million cubic metres from the West Bank and we are using 480 million cubic metres. You should not think for even one second that you are going to solve your problem by getting each of us to use 300 million cubic metres. Forget about it.”’

Israel wants Palestinians to invest in desalination plants instead. Palestinians have embarked on one such project in Gaza that could provide water at $.55 a cubic metre. But this is a prohibitive rate as, right now, water in Gaza sells for $.23 a cubic metre. ‘Israel itself should guard against waste,’ says Palestinian Water Authority spokesperson Ihab Barghoti. ‘Maybe they can afford desalination – they have the sea – but Palestinians can’t afford this and so we are going to protect our rights.’

The longer it takes to sort out those rights, the more the facts shift in Israel’s favour. Israel has already poured the cement for the massive wall in the northern West Bank that sits right on the western aquifer. In November, the department of agriculture in the Palestinian town of Qalqilya reported the military confiscation of 14 artesian wells for the construction of the wall; those wells produce 2.5 million cubic metres of water a year.

Sabre rattling

Israel’s actions are guided by a newly recognized urgency. Predicting a 125-million-cubic metre water deficit for last year, the Government has enacted a four-billion-dollar plan to be completed by 2010 to build seawater and brackish water desalination plants, rehabilitate polluted wells and import water from Turkey by tanker. The seawater plants will produce water at a cost of $.50 per cubic metre, cheaper than any other such project in the world. Israel will also benefit from its own invention and wide use of drip irrigation. The technique minimizes water evaporation and allows roots to be fed by normally damaging briny water. Israel is also the only place in the world that has had regular success in seeding clouds for rain.

Despite public bombast (the threat to stop all Palestinian drilling turned out to be a bluff), Palestinian-Israeli co-operation over shared water resources goes on.

Barring technological advances, the delicacy of water appropriation was showcased last year when Lebanon began to divert what it reports as seven million cubic metres a year from the Wazzani Springs, which flow into the Jordan River and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the diversion a casus belli [cause of war] and American monitors were hurriedly brought in to assess the situation. There are those who remain cynical about Israel’s ire. According to Micky Simhai, director of Israel’s northern water authority, ‘Israelis waste many times more water than the quantity Lebanon seeks to use for drinking for its local population.’ But the rattling of sabres is a strong deterrent if Lebanon has any thoughts of diverting more water; in the mounting crisis, the Wazzani could mean the next war. Even in the worst of times, the Palestinian-Israeli experience demonstrates water’s ability to unite bitter foes. For even now, when Palestinian and Israeli officials do not talk, their water bureaucrats meet regularly. Despite public bombast (the threat to stop all Palestinian drilling turned out to be a bluff), Palestinian-Israeli co-operation over shared water resources goes on. It is not hard to see, however, how the management of those resources is linked to a much larger balance of power.

Charmaine Seitz has written from the Middle East for five years. Her articles have appeared in Palestine Report, In These Times and The Economist

Locking Horns

When rivers flow through two or more countries squabbles usually start over claims to the water. Forty per cent of the world’s population relies on such rivers and numerous approaches to sharing water have evolved. The country of the river’s origin often demands privileged status. However, the idea of sharing equitably has more takers. But what is equitable? The same amount per country, or allocations made on the basis of population or land area? How do you split a flowing river which carries different volumes of water as the seasons change? How to penalize the greedy who take more than their fair share? The shared waters of aquifers and lakes are similarly difficult to apportion.

Turkey, Iraq and Syria

The Tigris and Euphrates, the lifeblood of these countries, originate in Turkish Eastern Anatolia. Turkey has a proprietorial view of the rivers, maintaining ‘The water is as much ours as Iraq’s oil is Iraq’s.’ An ambitious Turkish plan to build dams along the Euphrates could deprive Iraq of up to 90 per cent of the river’s water. Conflicts between the countries have also been tangled up in the Kurdish nationalist struggle. Incensed by Syria’s harbouring of fleeing Kurds, Turkey threatened to turn off water supplies. Meanwhile, Turkey is more generous further afield – unveiling a plan for a ‘Peace Pipeline’ to send water thousands of miles to other thirsty Middle Eastern countries. None of the proposed beneficiaries trusted the plan and didn’t want the dependence on such a capricious ally anyway.

The Nile

The longest river in the world, it flows through 10 countries. But Egypt, where it ends up, is the most dependent on it – with little rainfall, a growing population and agriculture that would be inconceivable without the Nile. Although Egyptians use Nile water carefully, food farming is at its limit. Ethiopia contributes over 80 per cent to the Nile’s flow, yet in 1959 Egypt and Sudan decided to divide up the river’s flow between themselves. After much wrangling and rancour between the three countries, all ten Nile basin states decided in 1999 that it was time to put conflict behind them and try to share the water sustainably and equitably. Talks are ongoing. Water may lead to much bickering and threats of aggression, but actual war is usually prevented. Water is just too important a resource to endanger and aggrieved parties usually come to the bargaining table. India and Pakistan honoured their water agreements even while they twice went to war with each other. In one instance, India even paid a water-related fine to Pakistan while war raged.

*Dinyar Godrej*

Green Cross International mediates to help resolve water conflicts –

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This article was originally published in issue 354

New Internationalist Magazine issue 354
Issue 354

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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