Israel and the Palestinians: the water issue

By Professor Haim Gvirtzman
Harsh allegations are being raised against the State of Israel in the context of the dispute with the Palestinians over water. The Palestinians are demanding the rights to the entire Mountain Aquifer, water from the Jordan River, the Coastal Aquifer of the Gaza Strip; in all a total of 65% of the natural freshwater resources at Israel's disposal. Until recently, the State of Israel had not presented the actual data and the result of this was that the facts were falsified and Israel was seen as being guilty for the shortage of water from which the Palestinians were suffering.
This article will present the facts concerning the water supply and examine the claims of the Palestinians in a clear and straightforward manner. As will become clear, there is no real basis to the demands and claims of the Palestinians and Israel has been behaving in a fair and just manner towards them and even more than this.

The water supply system in Judea and Samaria in the period under the Jordanian rule.
During the years of Jordanian rule (1948-1967) the Palestinians had a primitive water system that only permitted the lowest possible standard of living in Judea and Samaria. The largest plants consisted of ancient aqueducts that conducted spring water by gravitation to agricultural areas. The only plants that pumped water to the populated areas using electrically operated engines were built during the British Mandate (1920-1948) and they supplied water to Jerusalem and Ramallah, which permitted a minimal standard of living.
Moreover, at the end of the period of Jordanian rule there were 350 shallow drillings to supply agriculture and a substantial percentage of the Palestinian population survived on about 200 small springs and cisterns for storing rain water that would dry up in years of drought. On the eve of the Six Day War, the sum total of the water available to the Palestinians was 65 million cubic meters of water per year.

The water system in Judea and Samaria under Israeli rule
The water system has improved significantly under Israel rule (since 1967). Within five years the water supply to the Palestinians increased by fifty per cent, especially in the urban areas. The Israeli government helped the Palestinians to drill new wells, to deepen the shallow drills and to introduce superior water pumps. The Palestinian villages adjacent to the new Jewish settlements built in the area were connected to the Israeli water system, modernizing the water supply and raising the standard of life in the villages dramatically. On the eve of the signing of the Oslo Accords, the total water supply to the Palestinians was 120 million cubic meters per year.
In 1995, an agreement was signed according to which existing water usage would be retained, with additional water provision to the Palestinians supplied from the Eastern Aquifer that was not being exploited. In addition, the need to develop additional sources of water was recognized (through purification and desalination). It was agreed that no actions would be taken that would cause pollution of the environment and that the sewage would be treated properly.
In order to implement the agreement, a joint water commission (JWC) was established that, in contrast to commissions established after the signing of the Oslo Accords, has operated continuously for thirteen years. This commission gives the authorization for the planning and erection of water and sewage plants.
On the subject of sewage, the commission has encountered the greatest difficulties and up till now only one plant has been built for the purification of wastewater and consequently the pollution of the environment is spreading.

The water system in Gaza
Hundreds of wells for pumping groundwater supply the domestic and agricultural requirements of the entire Strip. In 1975, the level of the groundwater and the quality of the water showed that that a serious process of salination was taking place, as a result of the penetration of sea water, and that the groundwater was very polluted. A long period of excessive pumping had created a dangerous situation. To deal with it, the Israeli Government prohibited the expansion of the rate of pumping and the planting of new orchards and installed water-meters in all of the wells. Orchards were transferred to areas with better-quality of the groundwater and the Israeli government instructed the farmers on methods of drip irrigation instead of flooding the ground, for an immense economy of water. The Gazans interpreted these new laws as diktats of the Israeli occupation but in fact they saved the inhabitants of the Strip from an ecological catastrophe. In 1994, when Gaza was transferred to the Palestinian administration, all supervision came to an end. Since then, thousands of new wells have been dug and, at the same time, the urban consumption of water has increased and the sewage systems have collapsed. Sewage water is infiltrating and polluting the groundwater, excessive pumping is accelerating the process of salination and the conduct of the Palestinian Authority is hastening an ecological disaster. In 1995, it was agreed that additional water would be transferred to the Gaza Strip from Israel via a pipe that was erected by Israel. In the framework of the "Disengagement" in 2005, the water supply systems that served the Israeli villages were transferred to the Palestinian Authority.

The implementation of the water agreements of 1995-2000
The development of water systems for the Palestinians during the past decade has been carried out above and beyond those specified in the Oslo Accords 2. (Figure 1 - water supply to the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria – the Accords and their implementation). It was agreed that the water supply to the Palestinians would increase in the interim period by 28mcm and that "the future needs of the Palestinians' in Judea and Samaria would amount to an additional 70-80 mcm. In reality the water supply to the Palestinians was expanded in the interim period to 80mcm. In addition, the Palestinians were given consent to drill additional wells. (Figure 2: the map of the wells drilled that were authorized since the Accords)
It appears that Israel carried out all her obligations, including those described in the Accords as the "future requirements" of water of the Palestinians.
The Palestinians are blatantly violating the Accords by drilling from the Mountain Aquifer without authorization from the Joint Water Commission (KWC), as was agreed. As a result of this, the Israeli extraction of water in the Coastal Plain and the Northern Valleys has been decreased.
Moreover, the Palestinians are connecting themselves to the water supplies of the Israeli water company "Mekorot" through piracy thus causing a shortage of water.

The level of the Palestinian's water consumption
One of the accusations the Palestinians level at Israel is that the quantity of water consumed by a Palestinian is a quarter (four times less) than that consumed by the average Israeli.
Until 1967 the gap between the Israeli and the Palestinian consumption was very wide due to the fact that the supply system was primitive. By 2006 the gap had narrowed significantly and the consumption was almost equivalent.

Because of the decline in the water resources in Israel, the outcome of the transfer of water to the Kingdom of Jordan and to the Palestinians, the chronic desiccation and the new well drillings of the Palestinians, the gap in water consumption per capita has become negligible.
Under the Jordanians there were water networks for urban distribution to four population centres alone. Today, a clear majority of the Palestinian towns and villages are connected to the water supply system. In those places in which the Palestinian water plants are not capable of supplying the demand, they are augmented by "Mekorot". As a result, there is no lack of water in the Palestinian towns and villages that are connected to the water network. In the last 30 years almost all the networks for water distribution in the Palestinian towns and villages were built, the majority by the Israeli government. [Fig. 7]

A comparison to the water supply situation in the neighboring Arab countries
A considerable section of the Jordanian and Syrian towns and villages are not connected to water supply plants and even in the large towns that are connected to the water plants, there is no regular water distribution. Even in the capital cities such as Amman in Jordan and Damascus in Syria water distribution takes place only two or three days a week.

The legal aspects of the water agreements
International law developed in order to deal with water disputes between states with an index specifying how water should be distributed. Even though the Palestinians signed the agreement, they claim that the legal principles of probity in international law prevail over signed agreements, and they are, therefore, demanding possession of the groundwater of the Mountain Aquifer. According to the index mentioned in international law, it is clear that the Palestinians have no valid basis for their demands and that Israel's conduct has been fair and just, above and beyond its obligations.
The Palestinians have also claimed full rights to the water on the basis that it was "holy". Such claims do not permit negotiations and therefore Israel insists on conducting a practical discussion on the quantitative division of water.

The natural features of the Mountain Aquifer.
The groundwater of the mountains of Judea and Samaria is collected between the layers of rock within them; this is the largest aquifer between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. It is divided into three subterranean basins: the Western (the largest), the Northern and the Eastern ones. [Fig. 1 in article #2: the three basins of the Mountain Aquifer and the potential amount of water that can be obtained from them according to the Oslo Accords]
International Law gives priority to historical use of water because this reflects human needs and Israel has historical right of usage of the majority of the water of the Mountain Aquifer. Up to the start of the twentieth century all the water of the Western Aquifer drained out and formed the extensive swamps along the Coastal Plain. Pioneers of the Zionist movement dried the swamps and extracted the water of springs even before 1948. So too with the Northern Aquifer which was used by the pioneers of the Zionist movement that settled in Emeq Yizrael, Emeq Harod, and Emeq Beit Shean. The historical right of usage of the Eastern Aquifer of the Palestinians is greater than that of Israel. Israel's water extraction from this Aquifer is of water that was salinated in the past or that flowed to the Jordan Valley or to the Dead Sea, and was never exploited by the Palestinians. So that in the case of the Eastern Aquifer as well, Israel has 40% right of usage.
Moreover, it is important to stress that the Mountain Aquifer supplies water to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and most of the Coastal Plain as well as to the Israeli farmers of the Coastal Plain, the Lowlands (Shfela), the Northern Valleys and the Be'er Sheba Valley.

Unexploited water resources
International Law gives priority to the use of unexploited water resources. The Eastern Aquifer, the only resource that is not exploited, was offered to the Palestinians for new drilling and for development. Nevertheless, the Palestinians are drilling practically from the Western and Northern Aquifers such that it is causing harm to Israel.
International law requires the prevention of waste of water. According to the Palestinian Authority, the leakage of water from their pipe system adds up to 33.6%. In addition, Palestinian irrigation is executed using the flooding system (and not sprinklers and drip irrigation, the method used in Israel) that causes huge waste.
According to International Law the quality of the water resources must be upheld and pollution must be avoided. The lack of sewage treatment in the Palestinian Authority is causing grave damage. Purification of wastewater would reduce the pollution and allow irrigation with grey water.

The Coastal Aquifer of the Gaza Strip
In contrast to the Mountain Aquifer, the water collected beneath the Gaza Strip is gathered from rain that penetrates directly into it. The Gaza aquifer is essentially a closed system and does not serve as a "joint reservoir" according to the definition in International Law. Ever since the Oslo Accords, the responsibility for and ownership of this aquifer rests with the Palestinians. In spite of this, the Palestinians claim that Israel has drilled tens of wells in order to catch the groundwater that flows from the Negev to the Strip. These claims are unfounded: the eastern border of the aquifer almost entirely overlaps Israel's border with the Strip and does not permit pumping. In the north of the Strip, the water reaches the Israeli Coastal Aquifer from the east and does not cross the border into Gaza.

Future solutions for the growth in water consumption by the Palestinians
As in Israel, an increase in water supply to the Palestinians would come about by increased efficiency and development: the immense savings that would accrue as a result of plugging leaks in the urban pipes would provide water in those places in which there is a severe shortage of water. The great savings that would result from improving the method of irrigation would enable a significant increase in agricultural lands. Collection and treatment of urban wastewater would produce an enormous amount of water that would be directed to irrigation in place of freshwater.
Moreover, desalination plants for seawater could supply any quantity of water that the Palestinians desired. The sea coast in the Gaza Strip is available for the construction of several plants. This method would enable the polluted aquifer of the Gaza Strip to be rehabilitated.
According to the development program of the Water Authority, a plant for desalinating seawater will be constructed in Hadera. It is also proposed that an additional desalinating plant will be built on the same site for the Palestinians and water will be transferred to them in a special pipe system. Another program focuses on the Palestinian farmers in the Jordan Valley. According to this, surplus wastewater from Nabulus and Ramallah will be pumped to them, thus releasing freshwater for domestic use.
The proposed plan will supply every quantity of water needed by the Palestinians and even leaving some for reserves.

The State of Israel manages its water supply according to modern methods. In the framework of a future water agreement Israel will guide the Palestinians in every aspect of managing their water supply and will bring about economy and maximum utilisation of all their water resources.

Is it worthwhile to give up water in order to avoid war?
There are political elements who claim that Israel should give up the Mountain Aquifer and rely on desalinating plants in order to bring peace. An examination of the facts shows that this policy would be irresponsible and dangerous. Technologically the process of desalinating sea water is not simple and although we have been involved in desalinating sea water, the water crisis is more severe than it has ever been. The forecast is that by 2013 Israel will have five desalinating plants at its disposal; however, due to the severe shortage of water today and the rate of the growth of future consumption, there is no guarantee that Israel will not continue to suffer from a water crisis.
In the Israeli climate, where there can be a succession of drought years, the Mountain Aquifer serves as a natural and vital reservoir, and enables increased pumping when the Lake of Galilee empties. Without the Mountain Aquifer, Israel would need eight more desalinating plants apart from the five planned. Relying almost exclusively on desalinating water would bring about a rise in the price of water, and the collapse of Israeli agriculture and the loss of green lungs.
The three central water resources of Israel are threatened today: in addition to the Mountain Aquifer, the Sea of Galilee is also on the negotiating table, and the Coastal Aquifer is polluted. The Israeli economy would pay a very high price if the country relied on desalinating plants. Moreover, these plants would be very vulnerable (war, terror, earthquakes). In contrast, the water of the aquifer is renewable and well preserved.
The Palestinian position can be summarized thus: "Give us all the water that we need today and in the future, take the sewage that we produce and desalinate seawater".
A careful examination of the index for the division of water resources according to International Law shows us that the Palestinians have no basis for their claims and that giving up the Mountain Aquifer would jeopardize the survival of Israel.