Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Cooperation with Israel on water could solve Arab water crises

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Israel is a world leader in water technology, and has made itself effectively ‘drought proof' in a region suffering a severe water crisis, through its investment in areas such as desalination, waste water recycling and drip irrigation.

A recent UN Development Programme (UNDP) report urged the Arab region to urgently confront its water challenges in order to prevent the potentially severe risks resulting from inaction - including unplanned migration, economic collapse, and even regional conflict.

The Palestinians are also facing their own water challenges, but contrary to propaganda campaigns, the reasons have little to do with Israeli policies. AIJAC has previously written about this issue (see here and here), and has noted that the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies released a thorough study regarding water consumption in the West Bank, which refuted accusations of inequitable and discriminatory water practices by Israel.

Uri Resnick, writing in the Los Angeles Times, also provides some basic facts which make clear the reality:

"On the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, the Palestinians had at their disposal 65 million cubic meters of natural freshwater per year. By 2006, because of intensive Israeli investment in water infrastructure in Palestinian areas and increased access to Israel's supply, the figure was 180 million cubic meters.  Furthermore, Israel's and the Palestinians' per-capita water consumption rates have been steadily converging, with the current difference being about 30%."

Resnick also highlights something that may surprise many people - that there is actually a lot of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians regarding water. As part of the Oslo Accords in 1995, Israel and the Palestinians signed a water agreement, which is still in force today. The agreement established the Joint Water Commission, which meets several times a year to discuss matters of mutual interest, and its work is regularly monitored and reported to the international community.

However, politically motivated refusals to cooperate with Israel have still contributed to recent claims of Palestinian water shortages, as Resnick discusses:

"Despite the fact that Israel has scrupulously abided by the [Oslo] agreement and has over the years even gone significantly beyond it in the Palestinians' favor, Israel still finds itself being unfairly maligned for exploiting the mountain aquifer beneath Judea and Samaria. The sad truth is that Israel's efforts to assist the Palestinians in improving the water and sewage systems in Judea and Samaria and Gaza have largely been met with politically motivated refusal, causing severe damage to the environment shared by both sides. A welcome exception has been a sewage treatment project in the Hebron area, in which Israeli and Palestinian water authorities, with international partners, have succeeded in reducing local sewage pollution. This is an important example that illustrates what can be achieved when reflexive animosity gives way to common sense."

Resnick also looks at Israel's leadership in water conservation:

"Israel's water reclamation rate of 75% is the world's highest; the second-place nation hovers at about 12%. Israel's agricultural sector is a pioneer in water efficiency, having developed innovative drip-irrigation techniques that revolutionized modern food production.

Israeli scientists have been instrumental in developing cutting-edge desalination technologies, and Israel now houses the world's two largest reverse-osmosis desalination plants. The Israeli company that built them is currently designing what will be the largest desalination plant in the United States, in nearby Carlsbad. Such technologies can be revolutionary. Until just recently, Israel was perpetually on the verge of a major water crisis. Desalination has essentially resolved the problem, and Israel's water future now looks brighter than ever."

Though the UNDP neglects to says so, this unique Israeli achievement, ending a serious water shortage that has long been seen as chronic and irresolvable, clearly is a model for what Arab states with growing populations and limited, possibly dwindling, water supplies, need to do.

Meanwhile, the water situation is especially dire in the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip where over-exploitation and contamination of the local aquifer has been a serious problem since before 1967, and more recently Gaza's sewage system has collapsed, in part due to a dispute between Hamas and the PA over fuel prices (see previous blog post). Gaza's sewage is now pouring into the Mediterranean, which threatens to impact Israel's drinking water due to Israel's reliance on seawater desalination. However, Alon Tal and Yousef Abus Mayla write in an article in the New York Times that Gaza's water crisis can be tackled, if the Palestinian refusal to cooperate with Israel and internal disagreements can be overcome:

"... most of Gaza's water should come from the sea. Desalination has been done since Roman times. Today, economies of scale and improvements in reverse-osmosis technology have reduced the price of desalinated water significantly. Israel's water authority reports that, on average, each of Israel's five major facilities can produce 1,000 liters of water for roughly 60 cents.

For over 20 years, a major desalination plant for Gaza has been discussed, but nothing has been done. Large desalination facilities could easily provide Gazans with affordable potable water. There are several small pilot plants already operating, most sponsored by international agencies, but they can meet only a fraction of present demand.

The Palestinian water authority has approved a large-scale $500 million facility, which Israel supports. And Israel has quietly begun to offer Palestinians desalination training. With funding doubtful, though, construction delays continue.

The other obstacle is that desalination plants require large amounts of electricity, which is in short supply in Gaza, where much of the power is still provided by Israel's utility company. The festering conflict between Israel and Gaza's government does not help the situation, even though Israel remains committed to selling power to the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. Israel continues to sell water to Gaza, and both parties have agreed on a pipeline that will double the amount of water supplied to the Gaza Strip.

Of course, just this sort of good will might smooth a path to progress in the vexed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But with no sign of any meaningful advance in the negotiations, it is time to think about decoupling the water conflict from other, more intractable issues."

Israel's achievements in water technology stand as a ready example of best practice for the Arab region and the Palestinians in particular. There are many opportunity costs associated with the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Arab rejection of all "normalisation" with Israel. The international community cannot afford to allow urgently needed cooperation and assistance with water for both the Palestinians and the wider Arab Middle East to be another one.

Sharyn Mittelman


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