Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have yet to broach the ‘final status’ issues that would end the world’s most intractable conflict: the removal of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the resettlement of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

While neither side is willing to give ground on these issues, another equally important topic tends to get ignored. Access to water for Israelis and Palestinians alike is a highly contentious issue. Water is the key strategic resource without which neither Israel nor a future Palestinian state is viable. But with water in scarce supply in the region, resolving the issue of access will not be easy.

Key fact

Israelis use an average of 240 cubic metres of water a year, compared with 75 cubic metres a year for Palestinians

Israeli citizens currently enjoy plentiful water supplies, but Palestinians are struggling to secure sufficient supplies to keep their taps running and farms irrigated. According to the academic definition of water scarcity, the West Bank is suffering from a ‘severe’ water scarcity. A World Bank report issued in April 2009 – Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development – discovered the disparity in water use and access between the two populations living in close proximity is vast.

Palestinians only have access to a fifth of the land’s water supply, says the report. Israelis use an average of 240 cubic metres of water a year (cm/y) each, against an average of 75 cm/y for Palestinians living in the West Bank and 125 cm/y for those living in Gaza.

Supply issues

Domestic supply in the Palestinian territories is both variable and sporadic. Nominal supply rates to a quarter of the connected population of 320,090 are less than 50 litres a day (l/d) per person, with some network services providing as little as 10-15 l/d per person. Even in towns and villages connected to the water network, the taps often run dry, due to frequent water rationing, especially during the summer.

The result of these shortages is increased dependence on water bought from Israel’s national water company Mekorot. “The trouble is that water was always a ‘final status’ issue, so discussion about access rights were always put off,” says Taysir Arbasi, a Palestinian olive farmer and director of Palestinian fairtrade group Zaytoun.

Palestinians are forbidden to drill new wells or rehabilitate old wells without permits from the Israeli authorities. But Israel can exercise control in a number of other ways too. “Sometimes, instead of preventing a Palestinian from digging, the Israelis will simply drill four or five wells of their own surrounding that well and draw the water away,” says Arbasi.

Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel took control of water resources throughout the West Bank, together with the water supply network linked to the Mekorot network.

“The imbalance in the access to water resources between Israel and Palestine translates into an imbalance in consumption,” says Yousef Awayes, who heads the Palestinian Water Authority’s (PWA) International Co-ordination unit. 

“The imbalance in the access to water resources translates into an imbalance in consumption”

Yousef Awayes, Palestinian Water Authority

“Palestinians have access to one-fifth of the resources of the Mountain Aquifer – a groundwater reservoir that lies under parts of Israel and the West Bank. Per capita domestic supply is very variable and discontinuous, with relatively small improvements since Oslo [the 1993 accord between Israel and the Palestinian authorities setting out a framework for future relations],” says Awayes. 

Actual household use in the West Bank, after deducting industrial use and water losses, is estimated to average 50-70 l/d.

The PWA, the main water regulator in the Palestinian territories, argues the main cause of water shortage in Palestine is the lack of access and constraints on the use of its own water resources – the groundwater under their feet. Approximately 26.5 per cent of Palestinian communities are not connected to the water distribution network, translating into more than 119,000 people.

Given these restraints, the Palestinians’ dependence on Israeli supplies has increased, with almost half the water now supplied by Mekorot. Since the Oslo accords, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the West Bank Palestinian population covered by network water supply – water bought from Mekorot – says the World Bank. 

There have been faltering attempts to grant water rights to Palestinian Authority (PA) controlled areas. In 1995, Article 40 of the Oslo II agreement contained provisions on water and sewage that recognised undefined Palestinian water rights, and returned some West Bank water resources and services responsibility to the PA.

However, the main institution set up as part of the Oslo process to manage water resources, has not enjoyed a strong track record.

The Joint Water Committee (JWC), established in 1995 as an interim measure with Israelis and Palestinians, has proved ineffective in delivering water. According to the World Bank, 35 of the 82 Palestinian projects approved by the JWC for the West Bank since 2001 had not been implemented or completed by June 2009.

With the Palestinian population growing at 3.4 per cent a year and the Israeli population at 1.7 per cent a year, the issue of access to water is only going to get more serious.

 “It’s an economic and political miracle that more than 10 million people exist in the area between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan,” says Tony Allan, professor of geography at King’s College London. “There were only about 1.5 million 60 years ago. There is only enough water to supply water and food for about 3 million.”

Reforming administration

For the PWA, the issue of future water supply is clearly bound up with the political situation. 

“Future water first of all, should come from obtaining our rightful share in the transboundary [or shared] water resources of the region – including the different groundwater basins of the Mountain Aquifer, the riparian share [a system of allocating water among those who possess land around its source] of the Jordan River Basin waters, and then, unconventional sources for water will be pursued, such as rainwater harvesting, treated wastewater for use in agriculture, and desalination plants where necessary,” says Awayes.

Reforming the way in which the JWC and the civil administration address Palestinian development needs is a priority until the political issues of access to water are resolved in a final status deal, argues the World Bank. However, with water being such a strategic resource in a this part of the world, the Israelis are unlikely to cede much control of water resources. “The Israelis prefer having control over water that is in the ground rather than to have to invest in relatively complex facilities [such as desalination plants] that would increase their energy dependence and would be vulnerable to targeting,” says a regional water expert.

“In an insecure world, it’s much better to have water under your feet or in territory that you control, than to be dependent on relatively vulnerable above-ground infrastructure.”

A final status agreement could in theory prevent a master-servant relationship whereby Israel owns the water and the Palestinians are de-facto consumers. But it does little to address immediate needs for more water. There is an urgent need to secure new investment in water resources, which for the cash-strapped West Bank and Gaza means increased international donor support.

“The politics will be easier if the [water] deal is reached without it being linked to the other issues”

Professor Tony Allan, King’s College London 

A few major investments are going ahead and those that are making progress are in small, local emergency projects rather than in large infrastructure projects that will be of long-term benefit. In effect, emergency projects have become the norm, says the World Bank. Sector investment is inefficient due to poor planning, implementation delays, political and security problems, and the resulting costs. Out of 47 approved water projects entirely located in Areas A or B [areas in which the Palestinian authorities have an element of government control], notes the World Bank report, only 32 have been implemented.

This translates into a 68 per cent implementation rate since 2001. The sole reason for non-implementation or non-completion of the remaining 15 projects is the lack of sufficient or timely funding by Palestinian agencies, municipalities and their donors.

“The PA has noticed that implementation of grants received for water-related projects is much more problematic than other sectors. There is a bigger backlog of non-implemented or delayed projects in the water sector than in transport or energy,” says the report.

“Water is a sector in which investors require some stamina,” says the expert.

The PA is doing its best to mobilise more investment for the water sector. The PWA has a designated team working on a staged investment plan. A rough investment plan showed the Palestinians will be in need of $800m to be invested during 2010-12, in both water and wastewater projects, with more focusing on major desalination projects in Gaza and the Jordan valley wastewater and treatment systems. With limited resources at its disposal, the PWA is overseeing a range of projects.

These projects include well drilling, new infrastructure such as internal nets, reservoirs and pumping stations, and expansion and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure.

All the projects are implemented under the umbrella of the project management unit of the PWA and the West Bank Water Department, which is to become Palestine’s Bulk Water Utility in the future.

The US Agency for International Development, France’s Agence Francaise de Developpement, German development bank KFW and others, are the major donors for projects, such as developing water wells in Hebron, and a water provision system in Nablus.

Top priorities

Wastewater collection is a priority for the PWA, with Gaza receiving strong attention. “The PWA has been trying for years to implement plans for major wastewater treatment plants in both Gaza and the West Bank – and have been hindered and constrained by the lack of Israeli permits and permissions.  Slowly, but steadily, the PWA is getting started,” says Awayes. “Also, the PWA is looking into small-scale wastewater treatment technologies for rural areas.”

Currently, only about 35 per cent of the Palestinian population has access to adequate sanitation and only 1 per cent of generated wastewater is treated without reuse schemes. Leakage control is a prime area of concentration, as well as all other types of losses such as metering and even theft.

As well as laying new pipes, the PWA is also improving the management of existing infrastructure. “You can run the system with fewer leaks and by metering water, so you know how much you are selling and can recover costs and keep the system running for a few more years – all of that is relatively simple,” says the water expert.

Rehabilitating infrastructure is one thing, but managing the system is another – and here the expert says it is fair to say that the Palestinians are solely responsible for not operating their system more efficiently, despite all the restrictions. “They can cope with the bars on entry of goods but could be advised to train staff better and regulate performance,” says the expert. “That’s an area where there’s an expectation that Palestinians could do more.”

 Having survived decades of limited access to water, Palestinians are used to getting round the often-labyrinthine nature of restrictions on daily life. This has helped to breed an entrepreneurial spirit; Gaza’s thriving private sector is a case in point.

According to the World Bank study, since 1998, more than 20,000 Gaza consumers have installed domestic ‘reverse osmosis’ desalination units. Private desalination plants – both industrial and domestic – are proving to be a viable commercial market with further growth potential. Small water desalination units are installed in households or in the community, and considered as a generally affordable, self-sufficient, and sustainable way to supply water to Gaza’s citizens.

A desalination plant at Khan Younis has a capacity of 90 cubic meters a hour, although the Israeli blockade of Gaza has caused a shortage of spares and chemicals that has meant the plant is only producing water at one-third of its design capacity.

Since desalination units use seawater they will not put further strain on the land’s aquifers, and will help preserve scarce groundwater reservoirs.

Desalination is already in use in Israel. The government signed an agreement to finance the expansion of the Hadera desalination plant by 27 million cm/y to 127 million cm/y in 2009. The government says the country would need 700 million cm/y of desalinated water within five years. There are plans to build five additional plants along its coast to augment the country’s two desalination plants.

Political will

If desalination provides a way out of the ongoing water crisis, an accommodating political climate will still be necessary for the long-term. “The politics will be easier if the deal is reached without it being linked to the other issues – borders, settlements, the right of return, Jerusalem and sovereignty,” says Professor Allan.

Israel – the source of much of the Palestinians’ water grievances – provides an example of how limited water resources can be effectively managed.

But the Palestinian economy must first be allowed to develop and flourish, says Allan. “Israel has demonstrated that with a diversified and strong economy, water is not a problem. It is an urgent matter that the West Bank and Gaza are allowed to diversify so that they can also be water secure by developing their water resources to ensure their domestic water and industrial supplies.”

The World Bank’s four main recommendations for improving Palestinian water supply

  • Recommendation 1: Strategic planning and reformulation of the Palestinian water investment programme. A start has been made on this, with the Palestinian Water Authority’s (PWA) recent publication of a report on water investment. This could provide the building blocks to form the basis for a participatory planning process involving all stakeholders, including international donors and non-governmental organisations.
  • Recommendation 2: Implementing water supply and sanitation projects. The focus should be on high-priority projects that bring real benefits to the Palestinian population, notably the rural poor. Development of new water sources will be a priority, and reduction of unaccounted-for water could also increase supply. Wastewater projects, too, could be a priority because of their high social and environmental benefit.
  • Recommendation 3: Irrigated agriculture, a key sector for the revival of the Palestinian economy. There are steps that could be taken in the nearer term – including the use of more efficient irrigation technology and the development of plans for wastewater re-use on agricultural land – in tandem with investment in local wastewater treatment plants.
  • Recommendation 4: Institutional reform, to redefine the structure of agencies operating in water sector and to build institutional capacity. With emergency projects having become the norm rather than planned projects, the World Bank is seeking to create a better structure for water infrastructure. The challenge is not just at the top, with the PWA, but throughout the system, from the highest authorities down to the Palestinian villages’ Joint Service Councils.