Celebrating water cooperation: Red Sea to Dead Sea

Israel-Palestine Joint Water Committee’s work has been referred to as ‘water apartheid’, and ‘pretence of cooperation’.

Palestinians access to water has deteriorated since Oslo [AFP]

In December 2013 the World Bank proudly announced a rare agreement on water among Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Middle East is not a region where cooperation among states is common, especially in relation to water. Therefore, the news about this so-called “water cooperation agreement” made headlines in the global media.

While the World Bank, and official authorities of the three countries were very pleased with the outcome, environmentalists and Middle East water specialists were sceptical because of the feared adverse impacts of the project on the environment and fragile ecosystem, and its implications for delicate political conflicts on the ground. Some Israeli experts were suspicious, supposing that the main motivation of the agreement was a geopolitical interest associated with giving support to Jordan. “Saving the Dead Sea” which was proclaimed to the public as the main justification of the agreement was seen as distinctly secondary by critics.

Red Sea to Dead Sea

The agreement calls for transportation of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The goal is to replenish the waters of the Dead Sea that was in serious danger of drying up. The Jordan River had previously been providing feeder waters to sustain the Dead Sea, but these were diminished over the years by diversions in large volumes by Israel, Jordan and Syria.

The project also responds to the acute shortage of clean fresh water, especially in Jordan. One of the main aims of the project is a commitment to build a new desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan, that will convert salt water from the Red Sea into fresh water. The desalination project will be built and operated by a private company on a strictly commercial basis. The pipeline is scheduled to run exclusively through Jordanian territory from the desalination plant in Aqaba, to avoid strict environmental regulations in Israel. Friends of the Earth Middle East also expressed concerns, pointing out that the volume of water that will be pumped into Dead Sea is not enough to allow the lake to become viable, and that the project is really just an excuse to build a desalination plant and sell its water at a profit. 

If the parties are grossly unequal and asymmetrical in terms of economic, political and military power, the idea of international cooperation on an equitable basis is almost impossible to realise.

The proposed desalinisation plant will produce for Israel and Jordan each, 8 to 13 billion gallons of water a year. Meanwhile, according to The New York Times the Palestinians “expect to be able to buy up to 8 billion gallons of additional fresh water from Israel at preferential prices”. Although 25 miles of the Dead Sea’s shoreline lie in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinians currently have no access to the Dead Sea but could claim that they will have riparian rights in the future when the state of Palestine is finally established. Meanwhile, Palestinians are forced to buy water from the Israeli desalination plant at high prices.

Recently Israel boastfully announced that there is no water shortage any longer in the country thanks to desalination plants and widely used high-tech reclaimed water in agriculture. This is very good news for Israel. However, it is difficult to understand why the Palestinians are denied or significantly restricted access to an equitable share of mountain aquifers and Jordan River basin, while at the same time being encouraged to buy fresh water from Israel. This puzzle cannot be explained without a closer look at water sharing arrangements and so-called “cooperation” between Israel and Palestine.

Myths about water

There are some myths about water issues in relation to Israel and the Palestinians. First of all, contrary to Israeli propaganda, Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are actually rich in water resources, but the unequal distribution of water rights is used for the benefit of Israel while Palestinians are made to struggle for basic water access. The Mountain Aquifer is one of the most important water resources in the region, being fed by the relatively plentiful rain of the West Bank – Ramallah, which receives an average of 700 mm rainfall per year, around the same as Edinburgh – and historically providing up to a quarter of Israel’s freshwater supplies. Despite alarmist predictions of insufficient drinking water supplies by 2040, based on the expected population growth in the OPT, Jordan and Israel, it is highly unlikely that drinking water will be scarce. Israel suggested as much when it announced that the country has solved its water problem and was ready to sell additional water to the Palestinians.

The second myth is the pretension that the international water law principles are applicable between Israel and Palestine and cooperation is possible. One of the five clusters of the Oslo Peace Accords was devoted to water. The core principle of customary international water law that requires “cooperation” to realise the “equitable utilisation of shared water”. This principle was vaguely affirmed by Oslo but never implemented. The critical question of responsibility for the administration of West Bank water resources was postponed by the parties until the final stage of the negotiation process, which has never taken place despite the lapse of more than 20 years.

According to international water law, joint committees are supposed to facilitate cooperation between countries. However, if the parties are grossly unequal and asymmetrical in terms of economic, political and military power, the idea of international cooperation on an equitable basis is almost impossible to realise. Recent critical scholarship on water politics has pointed out this problem that “cooperation” is often conflict-laden and highly inequitable among asymmetrical riparian countries and that the unquestioned promotion of “cooperation of any sort” over water resources is thus deeply problematic.

This exact situation is happening in the context of the Israel-Palestinian water cooperation. Under the Oslo framework Israel and Palestine established a Joint Water Committee (JWC) in 1995 to govern trans-boundary mountain aquifers and to support the sustainable development of the Palestinian water sector. The JWC continued to meet regularly to administer the so-called “joint water resources”, a rhetoric that implies international cooperation was maintained even during the violence of the Second Intifada (2000-2005), something which no other joint Israeli-Palestinian committee achieved.

The World Bank has embarrassed itself by being seemingly ignorant of this fundamental obstacle to constructive cooperation in relation to water policy in the Middle East.

The working of the JWC has been criticised by several water policy experts, as “domination dressed up as cooperation”, a “pretence of cooperation”, and even as “water apartheid”. Jan Selby researched and interpreted the first 17 years of JWC operations, concluding that JWC functioned as part of the ideological apparatus of domination. As a result of the Oslo framework, the PA lacks a legal or political foundation on which to challenge Israel’s confiscation of water during the past 20 years. Rather than benefiting from JWC, in fact, Palestinian access to both water and sanitation has deteriorated since Oslo.

Problems with cooperation

Difficulties with establishing cooperative use of shared water resources also encountered several other river basins in the region such as the Nile and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, where the riparian states’ political, economic and military power is asymmetrical. However, each case is dramatically different than another due to different political, hydrological and economic reasons. According to key findings of the Selby study, water cooperation is never politically neutral and not always benign; it sometimes contradicts the goals of peace and sustainable development. In case of Israel and Palestine specific consideration are below:

  • Israeli-Palestinian water cooperation has been associated with a significant worsening of the Palestinian water supply crisis. Israel has vetoed every single Palestinian application for new wells in the Western Basin of the Mountain Aquifer, only small local water networks have been approved. Meanwhile Israel has repeatedly made improvements in the water systems of its illegal West Bank settlements.
  • Revealingly the Palestinian Water Authority has approved every single Israeli application for new water supply facilities for West Bank settlements. This has been done with the knowledge of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and constitutes the first such evidence of the PA lending its official consent to parts of Israel’s settlement expansion programme.   
  •  International donors have not challenged Israel’s use of the JWC as an instrument of control. Some donors have known that approval of the projects is linked to PA approval of settlement infrastructure, but have preferred to remain silent on the issue.    

The World Bank should have done a deeper and more comprehensive research on the work of JWC and so-called “cooperation” between Israel and Palestinians before celebrating a water collaboration agreement that will force the poor party to buy expensive water from the richer party, an arrangement that seems manifestly unjust. Instead, the WB preferred to overlook this detrimental feature and celebrate a new project in a region where water injustice and apartheid are so visible and widely known. To this extent, the World Bank has embarrassed itself by being seemingly ignorant of this fundamental obstacle to constructive cooperation in relation to water policy in the Middle East.

Hilal Elver is the Co-director of the Climate Change, Human Security and Democracy Project at Orfalea Center at the University of California Santa Barbara, and the Author of the Peaceful Uses of International Rivers: A Case of Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (2002).