The West Bank Water Fight


Summer after summer, thousands of Palestinians on the West Bank suffer shortages of water. Desalination, recycling, and improved infrastructure maintenance could have provided a solution long ago – but, when the issue is Israel and the Palestinians nothing is simple and straight forward.

“The cuts in the quantity of water that Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, sells to the Palestinians are felt in the towns and villages in the Salfit region on the western side of the West Bank and in three villages east of Nablus,” Amira Hass reported in the Ha’aretz daily newspaper on June 6.

Palestinian sources reported that Mekorot officials told them that the water cut was needed in order to maintain a sufficient water level in the regional water reservoirs to create the water pressure needed to enable water to reach both Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns and villages. These regional reservoirs, supplied by the Israel National Water Carrier, are located in Jewish settlements, not in Palestinian towns and villages.

Palestinians workers for Mekorot told Ha’aretz that they received instructions to regulate the water to Palestinian villages in order to meet the water needs of Jewish settlements during the heat wave at the beginning of June. Palestinians reported  that there is no running water in homes in Palestinian villages, industrial plants must close, and farm animals die of thirst.

At the beginning of July, Ha’aretz reported that the Israel Water Authority wants to double the amount of water supplied to Jewish and Palestinian towns, villages, and settlements in the West Bank, but the plan is on hold because there is not a political directive to connect Palestinian cities to the new water infrastructure.

Water issues  in the Middle East blow-up quickly, especially in drought years. Thirst makes for very dramatic pictures and dread of it is probably etched into the subconscious of humans everywhere from the prehistoric days when are first ancestors  left Africa to wander around the dry savannas that ultimately would lead to Asia and Europe via the Rift Valley. Today, as Israel approaches its fiftieth anniversary in the West Bank, understanding the background to the dramatic reports of dying livestock and taps running dry is essential.

From Roman Aqueducts to Faucets

Until 1967, the West Bank water supply was mostly based on ancient Roman aqueducts. Most of these had been built by Herod the Great 2,000 years ago.  Thanks to his extraordinary construction campaigns, the aqueducts of Wadi Kelt, Wadi Auja and Wadi Fa’ra, were still a major water source on the West Bank. Three other ancient aqueducts were still operating on the mountain crest; one supplied water to Nablus and two others carried water from Solomon’s Pools to Jerusalem. These ancient Roman aqueducts supplied 18 million cubic meters of water annually. The local population also utilized water from 200 small springs and rainwater collected in cisterns in backyards and courtyards, which together added another 5 million cubic meters of water per year.

The British began the process of modernizing the water system during the British Mandate by laying two pipelines: one pumped water from Wadi Kelt to Jerusalem and the other from the large spring of Ein Samiya to Ramallah.

In the 1960s, the Jordanians dug 350 wells throughout the West Bank. This made an additional 41 million cubic meters of water annually available on the West Bank, though most of the wells had a very low flow rate.  Towards the end of Jordanian rule, the total amount of water available on the West Bank was 65 million cubic meters per year and only four of the 700 towns and villages on the West Bank  had running water in their houses.

The water system was modernized after the establishment of Israeli rule. New wells equipped with high-capacity pumps were dug and a network of pipelines was laid that reached most of the towns and villages on the West Bank. Within five years, the amount of water supplied to Palestinians in the West Bank increased by 50%. Since villages and towns did not have infrastructure connecting their buildings to a water supply, water was supplied to central points in towns and villages from which residents would carry it back to their homes.

During the 1970s and 1980s, as Jewish settlements were constructed, a grid was laid to connect the settlements to the Israeli National Water Carrier. Palestinian towns and villages adjacent to the new settlements were also connected to this grid. The availability of running water in Palestinian towns and villages brought about a dramatic surge in the standard of living and the development of farming and industry, which need a regular supply of water. Additional deep-water wells were drilled further augmenting the water supply to Palestinians in the West Bank.

By 1995, the amount of water available to Palestinians in the West Bank doubled from 65 million cubic meters to 120 million cubic meters annually. By 2008, this figure had grown to 200 million cubic meters, according to Palestinian sources. At the end of the first decade of the new millennium, 97% of the 708 Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank were connected to a water grid and had running water in their homes.

In the first three decades of Israeli rule, provision of water to Palestinian towns and villages improved dramatically and today it is much better than the situation in neighboring countries. In Amman, the capital of Jordan, water is supplied to houses only two days each week and stored in water tanks on the roofs; this was the case in Damascus as well, before the war.

Aquifers and Water Rights

One of the major bones of contention in the various agreements between Israel and the Palestinians was, and remains, water availability and water rights. In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand the nature of the available water sources and the international law applicable to them.

Israel and the West Bank share three aquifers: the Yarkon-Tanninim aquifer; the eastern mountain aquifer; and the Nablus-Gilboa aquifer. The water in them originates from rain that falls mainly on the mountains of Judea and Samaria. This water seeps into the ground in the mountains and resurfaces in springs and wells that emanate at the foot of the mountains.

Most of the rainwater in the central part of Israel falls on the western slopes of the mountains of Judea and Samaria. The water seeps into the ground or flows down the rivers into the catchment area of the Yarkon-Tanninim Aquifer, which is located under the lowlands and coastal plain, inside Israel. The total amount of water that flows into the aquifer is 363 million cubic meters a year, which feeds the Yarkon springs (220 million cubic meters of water a year), and the Tanninim springs (110 million cubic meters a year).

The eastern side of the mountains, the rain shadow side, receives a much smaller amount of rain. This water feeds into the eastern mountain aquifer and emanates mostly in the large springs along the Jordan Valley (the spring of Ein Gedi also gets its water from this aquifer). The amount of water that flows into this aquifer annually is 172 million cubic meters.

The Nablus-Gilboa aquifer is the smallest of the three. Located north of the town of Nablus, it collects the rainwater falling on the northern mountains and valleys of the West Bank and on the mountains of Gilboa, feeding the large springs in the valleys of Harod and Beit She’an. In other words, here too the rain falls on the mountains of the West Bank and water emanates from springs inside Israel.

Water rights are a sticky international issue, especially in arid and semi-arid areas. Water has led to struggles between nations and many a war. Borders tend to be marked by rivers, and many a river flows through a number of countries, just as coasts of lakes and seas can extend through different countries, so the international aspects of the right to their water are open to debate. International law tries to address these issues with a number of rulings that list benchmarks by which shared water sources should be distributed.

The list includes geographical and hydrological benchmarks as well as historical and current water usage. In general, human needs take precedence over natural attributes and current water usage takes precedence over future developments. International law is only a recommendation and where agreements have been made between nations, the agreements take precedence.

By the 1940s, water usage from the Yarkon-Tanninim aquifer had peaked. Agricultural development and settlement during the British Mandate was using 360 million cubic meters annually from the aquifer, pumping it out from hundreds of wells dug between Hadera and Beersheba. After the creation of the State of Israel, the Palestinians on the West Bank utilized 22 million cubic meters annually from this aquifer, mainly around Tulkarem and Kalkilya. If historic usage is the base for the division of the water of this aquifer, then Palestinians are entitled only to those 22 million cubic meters.

In 1967, Palestinians were using 60 million cubic meters annually of the available water in the eastern mountain aquifer. The rest flowed into the Jordan River and from there into the Dead Sea. When the Israeli settlements were built in the Jordan Valley in the 1970s, they utilized an additional 40 million cubic meters annually of the water of this aquifer – water that used to flow into the Dead Sea.

Water Agreements

The agreements between Israel and the Palestinians address water issues in detail. In 1994, the Gaza-Jericho agreement turned over the Gaza water supply to the Palestinians. The following year Israel agreed to supply an additional 5 million cubic meters of water to Gaza annually. In 2005, following the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, all their  water facilities and wells were turned over to the Palestinian Authority.

The interim agreement reached with the Palestinians in 1995 recognized the Palestinians’ water rights on the West Bank and left the amount of water to be settled in the final agreement. The Oslo accords stipulated that the future water needs of the Palestinians would be another 70-80 million cubic meters per year, over and above  the 118 million cubic meters they were using annually when the agreements was signed.

The Israelis and the Palestinians formed a joint water committee (JWC).  The committees task was to approve plans to implement the agreements on water. Also in its mandate was to jointly develop future water grids and systems. The JWC’s responsibilities include preventing contamination of water sources and the digging of unauthorized wells. It also is responsible for plans to treat and dispose of sewage water. The JWC has authorized many new wells, water systems, and water pipelines on the West Bank thus far. The water supplied to the Palestinian towns and villages is under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority; the water supplied to the Israel settlements is under the auspices of Mekorot, the Israeli national water company.

Desalination and Treated Sewage

The three shared aquifers are currently being exploited to their maximum. All additional water that is pumped into the West Bank comes from the Israeli water system, which depends on desalinated water (this is the reason that there is not a water shortage in Israel). In addition, Israel meets over one third of its agricultural water needs with treated sewage water: 355 million cubic meters of water, 75% of all sewage water in Israel, is treated and reused for agriculture (this figure, the highest in the world, is slated to reach 90% of all sewage water by 2020).

The use of treated sewage water frees up a lot of natural water. Between 1967 and 2009, Israeli use of natural water decreased from 1,411 million cubic meters a year to 1,211 million cubic meters. During this period  Israel’s population grew from 2.7 million to 7.1 million. Average per capita use of natural water plummeted from 508 cubic meters a year to 170 cubic meters. This was achieved first and foremost by desalination. Israel produces 600 million cubic meters of desalinated water a year, supplying over 50% of all non-agricultural water uses.

Palestinian use of natural water during the same period rose from 60 million cubic meters in 1967 to 180 million cubic meters in 2008 (the latest figures available). At the same time the population in the West Bank grew from 700,000 to 1,800,000. Average per capita water usage went up from 85.7 cubic meters a year to 100 cubic meters.

The Palestinians have many grievances regarding water issues. They claim  that the water agreement was forced on them and that they are entitled to half the water in all of the aquifers in the land of Israel. The Palestinians insist on discussing “water rights,” while Israel wants to discuss “water usage” and “water needs.” So even though there is enough water for all, negotiations are deadlocked in an academic discussion.

Politics aside, it is clear that the Palestinians need to utilize alternative water sources such as treating sewage water, desalination, and fixing infrastructure to minimize water loss. This would make it possible to provide sufficient water for the Palestinian population – without having to rely on Israel. According to the Oslo accords, the Palestinians have the right to build a desalination plant on the Mediterranean at Hadera. The water from this plant would be for their exclusive use. The plan was to build it with European funding. To date, even though US$500 million have been allocated to building a desalination plant in Gaza and along the coast at Hedera, nothing has happened.

The same goes for the treatment of waste water. No serious Palestinians sewage treatment plants have been built to day. The existing sewage plants are leaky and do not perform adequately. Most of the precious sewage water flows  into Israel, where some of it is treated and used for agriculture.

A large amount of water is lost through leaky infrastructure. Much of the leakage is a result of theft by  villagers who break the pipes or tap into them illegally. On the West Bank nearly a third of the water flowing through the Palestinian network is lost in this way. In Gaza nearly half of all the water is lost due to leaky pipes and water theft.

The Solution

Palestinians, as well as some Israeli and international organizations, claim that Israel is not supplying Palestinians with the water that they need. On the other hand, they complain that Palestinians have to buy the water that they do get from Israel. When one uses a magnifying glass to focus on the issues of a specific village, it seems that Israel is indeed supplying less than the Palestinians need (even though Israel is supplying more than the amount agreed upon in the Oslo accords).

This, however, is not the real issue. Israel has shown that supplying water in this region does not need to be a problem. If the Palestinians build their desalination plant, fix their water grids, and treat their sewage, they will have more than enough water.

On the other hand, if the negotiators  continue arguing over who is entitled to what, then villages like Salfit will close their chicken farms and see their gardens turn brown. The plans and the funding for desalination and sewage treatment plants are available, as is the funding to renew the leaky Palestinian water grid. All that is needed is to get to work and solve this artificial water shortage.