The Politics of Water in Israel

On the evening of Tuesday September 27, 2005 UVM Hillel hosted an event, entitled ‘Water and Conflict in the Middle East,’ to promote awareness of the shortage of water in Israel and Palestine. The forum, held in Waterman Lounge, featured three guests who are currently working in the area of trans-boundary stream restoration with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. The water informing trinity consisted of Rowi; an Israeli environmental student working with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Semah; a Jordanian lawyer, and Mazem; a Palestinian water engineer. The panel began with the guests briefing the audience upon the situation in the Middle East, their opinions on the subject, and information about their current projects. After each respectively introduced themselves and the topic, a Q and A session began. Rowi commenced with a discussion of transboundary stream restoration, a process necessary to correct water pollution and exploitation which inherently results in ephemeral streams, water ways that dry up during the dry season. As an example, Rowi cited the area to the North of the Negev, the desert in the north of Israel, as “the wasteland of Israel.” There, toxic waste, raw sewage, and “clandestine quarries” contribute to the gravity of the water situation. He then spoke of the lacking facilities in the West Bank. There is not a single waste water treatment plant in the West Bank. “Why?, you ask,” Rowi questioned the audience, “there is money, yet there is corruption.” He spoke of money that had been allocated for the development and construction of treatment plants by foreign governments among other donors, which mysteriously disappeared under the watch of the Israeli government as the project was set to begin. Then Semah discussed the conflict over the decreasing flow of the Jordan River and the consequent gradual disappearance of the Dead Sea. Semah, Rowi and Mazem concurred as to the reason for the declining current of the Jordan River, the great amounts of water allocated by Israel for irrigation of desert agriculture projects. Semah then spokeof a plan known as the ‘Red-Dead’ canal, to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The plan is being discussed hotly in the World Bank and has gained strong support. The panelists saw the attention, the excitement amongst the world community and the eagerness of the donors, as politically driven rather than stemming from rational environmental reasoning. Semah noted, “Everyone likes the co-operation, and wants to contribute.” Yet, “The Red-Dead canal will be too late.” Rowi summarized the situation and led the discourse into its next phase when he said, “It is so easy to restore the Dead Sea to a pristine level, yet it is not feasible because of the need of states.” That need of the states is diverse to the presence of economic markets, i.e. agriculture, but comes down to the people. The geographic area including Jordan, Israel, Gaza and the West Bank is densely populated; currently six million within Israel, about five million in Jordan (a relatively sketchy figure due to the rather unquantifiable influx of Iraqis), and three million in the confines of Gaza and the West Bank. As well, the population is growing rapidly and, in the combined area of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, is expected to more than double by 2025. Currently Israel has a nationalized statewide water distribution agency, Mekerop, which is charged with water rationing. This is the primary area where government involvement in water leads to conflict. The population demographic dichotomy of Israel, between the Jews, Arabs and Palestinians, is “highly segregated,” Mazem stated. Consequently, the water company is able to vary distribution levels. The average Jewish Israeli consumes three hundred liters of water, while the average Arab Israeli (one sixth of the Israeli population) consumes one hundred-fifty liters, and the average Palestinian consumes seventy-five. This results in situations, such as the one described by Semah, where, “[in the West Bank] there are Jewish settlers with swimming pools while Palestinians collect rainwater (in rooftop catch basins) because they know supply cannot last.” This inequality also extends into the realm of agriculture, Jewish farmers receiving water and Palestinian ones being denied. Another reason for the limited supply of water to Palestinians is the dilapidated state of their water infrastructure. Rowi estimated that there “is a fifty percent loss due to cracked old pipes.” However, overhauling the pipe infrastructure is not viable due to security reasons. “Pipelines are the hardest thing to bring into the West Bank because they can be misused as weapons,” stated Rowi. Security reasons also hinder much of the research which the panel attempt to conduct. Due to the limited mobility at the behest of tight security, the group cannot always research where and when they would like. However, the group held hope for the future in the bilateral relations that are beginning to grow more frequent as states cooperate to maintain the scarce supply of water. “True peace between Israel and Palestine will come about with the linking of authorities,” Rowi articulated. “The future is unknown, but we believe there can be peace through water” finalized Semah.