On the geopolitics of water scarcity in the Middle East

Jordan River Basin

Israeli water policy in a regional context of conflict:
prospects for sustainable development for Israelis and Palestinians?

Stefan Deconinck, research fellow, KHID

For comments, please send a message to Stefan.Deconinck[at]gmail.com.

Please refer to this article as follows:
Deconinck S., 'Israeli water policy in a regional context of conflict: prospects for sustainable development for Israelis and Palestinians?', December 2002, on: http://www.waternet.be/jordan_river/waterpolicy.htm
(c) Stefan Deconinck, 2002.
(c) third update (February 2004).
Fourth update due to April 15 2008; will include recent alterations to the Israeli long term water policies

“With water, you can make politics. With land, you can make wars”.
Shimon Peres on the International Symposium on Sustainable Water Management in Arid and Semiarid Regions, May 15-19, 1995.


In our newspapers and on our TV-screens, we can observe the events that take place every day on the surface of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These reports from the region west of the Jordan River barely mention the importance of water resources in this clash between Israel and the Palestinian population living under Israeli occupation. Nevertheless, water is one of the five major remaining stumbling blocks in the attempts to establish peace, together with the issues of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish colonies and the status of a future Palestinian entity.

In August 2000, a long-term water policy document was proposed by the Water Commissioner (1). The plan outlines the general framework for a water policy towards 2020. Within this period of time, Israel faces the challenge to cope with increasing water scarcity, as a result of the limited availability of natural water resources combined with an increasing demand for water due to population growth and economic development and regular droughts. Therefore, the plan aims at the maintenance the actual level of water consumption by households, industry and agriculture while preserving the country’s natural water resources – especially during years with under average winter rains that fail to recharge the underground and surface water systems.

In April 2002, the Water Commission presented a transitional master plan for the water sector, covering the period towards 2010. In this master plan, the main lines of the 2000-water policy plan are reconfirmed, with additional attention for institutional reform of the national water management (2).

These policy plans cannot only be read as a document for internal aspects of water policy. It also involves important water resources that are shared with the state of Jordan and with the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories. As such, domestic Israeli water policy will have direct implications for these populations as well. This makes policy planning an interesting parameter to assess prospects for regional sustainable development. Therefore, in this contribution water policy will be regarded as an instrument in the struggle for development, in which water plays a crucial role. We will take a close look at the problem of growing water scarcity as a result of the combination of limited water resources and increasing population. We will describe how water has become a tool in the political conflict, and how it can undermine the prospects for sustainable development of the population in the region.

Part 1 – the context of water scarcity for Israel and Palestinians

1. Shared water resources for Israelis and Palestinians

The inhabitants of Israel and the Palestinian Territories share their main sources for drinking water. The largest resource is the Jordan River. Compared to other rivers in the Middle East like the Euphrates, the Tigris or the Nile, the Jordan River is a rather modest one - in length as well as in flow. Its main tributaries are the Hasbani, Dan, Baniyas and Yarmuk. The first three rivers converge in Israel, north of the Lake of Galilee, to form the upper Jordan River. Only the sources of the Dan originate within the Israeli borders. The Hasbani springs lie in the part of Lebanon that was until June 2000 incorporated into the occupied Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon, and the Baniyas water drains from the Golan Heights – a territory formerly under Syrian control and since the war of 1967 occupied by Israel.

South of the Lake of Galilee, the Jordan meets with the Yarmuk River, containing water originating from Syria and Jordan, and continues to flow south toward the Dead Sea. Syria and Jordan established a series of dams on the Yarmuk River for maximum profit of every drop of water. When the river reaches the Palestinian West Bank the upstream riparians used all the water they could. Israel uses the Lake of Galilee as a reservoir to extract drinking water through its National Water Carrier – a network of canals and pipelines – to the populated coastal plain and the farms in the Negev desert. Due to the occupation of the Jordan valley by the Israeli army, the Palestinian population on the West Bank is unable to reach the river at all, and cannot use the water for irrigation or human consumption. But even if they could, they would not find more than a brackish muddy stream. The former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres once declared that nowadays one could find more history than water in the Jordan River.

The other sources for potable water are the aquifers, underground geological structures with the capacity to store water. The water from the aquifers comes in a natural way to surface as a spring; the people living on top of the aquifer can also get access to the water by drilling wells. This is a renewable water resource, replenished by the yearly cycle of the winter rains. Human activity can endanger this resource. Sewage, industrial waste and agricultural pollutants like pesticides and fertilisers can harm the water quality and make it unfit for human consumption. Over-exploitation can cause irreversible damage to the geological structure, and the aquifer can lose its water-storing capacity.

Israel and the Palestinians share two aquifer systems. The first one, the mountain aquifer, is located under the hills of the West Bank and shared by Israelis and Palestinians as well as Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Although the aquifer is replenished by the winter rains that mainly fall on West Bank territory, a major quantity of the water flows underground across the ‘Green Line’ (the armistice line that marks the Israeli borders between 1948 and 1967) - thus outside the West Bank - and moves gradually towards the slopes of the hills mainly within Israeli territory. There the water appears on the surface as natural springs and sources, out of reach of the Palestinian population of the West Bank. The second shared aquifer is located under the coastal zone, covering an area including the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

2. Water under Israeli occupation

After the war of 1967 and the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli military commanders became responsible for the governance of these Occupied Territories. A new water regime was imposed and the resources became subject to the Israeli water legislation. Therefore, the water resources in the Occupied Territories became public property that could be “destined for the requirements of its inhabitants and for the development of the country”, quoting the Israeli water law. Landowners could no longer claim any rights to the water on their property, and the authority over the water resources in the Occupied Territories was transferred from villages and local communities to the so-called Civil Administration. The military commanders of the area, as head of the Civil Administration, became responsible for granting exploitation licences for existing and new water installations, or to plant new citrus gardens. The military commander has the power to withdraw a licence that was previously granted with no possibility of appeal against his decisions. Meters were placed on the Palestinian wells to limit their capacity. The institutional control over the water resources was finally completed in 1982 when water management was transferred to the Israeli national water company Mekorot.

The result of this water policy was that the growing Palestinian demand for water was systematically ignored and the necessary licences were almost always refused. The use of more powerful water installations and deeper wells in the Jewish settlements caused the older Palestinian wells to dry out. The majority of the Palestinian wells are now out of operation. Most of the Palestinian villagers are not connected to a waterworks; people have to rely on tank lorries or women have to carry water from distant wells for their daily needs. The present Intifada has made things even worse, due to the Israeli siege of Palestinian towns and villages, which made the price of water deliveries to rise to unbearable heights. A lot of water is lost due to collateral damage by shelling and bulldozering pipelines and other infrastructure by the Israeli army, as reported by the World Bank and UNDP (3).

On the other side of the hill, Jewish settlements do not have to deal with these restrictions. Settlers can cherish themselves with the surroundings of green lawn and refreshing swimming pools. Unsurprisingly, this adds a great deal to the frustrations on the Palestinian side, when even in the Israeli press opinion makers aired their criticism on these effects of the occupation policy.

The Israeli authorities deny the accusations of a double water policy. It is argued that the existing Palestinian water network has expanded under Israeli governance, and that water consumption has increased by 20% since 1967. Should the supply be insufficient, it is said to be mainly a result of Palestinian mismanagement of the water system. The Palestinian authorities respond that, although the consumption has been increased, population grew faster and caused a net decrease in consumption per capita.

3. Coping with scarce resources and rising demand

The Israeli-Palestinian water conflict can be visualised when we compare figures concerning Israeli and Palestinian water consumption. In the water policy plan that will be discussed below, the Israeli government handles an average per capita consumption of 35m³ for a Palestinian on the West Bank, and 321m³ for Israelis in Israel and the settlements. According to the standards of the World Health Organisation, people with an average per capita consumption less than 500m³ live in a condition of severe water stress. Although the Israeli average is well below this level, it does not keep the Israeli society to adopt a standard of living that is comparable with Western Europe. Israel has adopted strategies to cope with the limited availability of water resources. It has the necessary capacity and vast financial and technical resources to compensate the lack of abundant water resources. Israel succeeds e.g. to enforce high-tech irrigation or to raise public awareness in order to prevent wasting or polluting water resources.

Water is an important resource for the Israeli agriculture, and in the mid-80’s up to 70% of the available water resources are allocated to agriculture; based on the 2002 ‘Statistical Abstract of Israel’ (Central Bureau for Statistics), a figure of 59.2% can be calculated for 2000. This is still an astonishing figure, considering the rather limited and ever declining importance of agriculture in Israeli economy; it now generates only 2% of the Israeli GNP, while households, industry and services generate 98% of the GDP with the water that is left. An important part of the agricultural production, like citrus fruits and flowers, is for export – in a way it can be considered export of virtual water. The fact that Israel, as a country that lives under a condition of severe water stress, can waste so much of its scarce water resources in an economically inefficient way and even export virtual water, is again an illustration of the capacity of the country to cope with this water stress. But problems arise at the horizon. A rising birth rate and continuing immigration make the population to grow, and as a result the demand for drinking water in the households will increase. Economic development increases the demand of water as well, and the Israeli government expects that it will need 60% more water to meet the direct needs of the population in 2020 (4) . At the same time, it sticks with the creed of the Zionist founding fathers of ‘making the desert bloom’, which means that sufficient water for agriculture must be safeguarded, too, as well as for industry and services. Because Israel is presently already using nearly every available natural water resource, the only possibility to add extra water to its national water system is by means of ‘non-conventional’ water resources, like recycling and desalination. To compensate the other sectors for the loss of their share of drinking water to the households, the long-term water policy plan of the Israeli government aims to increase the use of recycled water in agriculture and to construct a series of desalination plants alongside the seaside. The amount of water generated here must allow the Israeli water management agencies to protect the natural water resources like the Lake of Galilee or the aquifers against irreparably damage during years of drought.

The Palestinians are in a less favourable position. Like Israel, the Palestinian society also faces a problem of growing demand for potable water due to population growth and necessary economic development. Moreover, the Palestinian economy relies for a greater part on (irrigated) agriculture. But almost fifty-five years of displacement and thirty-five years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip left their traces. Israeli water shortages are shifted on the Palestinian society, which cannot count on the necessary financial means for investment or the necessary institutions to impose good management of the limited water resources. The result is that Palestinian households are far from the safety levels set by international organisations, or even the 100m³ per year that is a minimum standard for household consumption in Israel. The lack of access to enough water is a heavy burden for future development and the viability of a Palestinian state.

Five successive years of under average winter rains between 1998 en 2002 painfully confronted the population in the whole region with the threat of water shortages. Bygone summer, the Lake of Galilee crossed again the ‘red line’ that indicated its sustainable yield and reached its lowest point in human memory. The same happened to the mountain aquifer under the West Bank. These resources now stand a chance of being contaminated by pollution or intrusion of saline water – risking the irreversible loss of this natural water resource. This already happened to the aquifer system under Gaza, the only source for drinking water for the Palestinians on the Gaza Strip: 80% of its potential drinking water is unsuitable for human consumption.

Although gloomy projections since the 1970’s urged for measures to avert a catastrophe, we still have to wait for reorientations of the regional water policies. In Israel, short-term policies seem to prevent an open discussion about the fundamental issues related to water consumption. When an Infrastructure Minister suggests imposing restrictions on irrigation in agriculture, in order to safeguard drinking water for the Israeli households, his colleagues in the government blew a whistle on him and refused to discuss any measures of this kind. In 2001, the Water Commissioner (who is the most senior officer responsible for water management), in vain requested the municipalities to cut 15% of the water consumption (e.g by urging citizens to abandon watering their gardens or washing their cars).

Part Two: Israeli long term water policy

In the second part of this contribution, we focus on the specific situation of Israeli policy measures in times of water scarcity.
In 2000, Shimon Tal was installed as the new Water Commissioner. He prepared a long term water policy document, which was presented to and approved on a cabinet meeting of the Israeli government in August 2001. This water policy plan will grant us a glimpse at what is behind every day’s water issues, and we will see how the Israeli government is dealing with fundamental problems related to water shortages (5).

1. Main outline of the long term water policy plan

The plan presents in only nine pages a brief introduction to the present problems of water shortage and the concerns for future water consumption. The year 2020 is the reference year for calculations and predictions in the long term.

In the introductory section, it is stated that the projections of future water requirements are based on the assumption that the yield of the natural water resources will be average during the whole planning period of twenty years. This means that the proposed measures are minimum measures for statistical ‘normal’ years, and that the stock created in ‘good’ years must be sufficient to compensate the deficit of ‘bad’ years, when there is not enough rain to recharge the natural water reservoirs. By way of example, an overview of annual extraction of water from the coastal aquifer between 1980 and 1996 shows that in 16 years, there were only 5 years without over extraction and 11 years with a deficit. The cumulated deficit now results into a continuing salinisation of the coastal area, causing destruction of land and water resources, and an assumed accumulation of salt of 1000 tons every day.

The thread of the plan is to guarantee a constant supply of water for consumption, while protection the natural water resources. Therefore, the Israeli government decided to produce additional water, from recycling sewage water for agricultural purposes to desalination of brackish and sea water.

2. Consolidating the long term water consumption

One of the basic assumptions of the policy document is to maintain the actual level of per capita consumption (private/domestic and public). Between 1989 and 1998, this level varied from 101m³ (1991) to 128m³ (1989 and 1998) for the Jewish sector (6). In the same period, the level of water consumption by the non-Jewish sector increased slightly from 29m³ to 47m³. The long term task is to fix the consumption for every Israeli on 130m³ a year.

In the plan is estimated that the population of Israel in 2020 will be around 8,6 million people. The total water requirement to meet the per capita needs will then be 1120 million m³ (an increase of 415 million m³ or nearly 60%).
Another important assumption is the preservation of the agricultural production in Israel: ‘the land must remain green’, to cite a staff member at the Water Commissioner’s office. In an average year, the agricultural consumption of potable water is estimated at 880 million m³. To preserve agriculture in 2020 at its present scale, an amount of 530 million m³ of high quality water is required each year, supplemented with 620 million m³ of treated sewage water.

Industrial water demand will increase too in the next 20 years: 30 million m³ for potable water and 25 million m³ for water of lower quality.
The plan also mentions the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories. The water supply of the population of the Gaza Strip is presumed not to be based on the Israeli national water system, and will not be taken into consideration for redistribution. Because Israel and the Palestinian population share the western part of the mountain aquifer, the plan proposes an additional transfer of 115 million m³ from the Israeli national water system to the Palestinians on the West Bank. This will gradually raise the average level of water consumption on the West Bank from 35m³ to 70m³ each year in 2020. These amounts include domestic, agricultural and industrial water consumption.

As part of the peace agreement with Jordan, Israel agreed to transfer a yearly amount of 55 million m³ to the Hashemite kingdom. For the sake of the argument, it is presumed that this amount will remain the same in 2020.
The figures mentioned above are resumed in the following table:

Water consumption in Israel
West Bank Jordan
Potable water Potable water Other Potable water Treated sewage water  Potable water Potable water
2000 705 100 35 880 270 30 55
2020 1120 130 60 530 620 145 55
Table 1: distribution of water resources currently under Israeli control (million m³)

In 2020, the overall demand for water will be 2650 million m³, with a need for potable water that will be 210 million m³ larger than now (7). The amount of water of lower quality (including treated sewage water) needed for agriculture and industry will be 375m³ million higher.

At this moment, the exploitation of the available natural water resources reaches already its maximum level – the actual freshwater consumption of 1785 million m³ a year mentioned in the plan is already causing a deficit for the average sustainable water yield (1555 million m³). The even larger demand in 2020 (2000 million m³) cannot be met by the rivers and aquifers at all. Therefore, the Israeli government has to call upon additional, non-conventional water resources.

3. Creating additional water resources

In the plan, the Israeli government clearly states its preference for desalination of salt water to remove the pressure on the natural water resources.

Table 2 brings together the necessary figures to calculate the extra amount of water that is needed to bridge the gap between the available natural water resources and the consumption needs in 2020.

Quantity required in 2020 Quantity available in nature Deficit Existing non-conventional resources (2000) Desalination capacity needed in 2020
Table 2 - water resources and consumption needs in 2020 (million m³)

The deficit of potable water will rise to 395 million m³ a year in 2020. In the plan, desalination of salt water is brought up as the solution to provide the necessary water to restore the natural balance. To achieve a desalination capacity of 395 million m³ a year, a series of additional desalination plants has to be built in the next twenty years, and the plan charts a timetable for their construction. Based on the simple calculation that the capacity must gradually increase with a rate of 20 million m³ per year, the government has to initiate the construction of a desalination plant with a capacity of 50 million m³ every two and a half years.

Treated sewage water will be an other major source. This water can be used for irrigation in agriculture. Alternatively, a part of the water can also be returned to the rivers. This extra water will prevent them to run dry, or will prevent pollution by keeping the flow of the water strong enough to carry pollutants into the sea.

Treated sewage water will be an other major source. This water can be used for irrigation in agriculture. Alternatively, a part of the water can also be returned to the rivers. This extra water will prevent them to run dry, or will prevent pollution by keeping the flow of the water strong enough to carry pollutants into the sea.

The waste water coming from households and industries (1120 million m³ (8)  and 160 million m³ (9)  respectively), increased with an amount of sewage water flowing into Israel downhill the West Bank (50 million m³) brings the potential quantity to recycle on 1300 to 1320 million m³. Not all the consumed water will reach the treatment plants as waste water (part of it is used for irrigation of gardens and cleaning, some water will be lost through leakage or evaporation, part of the water of will be discharged directly into rivers or the sea, etc). Through a series of calculations, it is estimated that the amount of treated sewage water that will be available in 2020 will be 830 million m³. To handle this amount, the capacity of the treatment plants has to be increased with 560 million m³, or 25 to 30 million m³ a year (table 3).

Potential waste water Available after treatment Treatment capacity in 2000 Required additional capacity in 2020 Required for agriculture Surplus
Table 3 - waste water treatment and output of clean water in 2020 (million m³)

In table 1 was mentioned that agriculture will require 620 million m³ of treated waste water for irrigation. The plan suggests to use the surplus of 210 million m³ for river rehabilitation or even expansion of irrigated agriculture. A preferred third alternative, if possible, is to continue the cleaning process until the water quality is high enough to make the treated water suitable for municipal use (high quality, but non-potable water). This can save some amounts of potable water in the natural water reservoirs that would otherwise have been reserved to consumption.

4. Protection of the natural water resources

It is important to recall that the measures anunciated in the policy plan are expected to be sufficient to safeguard future Israeli water consumption in situations of average rainfall. In fact, this ‘average’ situation also presumes an average amount of natural water resources as a starting for the planning period. In other words, for an optimum take-off , the surface and underground water reservoirs (Lake of Galilee and the aquifers) are supposed to be half full, in order to act like a buffer in under average years. But in reality, this was not the case at all, and the take-off of the planning period started in the least favourable position as the natural water resources reached their point of unsustainable yield.
To make the plan work, it would be essential to build up this buffer by raising the actual level of the natural resources. Table 4 contains the figures concerning the amounts of water needed to accomplish this:

Lake of Galilee
Western aquifer
Coastal aquifer
Number of meters to rise
Necessary amount of water (million m³)
Table 4 - Restoring the natural water resources until the level of a sustainable yield

The total amount of fresh water necessary to rise the levels of the natural water resources from to actual level of unsustainable yield, to a safe average level is 1100 million m³. To obtain this additional water, the policy document opts here too for desalination. When the pace of construction of the previously mentioned desalination plants is forced with an additional capacity of 100 million m³ within the next 10 years, it would generate the amount of 1000 million m³. When climate change or an accidental series of years with poor rainfall causes the average rainfall fails to occur - and the average yield of the natural water resources keeps dropping - the pace of the construction of desalination plants has to be increased to guarantee a safe water yield. After a period of abundant rainfall, it may be decided to slow down the average pace of construction when the natural water reservoirs will receive their additional water from precipitation instead of desalination.

In addition to ideas to recharge the natural water resources, the plan contains a detailed section on the extraction of salt from the aquifers in order to preserve the quality of the water.

5. Brief annotation on the plan

a) a policy plan at last!
With this plan, the Israeli government made explicit its view on the role that water has to play in long term development. It chooses unambiguous a certain direction and clearly points out which steps have to be taken in order to achieve the goals.

b) an integrated approach?
An integrated approach to the water system is essential from the standpoint of sustainable water development, and the long term policy plan is an example of the initiation of such an approach.
The policy document involves the totality of the Israeli (fresh) water resources, it stresses the different functions of the water systems (consumption, environmental conservation, desalination, treatment, water quality, water quantity) and it focuses on the evaluation of different system components (precipitation, sewage, surface and ground water, reservoirs).
But the plan seems to go no further than this initial impetus. The proposed implementation remains on a very general level. The proposed measures contain e.g. no reference to an examination of the evolution of needs for water consumption, and it does not distinguish the needs within the sectors.
The document outwards the continuation of the traditional water Israeli policy where agriculture holds a prominent position. As previously shown, agriculture is a minor economic sector but a major water consumer, and the document affirms the devotion of Israeli politics to this water-inefficient way of economic production. The unqualified support for agriculture seems a basic principle around which the policy document is constructed, and not the reverse.
The same impression gives the choice for desalination to provide additional water. The plan does not discuss the various alternatives for extra water– conventional nor non-conventional– or opportunities for water saving (e.g. possible reduction of water in agriculture). Desalination as the most appropriate way to solve the water shortage seems to be taken for granted, without any reference to studies that can substantiate this preference. With respect to desalination, the plan is the confirmation of the water policies developed since the 1980’s. But the plan does not note any measures to receive the consequence of the choice for desalination, like increased energy needs and emission of combustions products (how will Israel deal with the engagements of the Kyoto protocol it signed in 1998) or the disposal of residual products of inland desalination and waste water treatment.

c) feasibility of the implementation
An analysis of the costs and the benefits of the implementation of the proposals is not included in the plan. This makes it difficult to assess the feasibility of the plan in practise. Much seems to depend on the administrative transaction of the government’s decisions. Anyway, the implementation fell behind at the very beginning. In June 2001, on the eve of the umpteenth summer with increasing water scarcity after a period with under average rainfall, the Finance Ministry gave up its opposition against water desalination and approved and tenders for the construction of the first plants with a capacity of 200 million m³ could be issued. In September 2001, the first tender was granted for a plant with a capacity of 15 to 65 million m³ a year (construction cost: $ 150 million). The desalination facilities will come into operation only after 2002, thus too late according to the schedule.
In Autumn of 2001, there were indications of difficulties concerning the import of fresh water from Turkey. A tender was issued to invite companies to sign up for the delivery of 50 million m³ water a year for a period of five years (when the fist series of desalnation plants would be operational). Purified water from the Manavgat River near Antalya at the south coast of Turkey will be shipped to the Israeli harbour of Ashkelon into giant tankers. Here the water will receive a second treatment, and it will be piped to other areas in Israel. The facilities in Ashkelon ought to be ready to receive the Turkish water in 2002. But in the autumn of 2001, the first problems surfaced when Turkey revised the initial water price agreed upon – and thus endangering the cost-effectiveness of the whole operation. In January 2002, the whole project suffered a major setback when the tender was cancelled. In August 2002, the Israeli government announced its renewed commitment to the import-scheme. It agreed to purchase 50 million m³ of water from Turkey each year for the next 20 years – totalling 1 billion m³ at an estimated rate of $0,80 per m³. Although this price is a bit more expansive than the expected rates for local desalination (the average basic price for desalinated water will be around $0,50), government sources declared that the decision to import water was made due to political-strategic considerations, connected to the 'complex relations between the two countries'. In fact, as a result of the setback Turkey threatened to call off deals with Israel, as the $7 billion modernisation of Turkish M60-A1 tanks and the refurbishment of military aircrafts, or the participation of Israeli companies in a $20 billion irrigation project in the Southern Anatolia GAP-project.

d) Lacking a regional approach
With this long term water policy document, the Israeli government chooses a national solution to a regional problem. In some degree the water needs of neighbouring countries is taken into account, but it is the result of a unilateral Israeli initiative. The decision to raise the Palestinian per capita consumption to 70 m³ in 2020 is a step into the direction of democratisation of access to the water resources, but at the same time is it something that the Israeli government cannot decide on its own since the division of the shared water resources (Jordan, western and north-eastern aquifer) between Israel and the Palestinian population on the West Bank is subject to a final peace agreement that still has to be concluded. The plan states that the amount of 70m³ is a figure agreed upon during the activities of the Joint Water Commission (10), but Palestinian members of the committee assert that this is not true to the facts (11).
The yearly transfer of water to Jordan is part of the peace agreement of 1994 between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom. The 55 million m³ is political ‘small change’ that Israel pays to preserve a cordial relation with its Arab neighbouring country. In practise, the yearly transfer is even larger (around 75 million m³ a year) (12).
Despite these transfers, the plan fails to look more profoundly for solutions to the water crisis on a regional level. Although it sound premature to suggest cooperation among all the basin states in this stage of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the plan might have involved at least a Jordanian input to tackle the common challenges. Looking further than 2020, it will be even harder to cope with water scarcity and development, and solutions on a regional level involving scale effects will be inescapable. To have the desired effect in 2020, it is necessary to set out a thinking process to introduce the necessary skills, ideas and financial capital just now.

Part 3 – Conclusion

Since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, no fundamental progress was made towards the solution to the water conflict or the aversion of the predicted scarcity. In the present stage (13), the Palestinians can manage their own water supply in the area where civil authority was transferred to the Palestinian Authority after the re-deployment of the Israeli army. Israel acknowledges the Palestinian water rights but made clear that this would not lead to practical implications in the field. A Joint Water Committee supervises the implementation of the engagements and discusses issues such as co-ordinated management and protection of water resources, management of water and sewage systems, exchange of information, or dispute resolution. No necessary measures are established in which additional water resources can be developed to contain the future scarcity in a structural and sustainable way. In the present situation, it is not clear when a final solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be expected.

In the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan of 1994, both countries found a way to solve their differences over the use of the shared water resource. In 2001 and the autumn of 2002, Lebanese infrastructure building affecting the water flowing to Israel from the Hasbani and Wazzani rivers, caused extra tension between the two countries. The Golan Heights still stand in the way of a rapprochement between Israel and Syria. The continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the displacement of millions of the Palestinian Diaspora will not bring peace in the area west of the Jordan River.

Without a sustainable solution for the water conflict, Israel and the Palestinians are heading for a disastrous water crisis in the first quarter of this century. A unilateral approach by Israel, Syria and Jordan, based on better and more efficient use of the existing water resources is not sufficient to guarantee a sustainable solution. Recycled and desalinated water, improved irrigation techniques, the shift of water consumption from agriculture to domestic use, modernisation of water supplies, prevention of leakage, and water pricing policies can only be considered as possibilities for the short term. On the long term, they cannot provide the extra amount of water that is necessary to meet the demand caused by population growth and economic development. A sustainable water policy can only be achieved on a regional level, and has to include the other states in the Jordan River basin in a co-operation scheme. A prerequisite for success is the joint administration of the existing water resources. Of course, this cannot be achieved without regional peace.

The challenges of combating water shortages are as massive. Huge financial inputs as well are necessary to enhance the capacity of the whole population of the region to cope with this threat. The international donor community can play an important role in providing this financial support – under conditions of regional peace. But the international community is still more preoccupied with day-to-day events like the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ and less interested in a sustainable solution that will spare many people – including those who are as 'outsiders' not directly involved - much misery in the future.

References and background material


(1) Ministery of National Infrastructures – Water Commission, Long term tasks of the Israeli water sector, Tel Aviv, 2000.
(2) Ministry of National Infrastructures – Water Commission Planning Division, Master plan (transition) for the development of the water sector in the years 2002-2010, Tel Aviv, 2002. Quoted in: Report of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the Israeli water sector, Jerusalem, 2002.
(3) In a UNDP-publication, the damage to water and sewage infrastructure during the period September 2000 to March/April 2002 is estimated at more than $6,9 million (UNDP, FOCUS, 2, 2002, p. 38).
(4) See the second part of this contribution for more details.
(5) Unless marked otherwise, the elements used in this discussion of the plan originate from the plan itself or from the interview at the Water Commissioner’s office on June 6, 2001.
(6) ‘Jewish sector’ and ‘non-Jewish sector’ is the jargon of the document. The Jewish sector are Jewish Israeli citizens living in Israel and the Jewish colonists in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights. The non-Jewish sector are non-Jewish Israeli citizens (carrying Israeli passports) living in this area, thus not including the Palestinian population of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
(7) In the 2002 master plan the overall demand in 2010 is estimated at 2,288 million m³.
(8) This is the figure of municipal and domestic fresh water consumption.
(9) 130 million m³ from potable water consumption, plus an estimated half of the consumption of water of lower quality (60/2 million m³).
(10) In the Joint Water Commission (JWC) has been established according to the Interim Agreement between Israel and the PLO (1995). Its composition and competences are established in article 40 of the agreement.
(11) Interview at the Palestinian Water Authority, June 9, 2001.
(12) Interview at the Water Commissioner’s Planning Office, June 7, 2001. See also http://waternet.rug.ac.be/ for background on the Israeli-Jordanian mini crises in 1998 and 1999.
(13) Present stage of the Oslo process: Interim Agreement, 1995 – article 40.