Sunday, March 8, 2009

Neighbours Shouldn't Let Neighbours Go Thirsty

According to official reports, despite being in a period of water shortage, Israel has been exceeding its agreements to provide water to its neighbors by supplying more than the amounts agreed upon. This article asks whether Israel should be sharing its water or if Israel should adopt an approach whereby less water is shared.

Though the article does not explicitly answer the question, it raises a few points explaining what the advantages of continuing to provide water to ones neighbors are. One of these relates to international law while the other relates to international relations.

International law applies here not only because Israel has agreements with its neighbors to share water that must be respected but also because, the article says, water is a human right. This is true, but the limitations of this right are much less clear. Water for basic uses such as drinking and bathing is necessary, but it is less clear that the use of water for industrial, purposes, for example, qualifies as part of this right. This is an issue in international law that remains undecided. A challenge for future water negotiations will be to develop a hierarchy of uses for water and some sort of schedule to determine which countries must cut off water to which uses in times of severe shortages.

Another question is how can a state ensure supplies of water when it's dependent on rivers that originate in a foreign state to flow into their own territory? Normally, this situation is dealt with cooperatively, but in the case of Lebanon and Israel and Syria and Israel, where diplomatic relations don't exist, it's difficult for Israel to address a situation where Syria or Lebanon reduces the water supply to Israel. It is not the first time that the middle east has been in a situation where water shortages required cooperation between enemies for resolution.

In 2005, I discussed how these sorts of agreement take place with a former Israeli water negotiator and previous Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Allan Baker. He explained how though a state of war existed between Israel and Jordan at the time he was a negotiator, he met with his Jordanian counterpart in the presence of a UN mediator. According to Ambassador Baker, the UN mediator didn't say a word as Israeli and Jordanian negotiators worked together towards agreement. An excellent book on these negotiations was written by Ambassador Baker's Jordanian counterpart, Munther Haddadin. Check it out here.

Another case was the Johnston Plan where U.S. diplomats commit shuttle diplomacy to develop agreement between Israel and its neighbors to share water. For anyone with some time, this article which explains the plan is quite good. At first, one of the objections to the plan raised by Arab countries was the concern that an agreement on water would be a step towards the normalization of relations with Israel. This concern raises an important point: since water is needed by all, regardless of nationality, and since water resources are finite, they must be shared; this sharing requires cooperation and could lead to closer relations. In effect, cooperation on water issues can be used as an important bridge for peacebuilding.

Discussion between Israel, Lebanon and Syria for water is a valuable way to open relations between these countries. Water, being a resource needed by all is a good first step towards opening a wider dialogue, especially if agreements resulting from these discussions are respected and as a result, confidence and trust is built. It is also encouraging to see how water cooperation is deepening relationships between parties with whom Israel has already signed broader peace agreements. Local level cooperation between Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians is being fostered by the NGO "Friends of the Earth Middle East." This article by a member of the group explains the cooperation envisaged and goes into greater detail on the challenges faced. This is a valuable opportunity not only to benefit the environment, deepen international relationships but also develop personal human connections between people in these three states that have at best, a cold peace.


Blackstar said...

The article from Ynet you cite is simplistic and omits crucial facts. FOr one, it never even says which agreements it keeps mentioning and based on which, Israel's transfers of water are allegedly in excess. First of all, there is a water sharing agreement in place between Jordan and Israel, but there is none between Israel and the Palestinians, excpet for the Oslo II agreement, which deals with water very superficially.

The article also makes it looks like Israel is some kind of benefactor, acting out of pure generosity and charity, by giving away something precious that it needs itself for its survival. Give me a break. No state is that nice. And the article makes itself something quite complicate sound ridiculously naive.

With regard to Israel giving water to Palestinians, it's not a charitable action of goodwill. Israel, as the occupier of the West Bank, has the duty under Geneva Convention IV, to no appropriate any natural resources in the occupied land. On the contrary, what Israel did in August 1967,very shortly after the war, is issue a military order through which it forbade Palestinians from exploiting water resources on their own land. In fact, and in effect, Palestinians are not allowed to drill wells on their own lands unless they obtain a permit from the Israeli Military Commander, who in the great majority of cases, refuses.

The other fallacy in this article, is that it makes it sound like the Palestinians are laying claims to something they are not entitled to:
"The Palestinians have also made claims to rights of the water in the Jordan River Basin and the Mountain Aquifer."
I won't even go into the Jordan River Basin, but considering the fact that the Mountain Aquifer is located directly underneath the West Bank, I don't see why they would NOT have claims to its waters. Most international and Israeli scholars agree. The only issue there is how to divide the resources between Israel and a potential Palestinian state.

Lastly, it is generally and widely accepted that water access in the West Bank and Gaza is severely inadequate and insufficient to meet the needs of the population. This has been covered not only by international organizations, but by local Israeli NGO's as well. According to B'tselem, per capita use of water in Israel is four and a half times higher than in the Occupied Territories, who suffer from acute shortages of water. Also, in Gaza, water is so high in salt content that it consituttes a health hazard according to the World Health Organization.
Have a look at B'Tselem's reports on the water crisis:

The article you cite looks like it's painting a picture from another world.

Lirun said...

some links from my blogland about this include:


Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Blackstar, thank you for our thoughtful post.

I agree with you that the article in question is indeed simplistic and ignores harsh existing realities. The veracity of the article, however, was not my message nor the focus of my post.

My goal was to use an issue being discussed in Israeli media to examine a question the piece asked, to demonstrate how water can be a launching point from which to build bridges of cooperation and to highlight certain cooperation which already takes place.

I also want to thank you for the link to the B'Tselem website. They provide a good overview of the water situation, though on strict technical grounds, I would disagree with their assessment of international public law and its application to water.

The principle of equitable and reasonable use they cite is only one of the four leading theories on water in international law. It happens to be amongst my top two preferred interpretations, but a case can be made for absolute territorial sovereignty over water--the Harmon Doctrine--by which a state may claim to use any water within its borders as it wishes. This, interpretation, for example, would allow Israel to not share any of its water and to use as much as the Mountain Aquifer as it wished by drilling a well into the groundwater on the pre-1967 side of the border. Like I said, however, this is the most extreme of the dominant theories and is clearly not the argument Israel is making in this case. The Harmon Doctrine is most popular in the U.S., where it was developed.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Lirun, thank you for the links. I didn't realize just how active and/or well known the work of Friends of the Earth is.

PSim said...