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.
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