Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Share That Water!

In an upsetting report produced by the World Bank, produced at the request of the Palestinian Authority, it seems that Israel is withdrawing 50% more water from underground water sources (aquifers) than it is entitled to and perhaps even more than should be permitted in order to sustain and preserve the aquifer.

The Jerusalem post wrote about the World Bank Report here, but you can read the lengthy report itself, here. Admittedly, I have only read a few sections of it myself. It is quite long, but the executive summary is here.

The article raises a few points which are worth highlighting.

The first is the amount of water used by Israelis as opposed the amount used by Palestinians which amounts to four times more water per capita for Israel than for Palestinians. It is not unusual that a developed country like Israel would use more water per capita than a developing area like the Palestinian territories. The question thus becomes, what are Israelis using this water for? In an arid region, especially one that faces a water shortage crisis as the region currently does, non-essential uses of water ought to be curtailed to the maximum.

There is currently no international regime which guarantees the right to water as a human right. One of the reason for this legal lacunae is that the scope of the human right to water is unclear. Is water used for industrial uses which ensures jobs included in the scope of a human right? Or is the right limited only to needs for basic physical survival and sanitation (cooking, drinking, cleaning)? The answer is unclear, but it is hard to justify people on one side of a line basking in a swimming pool while within eye shot, people barely have enough water to tend to crops or livestock required for their survival.

The point is, Israel seems to be withdrawing more than their fair share of water, and if that water is going for uses other than basic ones, then it is Israel's responsibility to find other sources of water (desalinization, better conservation, recycling of runoff and other uses of grey water) to compensate for this loss or to live a lifestyle that requires less water. This is not to say that Israel does not already do a good job of water conservation. indeed, Israel has been a pioneer in--for example--agricultural methods which minimize wasted water, such as drip irrigation. Obviously, however, it's not enough, and the solution is not to take water which has been allotted to someone else. Which points towards the second point worth highlighting.

The report criticizes the Joint Water Committee (JWC)--established by the Oslo II peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority--for not being a fair arbiter of the amount of water being withdrawn by either party. The JWC was set up by Article 40(11) of Annex III of Oslo II. It has ten specific functions outlined in the Oslo II agreement, but the basic theme of these functions is to enhance cooperation and coordination of water sources required by and in the territory of both parties. In short, the World Bank report suggests that the JWC is a failure. It points out how Israel has a veto over water projects in the West Bank (similarly, the Palestinian Authority also has a veto as per Oslo II, but the report does not phrase it this way) and, as a result there is an imbalance of power as it tends to be Palestinians who are placed in urgent situations that require immediate authorization and under the framework of the agreement, action cannot be taken without Israel approval. This is undoubtedly an institutional weakness of the JWC.

The JWC is not unique in the world for its joint management of transboundary water sources, examples such as the International Joint Commission (IJC) which operates in the Canada US context is highly successful but mainly because the institution is respected by both Canada and the US. For a number of reasons, both Israelis and Palestinians view the JWC with a dose of suspicion and so the organization, which is founded on principles of cooperation, cannot function effectively. On the other hand, the JWC has produced documents like this one, which pledge to keep water a separate issue in times of violence. This is an important recognition of the point that both sides absolutely require water and it is in the interests of both to cooperate and preserve the aquatic resources in the region.

This idea of water interdependence is captured well in this interesting draft final agreement on water by a regional NGO dedicated to both promoting peace and protecting the environment: Eco Peace Friends of the Earth Middle East. Again its a long read and perhaps worthy of it's own posting here on "Thoughts: A Buck Each" but it's interesting to see this kind of work being done and to note that serious consideration is being given to the resolution of this issue and concerned people on both sides are working towards finding solutions, not just pointing fingers.

If the World Bank report is correct (there is no reason to assume it's not, but Israel has yet to respond to it) it's deeply troubling to see Israel is not only taking water to which it is not entitled, but may be using up groundwater at rates that are not sustainable. Oslo II does provide provisions under which one party can buy water to which they are not entitled from the other. It's unclear if this is happening. If it is, it would considerably diminish concerns over Israel's use of water to which it is not entitled. In all cases, one hopes that since no institution wishes to commit suicide, that the JWC will, upon reading this report ramp up its efforts at coordination and cooperation and begin to make itself useful in resolving some of these problems. If not, hopefully committed, well-intentioned people on both sides who depend on this water will make efforts to communicate their concerns to their political leadership.


Steve Lieblich said...

Israel has fulfilled all its obligations regarding the supply of water to the Palestinians, and has even extensively surpassed the obligatory quantity.

The authors of the World Bank report chose to ignore all information provided to it by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and declined to take the facts presented to them into consideration in the published report. They rely totally on unsubstantiated information supplied by the Palestinian Authority, which raises a serious question mark over the credibility of the report and the intentions of its authors.

See http://jiw.blogspot.com/2009/05/disrupting-tehrans-arms-export.html for more detail.

Steve Lieblich said...

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have significantly violated their commitments under the water agreement, specifically regarding important issues such as

***illegal drilling (they have drilled over 250 wells without the authorization of the joint water commission) and

***handling of sewage (The Palestinians are not constructing sewage treatment plants, despite their obligation to do so. Rather, they allow the sewage to flow unheeded into streams, polluting both the environment and groundwater).

Steve Lieblich said...


The link I meant to post, for more information about this issue, is http://jiw.blogspot.com/2009/05/israel-has-fulfilled-all-its.html

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Steve, thanks for this, and good catch!

I just went to take a look at the Israeli MFA website for more details, but unfortunately, it was down.

One of my interests in water and international water law is that water is a zero sum thing. Everyone needs it to live and so it's in the interests of all parties to share it and to be stewards of it to ensure that there is enough of it to last into the future. For this reason, I see cooperation over water issues to be necessary links between governments and an area where neighbors are forced to cooperate, lest they both perish. It's a shame to see this issue become contentious, especially if it's true that the World Bank report was written with political motivations.

I look forward to being able to see the whole report on the MFA site.

Thanks again for this positing. It's an area of real interest to me.

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