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Fact Sheets


Water

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Much of the eastern Mediterranean region can be generally described as arid and semi-arid. The average rainfall over the combined area of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and theGolan is just over one foot per year, nearly as dry as Tucson, Arizona. New York City, by contrast, averages more than four feet of precipitation each year.

Precipitation over Israel and the Palestinian areas is also quite variable in terms of space and time. The Golan, Upper Galilee, and the West Bank highlands receive by far the most rain (as well as some snow in the winter), while the coastal plain receives something approaching the regional average. The Jordan Valley, Negev, and Arava deserts rarely exceed four inches (roughly 100 mm) of rain each year. The entire region receives effectively all of its rain between October and April and extended droughts have occurred repeatedly over the past half-century.

Water scarcity has forced limits on the growth of human civilizations in the Middle East for generations, but what makes the Israeli-Palestinian case so complicated is the fact that most of the region's rivers and aquifers are transboundary in nature. Both the waters of the Jordan River system and the major aquifers of the region cross international boundaries (including the "Green Line" between Israel and the occupied territories). Indeed, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon can make reasonable claims to the shared water resources of the region. There exists no definitive legal resolution of competing claims for water rights in the region, and each country that is party to the water disputes can point to a legitimate international legal precedent to support its position with respect to any particular resource. There is really no such thing as "Israeli" or "Palestinian" water in either the hydrologic or international legal sense, since there is no clear scientific or legal tool available to decide whether a river which originates in Israel and flows naturally into the West Bank or Gaza is "Israeli" or "Palestinian." the same can be said for aquifers that tend to flow from the West Bank into Israel, or from Israel into Gaza.

International law on transboundary rivers, lakes, and aquifers emerges primarily from established customary precedent as well as bilateral and multilateral agreements. There is a UN Convention on the non-navigational uses of international watercourses, and Israel has signed bilateral agreements with both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority that contain sections on water resources. Still, disputes over Mideast water remain largely unresolved, in large part because both the principles of the UN Convention and the provisions of the bilateral agreements are vague. Fairness in the distribution of water, the avoidance of harm, and respect of historic precedent are all emphasized in both the UN Convention and the treaties, but water scarcity persists and is very likely to get more acute in coming decades in the absence of action, contributing to both human suffering and diplomatic tension between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

The allocation of water resources in the region has occurred not according to international legal or diplomatic resolutions, but instead via a series of unilateral steps. In the 1960s, Israel completed its National Water Carrier (NWC), which transports water from the Sea of Galilee to the Israeli Coastal Plain and further south, thereby diverting water that would have flowed naturally south into the West Bank via the Jordan Valley. Jordan's King Abdullah Canal, completed around the same time as the NWC, diverts water from the Yarmouk basin into the East Bank of the Lower Jordan River. Together, these projects deny the Palestinians several hundred million cubic meters of water each year. Israel also controls the vast majority of the groundwater of the West Bank by managing Palestinian aquifer withdrawals. On both a per-capita and absolute basis, Israel uses far more water than the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians.

The steadily increasing combined populations of Israel, the Palestinian areas, Jordan, and Syria have resulted in a situation in which the region's water resources are being depleted at rates far higher than they are naturally replenished. The Jordan River system is exploited to its limit, such that the outflows from the Sea of Galilee, the region's only major surface water reservoir, have been reduced to a trickle, resulting in an accelerated decline in the elevation of the Dead Sea. The water levels of the region's aquifers are also dropping, amounting to borrowing water against future supply. Add to this, serious pollution threats to the region's surface and ground waters, and one finds an unmistakable crisis with no resolution in sight.

Competing water-using sectors are an added source of complexity. Israeli water use has historically been dominated by agricultural irrigation, but municipal water demand is now approaching agricultural levels. Much attention has been paid to heavy Israeli government subsidy of agricultural costs, including water, but it must be noted that Israel has developed the most water-efficient agricultural water sector in the world. Still, the growth of urban and suburban populations have resulted in a renewed evaluation of the agricultural dominance of the water controlled and used by Israel. In the meantime, Palestinian water use is generally restricted to the municipal and limited commercial and industrial sectors, since Israel has limited Palestinian extraction of groundwater for irrigation purposes. A worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian water situation is not a foregone conclusion, but resolving the crisis will require innovation, cooperative action, and the boldness to make difficult decisions.

The available stock of freshwater is not necessarily restricted to rivers, lakes, and aquifers, Reclamation of seawater and wastewater lift the upper limit on water availability, but these will require substantial financial investment. Important foreign aid assistance to promote these measures has thus far been linked to diplomatic progress between Israel and the Palestinians, and many water-related projects funded by the Europeans, Japanese, and the US languish while political tensions and violence persist.

More broadly, all sides need to recognize that cooperative, system-wide management of the shared resources provide the potential to improve the water situation of each. Israeli and Palestinian water scientists have established important professional contacts in spite of the higher political tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and together could develop innovative solutions. Most importantly, a recognition by all parties that traditionally maintained sovereignty arrangements for water, in which proprietary claims are made over distinctly transboundary resources, must cease in favor of the synergistic gains made possible by cooperative action.

Prepared by Jeff Albert, AAAS Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, and a Visiting Scholar at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

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