A water war in the West Bank

Jacob writes*

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, water is not treated as a human right. It is a political tool, historically disputed in agreements between Israel and Palestine that is still part of the ongoing conflict. In a notoriously water scarce region, these facts create misery, anger and institutional gridlocks.

How does this affect citizens in the West Bank, which is located over the Mountain Aquifer and is divided into 3 parts (see picture)? The problem is not availability – the aquifer carries enough water to supply the entire West Bank population. Although being slowly depleted, this stems mainly from excessive withdrawals on the Israeli side, and diminishing quality through the absence of widespread sewer systems (only 30% of the population has access to sewers, the majority of wastewater is disposed in cesspits, which themselves have questionable efficiency [pdf]). The main problems are ineffective water policies.

Admittedly, the starting point is uncomfortable: 35% of water is Non-Revenue (NRW), that means it leaks from damaged pipes. Water distributed by the Palestinian Authority is often delivered by Israel, which means they have power to close the taps. In some regions during summer, the pipes open only once per 14 days. When this runs out, “trucked” water is available [pdf] at high prices.  Projects to improve water infrastructure in the West Bank have to pass through the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC), in which Israel has a veto. 100% of Israeli projects in the West Bank were passed, as opposed to 56% of Palestinian ones. Infrastructure created without permits is destroyed. Water utilities are decentralized, although under supervision of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), and the service providers are unable to cover operating costs with revenues [pdf] and are therefore dependent on subsidies.

All this is happening on top of the increasing depletion of the Mountain Aquifer, which still provides 95% of water for Palestinians in the West Bank.

The bleak outlook offers many opportunities for improvement. Removing the institutional gridlock that legally prevents Palestinians from managing their own water is a necessary first step. Of course, this depends mainly on the political situation, but collaborating with one of the world’s leading countries in water expertise holds many promises. Additional solutions would be reallocation of financial resources, and creation of larger-scale infrastructure, with a focus on wastewater treatment to “recycle” water in a notoriously water scarce region.

Bottom Line: A region in scarcity, a population in distress – this is the time for water managers to step in and work together on solutions that provide a basis of development for a long-neglected people.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “A water war in the West Bank”

  1. What an interesting read Jacob! I am really interested in the level of “cooperation” which takes place between Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC). Understanding this institution seems crucial to finding a solution to the challenge! I do not know if you are interested in legal remedies but I suggest you turn to the literature on International Humanitarian law, more specifically what the laws of occupation have to say about natural resources and rights. Legal pathways can potentially remedy the institutional gridlock even though the prospects for this seem farther and farther away. I also remember being stunned by the economic cost of the water conflict to Israel that was discussed in David Zetland’s book. I wonder if this can affect incentives on the Israeli side for peace. One thing is for sure, I am looking forward to reading your final case study!

    1. Hi Nico, thank you for the comment! The JWC is certainly very interesting. It was established under Oslo 2, and originally designed to facilitate the transition of the West Bank to Palestinian control. Like the rest of the Oslo accords, it is now still the status quo, but the way it is used has changed significantly; resulting in a power tool in the conflict. There are a lot of controversies surrounding the JWC, and at one point, Palestinians effectively boycotted it for years, which led to even less restraint on either side to pull through with their respective projects and logically entailed more tension and less room for consensus on these issues. Talking about economic costs, Israel still holds a lot more economic power in comparison to the Palestinian Authority. Given the institutional gridlock, that lets Israel “harvest” almost the entirety of the Mountain Aquifer, the only significant water resource in the West Bank, the PA hardly has a good basis for exerting pressure with this resource. In the current moment, I personally think that an ideological shift has to occur in order to bend these (as we have seen in the past on various issues, not just the water conflict) highly flexible institutions.

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