Exploring Palestinian-Israeli Water Issues on the West Bank of the Jordan River
My initial trip only skimmed this turbulent surface. It is largely still accurate in mid-2019.
Plumbing is destiny. The water supply network that extends from Galilee to the Negev also reaches all of the cities that we visited — Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron and Nazareth. Israel’s expanded desalination capacity is a “game changer” that may significantly modify water issues in Palestine and Jordan, as well as Israel. The Palestinian-Israeli agreement on a “Red-Dead” pipeline as revised in July 2017 is strongly supported by Jordan, international donors and the Israelis. Israel’s plan to store desalinated water in Galilee may have major effects. A revived effort to recycle sewage in the Kidron watershed between Jerusalem and the Jordan River will gather attention.
From the Palestinian perspective, a major “Red-Dead” project could provide a significant increase in water sold to Palestine, probably based on exchange agreements involving Israeli desalinated water. Historically, Israeli enviros have vigorously opposed the Red-Dead project. The July 2017 proposals indicate that 22 Million Cubic Meters of additional Israeli water could be sold to through existing plumbing, mostly to Hebron and Bethlehem, without waiting for the increased Jordan River flexibility that a Red-Dead project would allow, A larger amount of water has been provided for Gaza as well. Water users in Jordan south of the Dead Sea would be the main project beneficiaries. This project is major element of the Bahrain economic development plan for Jordan, but it will affect Palestine as well.
The tougher issues are in the villages particularly in the Jordan Valley. Water can be a tool of the occupation, but also can draw water users together. The devils are in details and long term administration of any agreement. From a water supply perspective, existing plumbing draws Palestine closer into the existing Israeli network, and can be an argument for a “one state solution.” Governance is the tough part.
Likewise, “sewage carries no flag.” Wastewater and recycling projects make economic and hydrological sense on a watershed basis. Such projects have been stymied by the mosaic of jurisdictional complexity on the Kidron and other rivers, but may be moving forward n 2019.
Palestinian irrigation can benefit from integrated management of three mountain aquifers, particularly in the northern West Bank. With recently expanded water supply, Israeli use of these aquifers could be curtailed to allow expanded Palestinian use of springs and wells. In 2015, I did not visit the northwest part of the West Bank, where Palestinian wastewater flows affect down-gradient Israeli uses of the aquifer.
Through the Obama years, U.S. taxpayers paid about $100 million per year for water infrastructure improvements in Palestine. The annual USAID budget for Palestine has been as much as $400 million, or one-eighth of U.S. military subsidies to Israel. Israeli interests in the U.S. quietly support US funding not only for Palestinian security cooperation with Israel, but also for some of these projects. That funding has been put on hold by the current U.S. administration.
Many water professionals would like to de-link water from the big political issues between Israel and Palestine (borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees). Some very specific and sometimes local “baby water steps” have been proposed by enviros and related groups active in transboundary natural resource agreements. In May 2019, Ecopeace made a presentation to the UN Security Council on transboundary water agreements involving Israel, Palestine and Jordan, which was well received.
A comprehensive updating of the Oslo water provisions will require a long term management structure that includes both relative certainty and also flexibility. Such an agreement between “asymmetric sovereigns,” like Israel and Palestine can be difficult. However, in the western U.S., dozens of water settlements involving Indian tribes, states and other water users have been approved since the 1980s, each of which has its own unique way of dealing with “asymmetric sovereign” issues.
Neither Palestinian nor Israeli political leaders have been motivated to pursue a separate and comprehensive water agreement, albeit for very different reasons. However, in January 2017, the Joint Water Committee was reactivated after a 6 year hiatus. While this is not a comprehensive agreement, it allows some 97 Palestinian water projects to proceed, particularly in Area C, which is the zone of Israeli military control in the West Bank. This very low visibility development has allowed some projects that benefit Palestinians to move forward.
The U.S. presence in the West Bank is massive. A result is that “The road to Jerusalem often lies through Washington D.C.” As U.S. citizens we can help this region by learning more about it. As taxpayers, a core U.S. national interest is to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli dispute, which draws us into religious conflicts in which the U.S. has little stake. As a “secular christian” singer I urge U.S. Christians to visit, sleep in Bethlehem and Nazareth, wade in the shallow waters of Galilee and the Jordan River, and then sing about it.