Monday, April 18, 2011

The Israeli / Palestinian Conflict and Water Rights

Bringing peace to the Arab / Israeli Conflict is a beautiful statement, but practically speaking it brings up many issues that are not easily solved.  Like many disagreements there are several issues that have to be solved to bring the main goal of peace in the region.  Some of the issues that plague all negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are water rights, the barrier wall in between Palestinian lands and Israel, Israeli settlements that have been built after 1967 on former Palestinian land, and also Jerusalem; who should control this city and this argument alone would be huge and could be argued on a block to block level. 

This particular essay will briefly look at one of the lesser known aspects of this conflict but one I feel is of vital importance to both Palestinians as well as Israelis; and that is the issue will be water rights.

I am assuming that most people would ask why does this even matter?  When watching the news, reading the history of the conflict it seems that this issue of the four seems to never be mentioned if at all.  The truth of the matter is that water probably plays a larger issue than all the others.  When all is said in done, a wall is an issue but gates can be put in, buffer zones created, etc.  Settlements can be demolished or accepted as part of Israel depending on the agreement; even Jerusalem itself is just a city.  I know many who are devout Muslim, Jewish, and Christian that would disagree with this outlook but the fact of the matter is economically speaking loosing or gaining control of Jerusalem will not make or break either state in the near future. 

With all that being said water is a major building block of life itself.  When looking at major civilizations, cities, hubs of industry and technology the main thing in common is they all have easy access to cheap water.  Ancient Mesopotamians would not have survived and thrived near as well if it wasn’t for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Ancient Egyptians were made by the Nile River and even New York City grew immensely after the Erie Canal linked the Great Lakes of the American Midwest with the Atlantic Ocean making New York City a center of industry and commerce for the United States, and soon the world.  Even when looking at the history of other cities such as Los Angeles, the city itself didn’t bloom into the west coast power it is today until an aqueduct was built supplying the city with the water it needed.  Those examples as well as many others show the importance of water to any growing civilization.

One may make an argument that New York City and Los Angeles are not in the Middle East which is true but look at population statistics across the world when it comes to where people live versus where the water is.  From the following maps you can see where water plays a direct role in where people live:

Above: The darker the shades of red equate to higher the population density.  Look at the coasts and the areas around lakes and rivers; these areas have substantially higher population densities. (1)  
Above:  A map of the continent of Africa shows population density.  Egypt is a prime example of how water effects where people live. (2)

Above:  Map of Iraq shows how population density has not changed much since the times of the ancient Mesopotamians. (3)

            Without filling this essay with maps upon maps, it is easy to see why water is essential to any population.  The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is no different in this aspect; to quote the American Historian Jack Temple Kirby “drainage is destiny.”(4)  Although this phrase doesn’t sound sexy, in fact it sounds rather nerdy; but the statement is true when looking at population density maps.

            Water, which many in the developed world take for granted is necessary for any civilization to survive.  One can make the case that the current actions of the Israeli government in regard to water and Palestinians are very discriminatory.  The following are some statistical information in regards to water in Israel as well as Palestine:

·        Israeli settlers pay $0.40 per cubic meter for domestic consumption; the Palestinians pay $1.20.(5)
·        Israeli settlements are connected to the Israeli water network.  10%-20% of the West Bank Palestinians (200,000 residents) are not connected to a water network; 9% buy water from tankers.(5)

The high price of water in Palestine has caused the locals to seek water from elsewhere; many times from polluted streams which leads to an increase in the spread of disease and infant / child / adult mortality rates.  If cheap clean water cannot be accessed, then a population will shrink either by disease, thirst or migration. 

When water becomes an issue for hygiene, how is water to be used in the irrigation of crops and for the watering of livestock?  The answer to that question is it isn’t.  Palestinian’s who once had successful citrus farms are left to scrape by for their very existence without access to cheap, clean water.  Livestock is not an option in many cases or isn’t as plentiful because of water as well.  If people were to become ill from drinking tainted disease ridden water, that same filth cannot be given to livestock or used to water crops; all those fore mentioned things are not people but need access to clean water to survive.  Livestock or crops that are watered with diseased water will suffer the same fate as a person who was to drink it, illness or death.

The following are some images of a Palestinian and Israeli villages, guess which one is which (Hint: Israelis have the access to cheap water): 

Top Left:   An empty Palestinian agricultural reservoir near Jiftlik in the West Bank. (5)
Top Right:  Israeli settlers in Maaleh Adumim enjoy a swim. (5)

            I know that not everyone in this world can own a swimming pool but can the question be asked; is it moral to own a swimming pool when your neighbors (and by Israeli definition refuges living in your own country) can’t even fill a reservoir for farming?           

Although it is easy to condemn the Israeli’s way of life in regards to how they live as compared to their neighbors in regards to water; it is another thing to say they are doing something wrong.  That issue is harder to explain but we will attempt to figure out this complex issue ahead.  So what does each side say in regards to water? 

The Palestinian side is really very simple to understand; they claim that the Israeli’s are stealing their water.  I will focus more in depth on their point of view shortly but for now let’s focus on the Israeli point of view before the essay becomes biased.  The Israeli point of view on water rights is the following; we have prior rights to the aquifer and we are taking the water though our access to it.  The best example for this argument I am going to steal off of the movie “There Will Be Blood.”(7)  In the movie the main character Daniel Plainview played Daniel Day-Lewis is explaining to Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) why he doesn’t need the lease on a particular piece of land to drill for oil because he already has the lease on the surrounding land:
“Plainview: Drainage! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry, I’m so sorry. Here: if you have a milkshake... and I have a milkshake... and I have a straw; there it is, that’s the straw, see? Watch it. My straw reaches across the room... and starts to drink your milkshake: I... drink... your... milkshake! [slurps] I drink it up!”

If that quote wasn’t clear enough look at it this way, the Palestinians and the Israelis share the same milkshake (aquifer.)  The Israelis are taking the milkshake (water) like crazy through their straw and if the Palestinians aren’t getting any that isn’t their fault.

Both sides in this argument claim to have sole access to drilling rights and in all actuality both sides do have the right to drill for water.  Treaty after treaty and UN resolution after resolution has stated that Israel and Palestine have rights to the natural resources, water being one of them.  If that was the case why can’t they each drill in their own sovereign state?  That is where other issues non-water related are affecting this one.  Radicals on each side of the argument dispute the rivals existence let alone sovereignty.  As the situation currently stands the Palestinian state does not have the ability or the right to drill for their water in the eyes of the Israelis.  The Israelis see themselves as the care takers of the water supply and will distribute it fairly.   Israel also makes the case that it is vital to their nations security that they are in charge of water drilling and that if Palestinians wanted to drill for their own water then they should have accepted the peace treaty they were offered in 2000.

To better understand the situation between Israel and Palestine on water lets first look at what water sources they share.  Israel and Palestine share two main water sources; two aquifers and the Jordan River and its tributaries.  The Mountain Aquifer which is one of the aquifers that we are speaking of is a system extending over approximately 130 square kilometers.  It stretches from Mt. Carmel in the north to Be’er Sheva in the south.  Israel also shares their coastal aquifer with Gaza on the coast.  These two aquifers are not connected.     


Above:  A map showing the location of the coastal aquifer and the mountain aquifer in Israel and Palestine. (8)

The Mountain Aquifer is feed mostly by rain water that falls on the mountains in the West Bank which then seeps into the ground.  The water then flows eastward and westward to the reservoir areas, from where it is drawn by wells. This source supplies about one-quarter of the water needs of Israel and the Israeli settlements and almost all the running water that Palestinians in the West Bank receive.(9)

The Coastal Aquifer has dropped in significance over time.  Over pumping of the aquifer has led to seepage from the Mediterranean causing salt levels to rise and also pollution from industrial complexes on the coast have led to inability to use this source of water.(10)  Israel over the past 50 years has been pumping water from this source quicker than it could replenish itself.  Desalination can be used to fix this issue but it is costly and toxins from manufacturing are harder to extract from ground water than salt is.  This Aquifer is also used a great deal by those living in the Gaza Strip as well as those in Israel. 

The second joint source of water is the upper Jordan River and its tributaries.  Some of the tributaries of the Jordan River include the Sea of Galilee, the Yarmuh River and the lower Jordan River as well. Although only the Jordan River is shared geographically with Jordan; the water Israel draws from the Jordan River and its tributaries directly affect the amount of water in the Jordan River itself. This source of water supplies approximately one-third of Israel’s water needs as well as some of the water needs of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Palestinians on the other hand do not receive any water from this source.

Demand for water in the region continues to grow over time because the population of the region has been on the rise for some time.  Also with time comes technology meaning more business’s and people are connected onto a water grid as well.  All of these things have helped led to a short falls in water supply.  As opposed to working with its neighbors and Palestine Israel has decided the best solution to this problem is to limit the access of Palestinians to this water.  By limiting Palestinian access it prevents supply from meeting demand and water prices to escalate over time.  Israel 's water policy in the Occupied Territories has benefited Israel in two primary ways:

1.      Preservation of the unequal division of the shared groundwater in the West Bank's Western Aquifer and Northern Aquifer. This division was created prior to the occupation, a result of the gap between economic and technological development in Israel as opposed to the West Bank . However, the gap would have likely diminished had Israel not prevented it.

2.      Utilization of new water sources, to which Israel had no access prior to 1967, such as the Eastern Aquifer (in the West Bank ) and the Coastal Aquifer, primarily to benefit Israeli settlements established in those areas.(9)

In the West Bank as well as Gaza the drilling of new wells is strictly forbidden by the Israeli government limiting the ability of the Palestinians to become self-sufficient in regards to water although plenty of water lies under their feet.  According to military orders, drilling a well required obtaining a permit, which entailed a lengthy and complicated bureaucratic process.  The vast majority of applications submitted during the occupation were denied.  It should be noted that the rationing of the drilling of wells is a good idea; the only issue with it is that the Israelis are biased when issuing permits when allowing for new wells discriminating against Palestinians.

Not only is supply an issue in the West Bank and Gaza, but the means of transporting water is an issue as well.  The infrastructure needs to be updated periodically to prevent failure; unfortunately some places in the West Bank and Gaza haven’t had maintenance preformed since pre-1967.  In Gaza the embargo has led to the corruption of ground water and the inability to clean their water because many supplies are not allowed through. 

In closing the best possible solution I can see is that Israel needs to put forth a consorted effort to rebuild a rejuvenate the water infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza.  If Israel is unwilling to do so then they should allow for the Palestinians to do so but sitting back and ignoring the issue cannot be the practice of the future.  The longer Palestinians go without essential services and human functions like water the more and more credibility they will lose in the international community.  This is not the Cold War, the world has become flat with the internet.  As more and more people around the world become aware of the basic issues facing Palestinians like water; the more these same Palestinians gain sympathy and the moral high ground. 

Works Cited
1.      "US POPULATION DENSITY MAP." Map. Map of USA. Print.

2.      Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

3.      "Iraq Population Density Map - Iraq • Mappery." Real Life Map Collection • Mappery. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

4.      Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Stuart D. Hobbs. The Center of a Great Empire: the Ohio Country in the Early American Republic. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005. Print.

5.      Shalhevet, Sarit. "Water Rights and Water Allocation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority." Lecture.
From On-line lecture

6.      Viklund, Andreas. "Water in Palestine « Fundamental Human Rights." Fundamental Human Rights. Blog at Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

7.      THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

8.      Wulfsohn, Aubrey. "WHAT RETREAT FROM THE TERRITORIES MEANS FOR ISRAEL'S WATER SUPPLY - FREEMAN CENTER BLOG." Freeman Center for Strategic Studies. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

9.      "B'Tselem - The Water Crisis." Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

10. Rinat, Zafrir. "Green Groups Warn: Coastal Aquifer Pollution Is Limiting Israel's Water Supply." Haaretz News, 21 Mar. 2011. Web. <>.

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