The recent incident in Knesset during the speech by the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, drew attention to the water-resources aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is one of the most important final-status issues which need to be solved in the current peace talks.
An incautious remark by Schultz resulted in a demonstrative exit from the Knesset by Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and his party members, with Bennett accusing Schultz of lying. This time Bennett was supported by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who stated that Europeans should not jump to criticize Israel without checking the facts.
What did Schultz actually say? He mentioned that he had met young people in Ramallah who had asked him – “although I could not check the exact figures” – how “it can be that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 liters of water per day but a Palestinian only 17”? If Schultz or his assistants had bothered to check the facts, they would have found that these figures cannot be true, and in fact are totally incorrect. The average daily per capita consumption of water is above 100 liters in both Israel and the West Bank.
What he presumably wanted to say was that there is some gap in water consumption which might seem unfair and should be resolved. Israelis and Palestinians all need water for drinking, other domestic use and irrigation in agriculture.
Until he arrived at his water remark, Schultz must have given one of the most supportive speeches of Israel ever given in Knesset by a European politician.
The figures given in good faith by Schultz implied that Israelis are consuming four times more water than Palestinians per capita. Is this an accurate ratio? Is the ratio only 1.4:1 – as the figures from the Israeli Water Authority’s website indicate – or is it another ratio? A famous statement says that there are three kinds of lies: ordinary lies, damned lies, and statistics. Available statistics on water resources and water use in the region are confusing, at least for non-experts, and can easily be manipulated for political purposes by both sides.
The ratio of 4:1 is not taken out of the blue. The Oslo II interim agreement from 1995 contains an annex with figures. The total “annual recharge” in the disputed mountain aquifer – in fact three underground basins of water stretching across the West Bank and parts of Israel – was estimated to 679 million cubic meters (MCM) Out of this amount, 483 MCM or some 70 percent of “existing extractions, utilization and estimated potential” was at that time used by Israel. The Palestinians were using 17% and the remaining 12% were promised to them for future needs.
The agreement did not stipulate how the water should be allocated in an equitable way in the future. In the agreement “Israel recognizes the Palestinian water rights in the West Bank. These will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations and settled in the Permanent Status Agreement relating to the various water resources.”
About 10 years later, in 2006, Israeli geography professor Elisha Efrat more or less confirmed the figures in her book on the geography of the occupation. The mountain aquifer supplies a total amount of 600 MCM out of which Israel consumes 500 MCM and the Palestinians about 100 MCM.
Professor Efrat argued that Israel cannot risk that the coastal plain will be dried out by relinquishing its control of the mountain aquifer. On the other hand he thought that the Palestinian demands for a more equitable allocation were reasonable.
He guessed that the settlements in the territories are getting three or four times more water for domestic use than the Palestinian inhabitants.
The ratio of 4:1 appears also in a report in 2009 by the Word Bank on restrictions on Palestinian water sector development.
The study is based on both Israeli and Palestinian sources and is probably the most comprehensive report on the water issue to date.
It criticizes both sides for inefficient management and governance of water allocation and waste water treatment in the West Bank. Because of the political deadlock they cannot agree on building common plants to take care of waste water and sewage from Israeli settlements and Palestinian communities.
The objective in the Oslo II agreement that sewage should be properly treated and reused has not been achieved. The result is an ongoing pollution of wadis in the West Bank with spill-overs to the Israeli side.
The issue was also addressed in two reports in 2012, by Haim Gvirtzman from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and by the Palestinian Water Authority.
Both reports agree that most of the waste water from Palestinian communities currently is being untreated but disagree on the reasons why. Nor can the two sides agree on the use of treated water from the Israeli plants. There is also a disagreement on the amount of treated waste water from the Israeli settlements.
On a positive note, the vast majority of Palestinian communities have by now been connected to the water network.
While the average water consumption might be sufficient, there are huge differences among the Palestinians themselves.
Water leaks in the supply systems and a low collection of water fees are big problems.
The World Bank report acknowledged the economic and technical disparities between Israel and the West Bank. This explains of course the higher water extraction and consumption in Israel.
The natural fresh water from the mountain aquifer accounts for only about half of the total natural fresh water used in Israel.
The rest comes from other sources inside Israel, including an increasing amount of water from desalination plants. To this should be added the extremely high reuse in Israel of waste water for agriculture.
Nothing of this is available in the West Bank so any comparison between water consumption in Israel and the West Bank is like comparing apples and oranges.
Another difference is governance and infrastructure. While Israel has built up an efficient infrastructure, the Palestinian water authority is hardly capable of managing and developing its scarce water resources, not to mention the restrictions imposed by the Oslo II interim agreement.
An overriding problem seems to be the arrangements which were put in place back in 1995. A Joint Water Committee was established, with an equal number of members from the two sides, to oversee the management of the aquifers in the West Bank. Decisions were to be taken by consensus.
While the committee has met from time to time and taken decisions on developing water infrastructure and expanding water availability for the Palestinian inhabitants, it seems that it often has rejected or delayed new water projects in the territory.
With no arbitration foreseen in the agreement, both sides can veto projects they do not like.
What is required is a more constructive approach to the water problem in the West Bank aiming at fair allocation of water resources and treatment of waste water. It is terrible that the land which both sides claim is being polluted. If the parties cannot agree, they should turn to the EU for mediation.
The author is a former official in the European Commission.