Encountering peace: The people's water

Well, that is the situation today – now there is more than enough water to go around.

Jordan River bridge 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jordan River bridge 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is water. This issue has gotten very little press and apparently even less attention at the negotiating table. But before there is a framework agreement acceptable to both sides, there will be discussions on how to deal with water.
In 1989, through the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (which recently changing its name to Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives), I organized the Israeli Palestinian Water Experts Roundtable. This joint forum met regularly from 1989- 2006 and even organized two international Israeli-Palestinian academic conferences on water, bringing together hundreds of water experts from the region and the world. When we first began discussing the water conflict and ways to resolve it, there was an acute water shortage. I clearly remember the experts saying that if there was more water, it would be much easier to resolve the conflict.
Well, that is the situation today – now there is more than enough water to go around.
The Oslo water agreement recognized Palestinian water rights, without defining them, and then created a model of reallocation of water, adding some more water to the Palestinians from what they received prior to Oslo. That agreement was made in 1995 and was intended to last only a few years, until a permanent status agreement was reached. The Palestinians demanded that Israel recognize their water rights because they assumed that sovereignty, which they would eventually have, would award them the water located in the mountain aquifer underneath the West Bank.
The problem is that water flows and in this case, the underground water flows from the east to the west, and Israel was utilizing most of the mountain aquifer water even prior to 1967, when it took control of the West Bank. The Palestinians and the Israelis made the error in the Oslo agreement of only relating to the mountain aquifer water as a “shared resource,” and gave authority to a joint water committee to authorize all water projects for the Palestinians.
This was a mistake because Israel essentially was granted veto power on all Palestinian water projects, while Israel could do whatever it wanted in the West Bank areas under its control (Area C equals 62 percent of the area), and even beyond that, Israel could do whatever it wanted throughout the rest of the country – without taking the Palestinians into consideration at all. In an area as small as the land between the River and the Sea, called the Land of Israel or Palestine, all of the water is a shared resource, not only the so-called mountain aquifer.
This includes the Jordan River, the coastal aquifer, all river basins and wadis – all of it belongs to all of the people living between the River and the Sea regardless of their national identity of ethnicity.
When negotiating the issue of water, the tendency will be to engage in another reallocation model that will grant the Palestinians more water. There will be arguments of issues of control and of pricing and in the end, even if the Palestinians end up with more water, they will feel cheated and the paths to continued conflict over water will be laid down. This is not a sustainable agreement that will produce peaceful relations.
The best way to reach a water agreement that will be equitable and sustainable and will produce peaceful relations is to change the entire way we relate to the water issue. First, all of the water between the River and the Sea belongs to all of the people living between the River and the Sea. All people have the same rights to enjoy that water and to have it delivered to their homes, farms and factories.
The way that this can be accomplished, which is completely feasible and in the process will create more plentiful, cleaner water and efficient systems of delivery, is to create a bi-national (Israeli-Palestinian) public- private water company which would own all of the water and operates the water system for both states, Israel and Palestine. The public part of the company would be the bi-national regulatory body, which governs the operations of the company, and oversees its proper functioning in the interest of both publics.
The company itself, which would be professionally run by the best people in Israel, Palestine and abroad, would be mandated to provide fresh, clean water to all consumers living between the River and the Sea. There would be no discrimination in the price of water based on nationality or ethnicity; there would be differential pricing on how the water is used, not who uses it. The lowest-priced water, at affordable prices, would be for domestic use, and the company would have to make sure that all consumers have access to water 24/7 throughout all parts of Israel and Palestine.
The company would be a nonprofit – there would be no dividends to allocate to tycoons – but it would have income from the sale of water. The company would have a closed budget and all revenues would be invested in expanding services, improving the quality of water and distribution networks, and increasing quantities as the populations expand. Because of the great need for water infrastructure in Palestine, the company would make significant investments to ensure that all Palestinian consumers have water delivered to their homes. The international donor community could be expected to continue to assist generously in improving the infrastructure on the Palestinian side as well.
No genuine peace agreement can contain a water agreement that continues discriminatory policies in water allocation. The water does not belong to the State of Israel or to the future State of Palestine, it belongs to all of the people living on the land, and no one has more rights to it than anyone else.
The writer is co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book, Freeing Gilad: The Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew, and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas, has been published by The Toby Press.