Erdan, PA agree: Increase water cooperation

Environmental protection minister: Negotiations must occur on basis of "need" instead of "rights."

Water cooperation 311 (photo credit: Friends of the Earth)
Water cooperation 311
(photo credit: Friends of the Earth)
While clashing on most issues fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian water crisis, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and Palestinian Water Minister Dr. Shaddad Attili agreed that today’s operations must change and that cooperation between the two entities must grow stronger, at a conference in Ashdod on Tuesday.
Since the Oslo Interim Agreement of 1995, the Joint Water Committee has served as the body responsible for allocating water to the Palestinians and managing the treatment of West Bank sewage.
For the Palestinians, this means submitting extensive plans for JWC approval – and usually not receiving it – every time they want to do something as simple as rehabilitating a village spring, according to Attili.
On the Israeli side, Erdan said that he has never been invited to a JWC meeting, and has instead spoken recently with an ambassador who may be willing to mediate Palestinian-Israeli water issues.
“We are looking for every possible way to expand cooperation with our neighbors on environmental issues, and especially with our closest neighbor, the Palestinian Authority,” Erdan said.
Attili, beginning his speech with a plea to the audience not to storm out of the room, added, “Whether Israeli, Palestinian, American or European – we are the water people.”
Arranged by Friends of the Earth Middle East, the ministerial discussion occurred during the opening session of the first-ever Ashdod Sustainability Conference, organized by the Ashdod Municipality, the Municipal Environmental Association of Ashdod-Tel Yavne, Sami Shamoon College of Engineering, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Haaretz group.
“For the very first time you heard an agreement between an Israeli and a Palestinian minister,” Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, told The Jerusalem Post after the session.
“[They] agreed that the current mechanism that is managing shared water is failing the interests of both people, and that the JWC needs to be changed. That’s a political breakthrough.”
One issue that the two ministers could not agree upon, however, was whether the political situation and water situation must be intertwined – for Erdan, the answer was no, while for Attili, it was absolutely.
Rather than discussing water “rights,” Erdan argued, the two parties should focus on water “needs,” because each side has such fundamentally different viewpoints.
“Water should be kept out of the conflict,” Erdan said, noting that Israel is willing to share its water expertise with its neighbors. “Water can, and should, be the basis for cooperation.”
To Attili, however, cooperation isn’t that simple, as it requires a level of equality where the parties are not “occupier” and “occupied.”
“The Palestinian water people see the water conflict as a political conflict,” Attili said. “But I’m with Minister Erdan that we have to promote cooperation.”
According to the 1995 agreement, Erdan explained, Israel was only required to supply 31 million cubic meters of water annually to the PA in the West Bank, but currently supplies 51.8 million cubic meters.
But to Attili, Palestinians should not be starting off with only 10% of the shared water – what he called an “inequitable allocation of resources.”
Regarding preservation of these resources, however, Erdan argued that while Israel only experiences approximately 11% water loss from pipe leakage, the PA is still at 33%, and continually sends sewage back to Israel.
“Israel has no interest in providing fresh water to Palestinian neighbors, and in return receiving sewage,” he said.
Although Attili agreed that Israelis have certainly worked hard to develop desalination and wastewater- treatment facilities, the Palestinians do pay for the additional 21.8 million cubic meters that they receive, and their applications to build such plants are denied time and again, according to Attili.
Organizations worldwide continue to offer money to West Bank water rehabilitation projects, but the plans repeatedly get rejected, he continued.
“If [Israel] prevents our projects, the sewage will come in your direction,” he added.
One plan recently refused was a desalination project for a brackish water spring in Ein Feshkah near the Dead Sea, Attili told the Post after the conference.
“I’m not intending to revive the Dead Sea while our people are dying in the Jordan valley,” he said.
Only now, after 15 years of blocking applications, has the JWC even begun to approve any Palestinian projects – including a wastewater treatment plant on the Palestinian side of Alexander River.
“We would love to build these facilities and the JWC is a huge obstacle for us,” Attili told the Post.
As far as bureaucracy goes, however, Erdan argued that Israeli applicants, too, must deal with the same arduous processes of acquiring permits.
“Shaddad should tell me if the IDF stopped him from doing this and that and I can call the general in charge and demand answers,” Erdan said. “But that doesn’t happen because they boycott us.”
Although each party had differences as to what the basis of future cooperation should be, both agreed that continuing to speak was essential.
Confident that a solution would eventually prevail, Attili lightheartedly promised to build desalination plants that would compete with their Israeli counterparts.
“We will be your neighbor and you will be our neighbor and we will live in prosperity,” he said.