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How water could bring Israelis, Palestinians together

A sole joint committee between Israelis and Palestinians survives 17 years after the Oslo Accords: the one on water.

By , Staff writer

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    A Palestinian farmer near the West Bank checks his crop of olives, which was damaged, residents say, by sewage from the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh.
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Khaled Mukarker lifts a makeshift lid on his well, pulling up a dusty measuring tape. Only about 10 feet of water remains in the 135-foot hole.

In the past decade, his well level has dropped by 30 feet and the local Al Ouja spring has largely dried up, Mr. Mukarker says. His land once supported four relatives and their families, but now he's the only one left, eking out an existence with his rough hands and a posse of hungry cats to keep the vermin in check.

On a recent afternoon, he trudges down a dirt track to all that's left of the 17 acres of banana plants he once had.

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"I used to give them water once a week to give them a life," he says, pointing to the yellowing 3/4-acre plot. "Now I haven't watered them in a month."

Mukarker has taken innovative steps to adapt to the drier conditions, but he finds himself at the confluence of larger forces. Water has become an increasingly political issue as the Israeli and Palestinian populations expand, straining not only water supplies but also the framework for governing them.

The Joint Water Committee (JWC), an Israeli-Palestinian group set up in 1995 under the Oslo Accords, was never meant to be a permanent body for managing water resources. Like many other Oslo-era arrangements, it was intended as more of a temporary tent until the Palestinian house could be built.

Some 17 years later, with no Palestinian state in sight, the troubled workings of the JWC illustrate the difficulties Israelis and Palestinians face in piecing together a tenuous coexistence under an interim tent tattered by lack of trust.

But despite the current challenges, better water management – perhaps more than any of the other five issues to be determined in final-status negotiations – holds the possibility for improved cooperation and trust-building, because the welfare of both peoples is linked by their dependence on this vital shared resource.

"On the positive side, the Joint Water Committee is the only committee of the five final-status committees that had some resemblance of working," says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

But, he adds, it's become dysfunctional. "It's failing both the Palestinians and the Israelis together because ... it's not preventing large-scale contamination of shared waters – shared waters of which the Israeli side takes the lion's share."

Parting the waters

According to Oslo, Israelis were to get 483 million cubic meters of an estimated 679 MCM of available West Bank water from three shared basins known collectively as the Mountain Aquifer – about 71 percent. Palestinians were to get 118 MCM (17 percent), and the right to develop an additional 78 MCM (12 percent).

Since the agreement was signed, however, key variables have changed. The Palestinian population has spiked and per capita water usage has increased, but Palestinians have not developed anywhere close to 78 MCM – partly because of Israel's bureaucratic permitting process and Palestinian mismanagement. In Gaza, more than 90 percent of water taken from the main aquifer is not fit for drinking because of contamination from raw sewage and an unsustainable rate of pumping, which turns the remaining water salty.

Israel's per capita usage of fresh water, meanwhile, has gone down steadily, thanks to desalination plants and an aggressive waste-water reuse policy. Some 80 percent of all waste water is recycled in Israel, more than double the rate of any other country.

The shortage of water is draining the lifeblood of a key sector of the Palestinian economy: agriculture. A 2009 World Bank report estimated that the sector – the third largest in the West Bank – misses out on 96,000 jobs and $410 million in yearly revenues because of the lack of irrigated agriculture.

"I don't think development of the agricultural system could happen without an increase in the amount of water [from 1995 allocations]," says Minister of Agriculture Walid Assaf.

Water usage not tracked

The exact amount of water Palestinians use each year is difficult to pinpoint: While well levels are monitored, there is not a comprehensive system in place to measure water usage.

But how much Israel provides is carefully tracked, and it amounts to more water than Israel is required to provide under the Oslo Accords. In addition, Israelis argue that Palestinians would have plenty of water if they managed it better, fixed leaky pipes, halted theft of water and illegal wells, priced water more appropriately, and implemented the many projects that have already been approved.

"The municipality is the big problem for us," says Abu Elias, a farmer in Jericho who grows fewer eggplants, cucumbers, and tomatoes on his well-tended land than he used to. But he adds that the Israeli occupation aggravates water supply issues.

Palestinians contend that Israel – which can access the three shared basins from within its own borders, and thereby outside the agreement – has lowered the overall water table in the basins, similar to the effect of siphoning off water from one end of a bathtub, says Mr. Bromberg. That has dried up wells and springs and forced Palestinians to buy more water from Israel, they say.

"Israel is stealing my water and selling it to the poorest people on earth.... That's the water story," says Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian peace negotiator.

For Palestinians, it's not just about having enough to drink; it's about Israel recognizing their sovereignty over the water resources that lie beneath their homeland. "We look for the water ... from a national point of view," says Deeb Abdelghafour, an engineer with the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). "The Israeli point of view is, 'You need water? We can give it to you from desalination plants.' Yes, we need water, but first of all give me my right to ground water."

Water projects plugged up

The PWA has proposed a number of projects designed to ease the water shortages.

One of the most important, according to a September report prepared by the PWA, is tapping into springs known as Ein Fashkha south of Jericho, which yield as much as 100 MCM per year. But the proposal for six to eight wells and a desalination plant, put forward in 2007, was rejected by the JWC.

Palestinians involved in the Ein Fashkha proposal say that it – like other delayed or nixed projects – was rejected for purely political reasons, reflecting a systematic Israeli effort to deprive them of their rights in their homeland.

Israelis involved in the JWC then and now say the Ein Fashkha project is environmentally unsound and impractical both financially and technically. A key problem was the location, which is thousands of feet lower than some of the cities it is supposed to serve.

Mr. Abdelghafour, who originally proposed the project more than a decade ago, says it's not worth trying to submit a revised proposal because the JWC has become "a useless committee."

One reason for the current gridlock, say Palestinians, is that they are being asked to OK projects in Israeli settlements – considered illegal under international law – in exchange for getting their own projects approved.

"Palestinians will not approve water projects intended to consolidate the presence and facilitate the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This is no different than asking us to approve our own occupation and colonization," said PWA chief Shaddad Attili in September. "If Israel continues to treat the JWC as a mechanism through which to arm-twist and blackmail Palestinians, then the JWC faces a very uncertain future. In essence, Israel will have killed the JWC."

Even when Palestinian projects are approved by the JWC, they often face another round of approval from Israel's Civil Administration – the branch of Israel's military that governs 60 percent of the West Bank, known as Area C. While major Palestinian cities lie in Area A, where the Palestinian Authority has relative autonomy, most of the wide-open spaces necessary for major projects lie in Area C.

"There is a second layer of approval that is always required if any aspect of the infrastructure proposed crosses Area C," says Bromberg, noting that the Civil Administration often has more demanding criteria for any given project, particularly waste-water treatment plants. "It's politics from every side. In the end, it leads to these sanitation projects not going forward."

A sewage solution?

Under Oslo, Palestinians are responsible for "treating, reusing, or properly disposing" of all sewage. Doing so could enable Palestinians to use effluent water for agricultural purposes, freeing up more ground water for drinking.

But 17 years later there is only one functional waste-water treatment plant in the West Bank for a population of at least 2 million. The majority of Palestinian sewage goes untreated, contaminating ground water and flowing into Israeli areas downstream.

"Gravity works also in the Holy Land," says Giora Alon, chief engineer with Israel's National Sewerage Administration, with a wry smile.

Sewage from Hebron, for example, flows 25 miles to the Israeli city of Beersheba. The JWC approved a waste-water treatment plant for Hebron in 2004, but difficulties in acquiring land upped the cost and delayed the project. In the meantime, Hamas won municipal elections in 2006 and the primary donor – the US Agency for International Development – backed out. The plant is finally under construction, along with ones in Nablus, Salfit, and Jenin.

"We are actually praying for it to be erected – the whole thing flows to us," says Dr. Alon. "It's in our interest."

Of the 30 Palestinian waste-water treatment plants submitted to the JWC since 1995, only four have received full Israeli approval, according to the PWA. In 2009, a controversial World Bank report accused Israeli bureaucracy of delaying desperately needed Palestinian water projects. Israel strenuously objected to the report, and pointed out that many projects had been delayed due to Palestinian inaction. But since then, the JWC has approved a flurry of waste-water treatment plants, according to a detailed Israeli accounting of 35 proposed plants provided to the Monitor.

Both sides agree the JWC is worse for wear, having outlived its original mandate by a dozen years. Baruch Nagar, head of Israel's Water Administration for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says he's not opposed to working out a new pact, but is doubtful it would improve things.

"We are seeing now that they don't respect the current agreement," he says. "Why are we going to sign another?"

But at least the JWC hasn't folded, like all the other 26 bilateral committees set up by Oslo.

Deciding whether to work within the JWC is kind of like "a choice between a camel and walking," quips Alon. Though there may be spitting involved, and it kind of stinks, "you take the camel, right?"

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