[News] The “Apolitical” Approach to Palestine’s Water Crisis

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 1 13:18:14 EDT 2017


  The “Apolitical” Approach to Palestine’s Water Crisis

by Muna Dajani on July 30, 2017

    *Overview *

Earlier this month, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced 
a new deal in which Israel will sell the Palestinians 33 million cubic 
desalinated Red Sea water per year, with 10 million cubic meters 
transferred to the Gaza Strip and the rest to the West Bank.

The deal masks the fact that Palestine is undergoing a man-made, rather 
than natural, water crisis. Government officials, the international 
community, donor agencies, and even academic literature portray 
Palestine’s lack of water resources as a foregone conclusion – a result 
of the region’s climatic conditions. What these narratives fail to 
address is that Palestine’s water scarcity is a social and political 
construct that obscures how Israel entrenches its hegemony over water 
resources, resulting in severe water inequality for Palestinians.

For decades, Israel has proposed technological solutions to address this 
scarcity, such as desalination plants and wastewater treatment and 
reuse. International donors have played a major role in reinforcing 
Israel’s approach. These solutions are tied to the belief that science, 
technology, and infrastructure will ensure that water is no longer a 
source of contention, conflict, and even war. But these technologically 
driven solutions disregard the social, political, and cultural elements 
of water.

This is not to say that technological advances in water are not 
essential for the development of societies. Indeed, the harnessing of 
additional water sources is needed to accommodate increasing 
populations, particularly in the face of the effects of climate change. 
But in the case of Israel and Palestine such technologies have embedded 
political motivations and uses. Indeed, we must ask: How does Israel 
benefit from these technological advancements while maintaining its 
coercive control over the water of the West Bank, not to mention its 
responsibility for the water crisis in the Gaza Strip? Can Palestinians 
rely on the potential of technology to increase their water availability 
under the context of occupation?

This policy brief examines how, in fact, Israel’s technological 
innovations operate in a context of systematic theft of water resources, 
which weakens Palestinian efforts to attain water rights and the 
equitable allocation of water sources. It focuses particularly on 
international donors’ role in shoring up this situation, and offers 
recommendations on what Palestinians can do to challenge the status quo 
and obtain the water rights to which they are entitled.

    *The Establishment of Israel’s Water Hegemony *

When Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights in 
1967, all the headwaters of the Jordan River, in addition to West Bank 
groundwater, came under its control. ^1 <#note-6518-1>In 1982, the 
Israeli military transferred its control of the West Bank’s water 
resources to Mekorot 
<http://www.mekorot.co.il/eng/newsite/Pages/default.aspx>, Israel’s 
water company founded in 1937.

The 1993 Oslo Accords established a Joint Water Committee (JWC) through 
which Israelis and Palestinians coordinate management of water resources 
in the West Bank. Yet the Accords allow Israel to control Palestinian 
water infrastructure development by sanctioning and freezing Palestinian 
water projects while also intimidating Palestinians so as to legitimize 
water projects in settlements, which are illegal under international law.

Israel is currently using 85% of the shared water resources of the West 
Bank, leaving Palestinians high and dry. Not only does Israel exert 
hegemony over access to West Bank resources, the Palestinian Water 
Authority is completely dependent on Israel as the main supplier of 
water, purchasing its stock from Israel since the Oslo Accords. And 
contrary to Israeli claims, the Palestinians are not receiving gratis 
water additional to that which was allocated by Oslo 
leaving the PA with no choice but to buy more water 
Mekorot to meet the increasing demand of its population. ^2 <#note-6518-2>

Israel uses 85% of the shared water resources of the West Bank, leaving 
Palestinians high and dry 
To Tweet 

Moreover*, *Israel has since the 1990s made huge investments in 
desalination and wastewater treatment, enabling it to become a water 
exporter to its water-scarce neighbors. Mekorot manages 100 
mega-projects throughout Israel, including 40 desalination facilities 
that provide 60 million cubic meters of water per year. In addition, 
Israel’s wastewater reclamation and treatment facilities allow it to 
reuse 60% of its treated wastewater for agricultural purposes. Israel 
outsources this technical expertise to the developing world, and its 
collaborations with water companies and governments of Argentina, 
Cyprus, Uganda, Azerbaijan, and Portugal generate billions of dollars.

With its drive for technical solutions that ignore the politics of its 
appropriation of Palestinian water, Israel’s agreements with the PA have 
addressed water as a practical issue. The established transfers, quotas, 
and swaps fail to adhere to the principles of international water law 
<http://www.palestine-studies.org/jps/fulltext/39835>, which call for 
equitable water allocations and the acknowledgment of Palestinian water 
rights. After a six-year freeze in the JWC’s work, cooperation resumed 
in January 2017. The freeze was due to a conditional arrangement in 
which Israeli settlement projects had to be approved for Palestinian 
projects to be considered. According to Jan Selby 
between 1998 and 2010, Palestinians gave approval to more than 100 
Israeli projects in the West Bank, but 97 donor-funded projects are 
still awaiting Israeli approval. The resumption of meetings and 
cooperation is far from benign. While the new arrangement will allow 
Palestinians to carry out the laying of pipes and networks without JWC 
approval, it does the same for Israel, meaning that Israel can develop 
its networks for settlements without joint approval from the JWC. 
Moreover, as Selby notes, “Though Palestinians will now have autonomy to 
lay pipelines, what they won’t have is any additional water to go in 
them – except with Israeli consent.”

    *How Donor Funding Shores Up Israel’s Status Quo*

The international donor community, in its eagerness to establish 
evidence of the usefulness of its million-dollar investments, 
exacerbates this system of water inequality between Israel and 
Palestine. Though donors’ approach has been to increase water 
availability and protect the health of people and the environment, under 
occupation this is achieved through acquiescence to the status quo. Aid 
is not supposed to be a long-term intervention, but rather should 
provide support to local actors and communities so they can develop 
sustainable resource reclamation and ownership. Considering the 
decades-long interventions and millions of dollars channeled to the 
Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) in the water sector, the failure of 
donor communities to enhance the living conditions of Palestinians 
demonstrates how aid has harmed the recognition of Palestinian rights.

Since the 1990s, international donor agencies have increased investment 
in the Palestinian water sector by constructing small- and large-scale 
wastewater treatment plants, water networks, sewage lines, and even a 
desalination plant in Gaza. Most of these projects are conducted under 
the terms of the Oslo Accords, which dictate that the Joint Water 
Committee plans the projects before any money is given to the PA. As 
such, the development of the water sector outside the narrow scope of 
Oslo is restricted. ^3 <#note-6518-3>

The donor community exacerbates water inequality between Israel and 
To Tweet 

International investments have generally focused on the construction of 
wastewater treatment plants in the West Bank, with increasing donor 
interest in the development of six major plants 
<http://www.arij.org/files/arijadmin/2016/SOER_2015_final.pdf>in Nablus 
West, Jenin, Jericho, Al-Bireh, Ramallah, and Tulkarm. Yet a significant 
number of these projects do not come to fruition. The Salfit wastewater 
treatment plant, for example, secured funding in the 1990s but has never 
been operational. The JWC has taken the project through a labyrinth of 
bureaucracy, from changing its approved location to making its operation 
conditional on linking it to the Ariel settlement, one of the largest 
settlement blocs in the West Bank that channels its untreated wastewater 
into Palestinian villages nearby.

The official framing of these projects obfuscates underlying political 
issues. In 2015, for instance, the European Union and the Palestinian 
Water Authority (PWA) signed an agreement to construct a $20.5 million 
wastewater treatment plant in Tubas Governorate in the northeastern West 
Bank. The Head of the PWA, Mazin Ghunaim, said 

    Untreated wastewater remains a major challenge in Palestine and has
    serious implications on health, environment, and agriculture. This
    project will significantly reduce health risks for the population of
    North Tubas Governorate and the contamination of the environment.
    /It will also allow the re-use of treated wastewater in agriculture
    hence conserving the limited groundwater resources in Palestine/.
    (emphasis added)

Such convictions of the need for wastewater infrastructure to replace a 
“limited” resource is echoed by many PA officials, donor agencies, and 
civil society organizations.

While wastewater treatment is necessary, its framing as an additional 
water source for agriculture strengthens the notion of finding 
alternative means of achieving water rights in Palestine. In other 
words, the focus on the potential of wastewater rather than 
Palestinians’ lack of water rights couches water as a natural crisis 
that needs a technological solution – rather than a man-made problem 
that deliberately deprives Palestinians of a vital resource.

As for the Gaza Strip, over the last decade news articles, reports, and 
international campaigns have described its water scarcity as 
constituting a “humanitarian crisis 
Indeed, the population is forced to make do with a main water source – a 
coastal aquifer – that is 96% unfit for human consumption. This is due 
to decades of over-extraction, sewage contamination, and seawater 
intrusion. Israel’s blockade and offensives have exponentially 
exacerbated this problem and solidified water de-development, in large 
part due to the destruction of vital wastewater treatment plants, 
reservoirs, and power stations.

The international community as well as the PA have since the 1990s 
framed Gaza’s water crisis as solvable via a desalination plant. The 
Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, a body bringing together 
28 EU countries and 15 nations from the southern and eastern shores of 
the Mediterranean, has particularly pushed for the project. The union 

    With no alternative existing source of fresh water, a large-scale
    desalination plant is an absolute requirement to address the water
    deficit in Gaza. The urgency for the Desalination Facility for Gaza
    has increased with the rising level of humanitarian crisis in Gaza
    related to inadequate water resources with related impacts on human

Such an approach strengthens the narrative of the geographical and 
political separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, treating Gaza 
as a standalone entity requiring its own energy-intensive facility for 
water. These claims ignore the fact that the water of the West Bank – 
almost entirely controlled by Israel – can provide relief to Gaza. As 
Clemens Messerschmid, a German hydrologist working in the Palestinian 
water sector, contends <http://thisweekinpalestine.com/bitter-water/>:

    Under international water law, Gaza has a right to a fair share of
    the Coastal Aquifer Basin. Gaza cannot be separated from the rest of
    Palestine. Gaza must be supplied from outside, just like New York,
    London, Paris, or Munich. The water-rich West Bank purchases
    ever-increasing amounts of water from Mekorot Company (Israel),
    while Gaza should look after itself? This is pure and 100-percent
    Israeli long-standing logic and hydro-political rationale. The
    historical Palestinian struggle for water rights, for an “equitable
    and reasonable share of trans-boundary water resources,” which is
    enshrined in international water law, is abandoned under this new
    paradigm. The Israeli Negev has a surplus of water because the
    entire upper Jordan River is transferred at Lake Tiberias into the
    National Water Carrier, which passes Gaza at its doorstep. Huge
    amounts of surplus water are literally flowing past Gaza, while the
    Strip keeps drying up.

Similar to the wastewater treatment plants in the West Bank, Gaza’s 
desalination plant, though constructed, is not fully operational. 
UNICEF, after decades of raising funds from the EU and others, 
inaugurated the plant in January 2017. However, by the end of February 
the plant was only running on a partial basis 
powered by emergency fuel. Desalination plants also require continuous 
maintenance and spare parts and materials, which is now facilitated 
under the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. Designed to “facilitate 
urgently needed reconstruction,” the Mechanism made the blockade its 
starting point, a move that Oxfam criticized 
normalizing the siege and “giving the appearance of legitimizing an 
extensive control regime.” Moreover, Oxfam reiterated the danger of 
separating economic and technological solutions from political conditions.

When Palestinian and international policymakers flag desalination as the 
only solution to Gaza’s water situation, this shores up the narrative 
that technological advancement saves the day, without addressing the 
underlying political realities and restrictions on the ground.

It also exemplifies donors’ naïve approach to water in Gaza and the West 
Bank. Essentially, these projects fail to challenge – and thus, even 
unwittingly, underwrite – Israel’s international law violations, namely 
its continued occupation and expropriation of Palestinian land and 
natural resources.

Moreover, the main donors, namely the EU, the UK, and the US, not only 
fund problematic projects, but actively promote Israeli technology and 
scientific advancement while ignoring the potential for Palestinian 
water research.

    *The Elision of Palestinians from Infrastructure, Technology, and
    Scientific Collaboration*

With the Israeli occupation imposing military laws on the access and 
control of essential resources such as water, as well as tightening 
imports of basic fuel and energy sources, 
Palestinian Authority has not developed substantial infrastructural 
development in the water sector for decades, especially in Area C, which 
constitutes 60% of the West Bank. The occupation’s “civil 
administration” has the power to veto 
infrastructure projects in Area C, with an acceptance rate of only 1.5% 
between 2010 and 2014. Most large water projects have been frozen due to 
Israel’s condition of connecting settlements to such projects, whose 
funds come from donor agencies to the Palestinian people. Area C 
therefore remains a site of de-development and is framed by the 
international community as a space of humanitarian intervention only.

Moreover, the international community’s close collaboration with and 
admiration of Israel’s water technology remains unconstrained and blind 
to the de-development and sanctioning of the Palestinian water sector. 
Recently, the EU rated Jerusalem 
occupied by Israel in violation of international law – as one of the top 
five cities in the world for water efficiency, management, and 
innovation. This congratulates an occupation regime for its work in a 
city where 36% of its Palestinian residents are not even connected to 
the Israeli water infrastructure and where discriminatory policies are 
implemented in order to empty the metropolis of Palestinian inhabitants 

The apoliticization of water issues impedes the Palestinian quest for 
the right to self-determination 
To Tweet 

In 2012, the European Commission and the Israeli Ministry of Energy and 
Water Resources signed a five-year memorandum of understanding 
<http://ec.europa.eu/research/iscp/index.cfm?pg=israel>to strengthen 
scientific cooperation, especially in the field of water desalination 
and energy. The British government is also pursuing such collaboration 
with Israel. It recently launched two platforms 
entail such initiatives as placing Palestinian graduate students in 
Israeli laboratories to build partnerships and “solve serious water 
shortage and quality issues.” Apart from the business-as-usual stance 
toward an occupying force, the approach is problematic in that it seeks 
to normalize the occupation given that investment in scientific 
excellence is not considered for Palestinian universities and research 
institutions. Rather, all work benefits the institutions of the occupier.

One seeming exception to this trend is through the UK’s Department for 
International Development, which supplied$1.6 million to help vulnerable 
rural farmers in Area C of the West Bank, mainly Bedouin herders, 
support their families due to the increased cost of agricultural 
production. The program has allowed the farmers to rehabilitate water 
cisterns, and has provided approximately 20 miles of water conveyance 
systems; these developments have improved irrigation efficiency 
Cisterns, however, have limited storage capacity (70 cubic meters/year) 
and rely on harvesting rainwater. As such, their rehabilitation only 
alleviates, rather than helps to solve, the occupation’s imposed water 
shortage, and in a broader sense weakens Palestinian efforts to achieve 
an equitable share of resources by limiting more empowering water 
development to small-scale solutions.

In sum, donors have continued a business-as-usual approach that 
normalizes the occupation, engaging with and funding research and 
scientific collaboration with Israel and investing millions of dollars 
in water infrastructure development commandeered by Israel. Donors are 
even rehabilitating or rebuilding infrastructure that Israeli forces 
destroy. Donors’ complicity in these destructive mechanisms contributes 
to Palestinian complacency and dependency, as well as an overall 
de-development of the Palestinian water sector. An overwhelming 
apoliticization of water issues impedes the Palestinian quest for the 
right to self-determination.

    *The Struggle for Palestinian Control over Water: Ways Forward *

While the water situation may look bleak for Palestinians in the West 
Bank and Gaza Strip, there are a number of strategies that Palestinians 
and their allies are undertaking – and can develop further – to reveal 
the political, man-made nature of water inequality in the OPT and push 
for just solutions to the crisis.

  * Highlight how the donor-led water sector development approach is
    distracting at best, and harmful to Palestinian dignity,
    independence, and overall success in reclaiming water rights at
    worst. This will require campaigns and programs that enhance
    awareness of the politics of water and demand donor accountability
    to ensure Palestinian water rights are met within the Palestinian
    agenda, namely through addressing Israel’s rights violations and

  * Demand that donor-funded water sector development projects follow a
    comprehensive and territorial contingency plan throughout the OPT.
      Such projects should ensure that development – not humanitarian
    aid – programs are implemented in a participatory and transparent
    matter so that water rights are made a top priority.

  * Strengthen Palestinian research institutions and universities as
    hubs of knowledge on natural resource politics and management, where
    appropriate technologies and applied research are produced to
    reflect the political, social, economic, and cultural facets of
    natural resource management under occupation, and develop a robust
    technical niche of Palestinian water experts and engineers to
    support local, community-led mobilization.

  * Demand greater transparency of PA authorities to ensure they protect
    the Palestinian right to natural resources by strengthening and
    actively joining both local and international water rights campaigns
    and providing a strong platform for civil society organizations to
    represent Palestinian water injustice nationally and internationally.

  * Build alliances with international and transnational movements to
    further expose Israeli water rights violations and develop a global
    action campaign with indigenous communities that actively oppose
    large-scale extractive industries and states.

Finally, underpinning all the above, it is vital to reintroduce and 
reframe the struggle over access to and control of natural resources as 
part of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and freedom.

 1. Israel’s expropriation of the Jordan River and West Bank groundwater
    did not commence in 1967. In the 1950s, for instance, Israel
    established the National Water Carrier, which diverted 350 million
    cubic meters of water annually from the Jordan River to its coastal
    cities and the Naqab/Negev region. Further, prior to 1967 Israel had
    been tapping into a rich aquifer from the Israeli side of the Green
 2. The Palestinian Water Authority states that it purchases 55-57
    million cubic meters of water from Mekorot annually, and utilizes
    103 million cubic meters per year from the basins (below the 118
    million cubic meters per year defined in the Oslo Accords – which in
    itself is outdated and insufficient).
 3. In addition, Israel has used the lack of wastewater infrastructure
    in the West Bank to accuse Palestinians of polluting streams and
    wadis. However, the JWC and the Israeli Civil Administration have
    vetoed and thus stalled the development of West Bank wastewater
    infrastructure. Israeli settlements and their industrial plant
    sewage also threaten the health of Palestinians and destroy the
    environment. Israel additionally capitalizes on this sewage, as it
    treats it in its facilities but charges the PA for the treatment.
    The treated wastewater is then used for Israeli agriculture. See
    B’Tselem, “Foul Play: Neglect of Wastewater Treatment in the West
    Bank,” 2009.

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