Half a year ago, Amnesty International published a report on Palestinian access to water called ”Thirsting for Justice,” in which it largely blamed Israel for the Palestinians’ water woes.
Now Alon Tal, one of Israel’s leading environmentalists, has come out with a reasoned but impassioned critique of Amnesty’s victimization narrative, along with sober recommendations for a regional water policy that can serve the very real needs of the inhabitants of this increasingly dry area of the world. It’s called “Thirsting for Pragmatism: A Constructive Alternative to Amnesty International’s Report on Access to Water,” and it appears in the new issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. It’s a 16-page, well-written read and I recommend it in its entirety on all levels—as fine policy analysis, as scathing attack on those for whom Israel is always the villain, and as an example of how, even in the midst of the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians can and must address vital environmental problems that will bury us all if we don’t cooperate.
But I offer a few selections for the rushed. First the basic facts:
Thirsting for Justice contains so much arbitrary, biased, and anecdotal disinformation that it is easy to lose sight of a basic truth about the region’s water conditions that is contained in the report: The amount of water available to Palestinian communities is inadequate, and its quality is frequently unacceptable. Recognizing this intolerable situation is an important point of departure for all parties when considering solutions. At the same time, the low level of Palestinian access to water is a symptom of a complex reality….
And the best way of dealing with it:
For years, Israeli water experts have tried to focus discussions on actual water “needs” (which presumably can be agreed upon), rather than water rights, which remain disputed. Ultimately, the transformation of water into a commercial commodity that can be produced through industrial processes based on brackish or sea water and sold across national borders is an excellent development for the Middle East. A dispassionate, economic “optimization” of water resources is a constructive response to the pervasive scarcity. Privatized or public water sales can go a long way toward diffusing what Professor Hillel Shuval calls the region’s “hydro hysteria,” which characterizes the local water discourse but hardly serves either side’s interests….
Israel is hardly blameless, but the Palestinians share responsibility:
There are surely cases in which Israeli military and civil authorities have been draconian about granting permits for water infrastructure projects. At the same time, concerns about Palestinian hydro-anarchy are not without foundation. It is hard to understand how Amnesty conveniently avoided any mention of the well documented lawlessness and appalling level of compliance with Palestinian water regulation in the West Bank and Gaza….
We’re all in this together:
The Jordan River Basin, like the rest of the region, has seen a precipitous drop in rainfall. This no longer looks like a protracted drought, but rather a new and drier equilibrium. Israel’s Water Authority reports an average drop in water resources of over 10 percent during the past two decades. Traditional rhetoric demanding water rights assumes a level of water resources that is no longer valid. Sustainable water management for both sides requires immediate additional sources of water—be they from desalinated seawater or recycled effluents….
And in conclusion:
This litany of critiques of the Amnesty report in no way exonerates Israel as part of the problem associated with poor water conditions that many Palestinians face. Yet, it also suggests that the Palestinian government and its Water Authority share responsibility for finding a solution. Reports like “Thirsty for Justice,” the primary purpose of which appears to be blaming Israel for Palestinian water woes, are not only substantively inaccurate but tactically foolish. If Palestinians do not begin investing in retrofitting urban water delivery, desalination plants, modern sewage infrastructure, as well as shutting down unlicensed wells and controlling population growth, no reforms and new allocation schemes will be sustainable.