Today’s rollout of a draft model Israeli-Palestinian water accord by EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) demonstrated several of the salient but frustrating truths about this most urgent area of conflict.
First, it’s solvable. With proper planning, conservation, reuse, and production, there is enough water available for all 11 million Israelis and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Second, it has to be solved now. It can’t wait for a comprehensive peace agreement.
Third, the Palestinians aren’t getting their fair share—and it’s not just the Palestinians who are saying this. Nearly all Israeli experts agree.
Fourth, despite the direness of the situation, Israel’s leaders are doing little to create a political constituency for the changes required.
The FOEME draft agreement, written by David Brooks, a Canadian hydrogeologist and economist, and by Julie Trottier, a Belgian political scientist and chemist, proposes to get away from the zero-sum “dividing up the pie” way of addressing water conflicts and proposes to see water as a dynamic entity. The needs of each community for water change over time and in complex ways, depending on flow, technology, conservation methods, and other factors. Furthermore, quantity is not the only issue. Increasingly, quality is also important, and as reuse methods improve and rains fail, Israel and the Palestinian Authority find themselves battling not just over ground water but over waste water as well.
They therefore suggest the establishment of a network of expert committees and mediation boards that would address water issues, local and national, as they come up, and reach decisions based on the best available scientific and social knowledge. The principles underlying the decisions would be equitable (not equal) distribution and the “no harm” dictum—that is, respect for the way the societies already use and distribute water.
The problem, as pointed out by Hillel Shuval, the dean of Israel’s water experts, is that the proposed mechanism of cooperation has to start from somewhere, and it starts from a status quo ante in which the Palestinians are not getting their fair share. It’s hard to see how any Palestinian government would agree to sign on to a compact without knowing how much more water its people would get, just as it is hard to imagine an Israeli government signing a treaty without knowing how much water it would have to give up.
Brooks and Trottier offered differing responses to this critique. Brooks said that the cooperation framework could begin only after an initial redistribution of water rights in favor of the Palestinians. Trottier anticipated that adopting the mechanism would able the Palestinian Authority and individual Palestinian communities to petition immediately for their water rights under the principle of equity. But she acknowledged that the process would take a long time.
One of the reasons for the failure of the Oslo peace accords was that they were vague about what the ultimate outcome of peace negotiations would be. In particular, the Palestinians were not guaranteed a state, which gave them less of a stake in the process. A water agreement has to avoid that trap.
There’s no choice but for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sit down and begin a nuts-and-bolts discussion of a new and equitable water regime. The Israeli government has been dragging its feet for too long. The fact is that, with a network of desalination plants in the works, Israel can afford to do this. But it won’t happen if its leaders don’t do their political homework, creating a consensus in the Israeli public that a new policy is not only vital but also in Israel’s ultimate interests. Ironically, ceding water to the Palestinians is the best way for Israel to ensure the quality and future of its own water supply.