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Political Currents of Water Management: Challenges in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan

Posted by Kate Voss, UCCHM Water Policy Fellow. This is the fourth in a series of posts on our Water Diplomacy trip to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine inspired by our paper on ‘Groundwater Depletion in the Middle East.’ Other posts in the series: 1) Middle East Lost a Dead Sea Amount of Water in 7 Years, by Jay Famiglietti, 2) Parallel Worlds:  Water Management in Israel and California, by UCCHM Policy Fellow Kate Voss, and 3) Desalinating Holy Waters with the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance by UCCHM Graduate Fellow Sasha Richey.

The geopolitics of water management in the Middle East are primarily governed by the basic distribution of freshwater resources: there are vast differences between the naturally available water resources in the region. Layer to this the additional complexity of political stability, financial assets, and other socioeconomic factors, and the potential for improved transboundary water management in the Middle East becomes vastly complicated.

Simply, some nations have few water resources and a lack of capabilities to effectively manage their limited resources – their water security is at risk. Other nations, those with more technological and economic capacity to maximize their limited resources, have less at stake. Our recent trip to the Middle East in February underscored the well-known perspective that while Israel is making great advances in water management in the region, Palestine and Jordan are simply further behind.

The actions, decisions, and processes that led to this imbalance are complex. While Israel is currently a regional (and global) leader in water management strategies, the nation has faced many challenges with competing user-groups, made trade-offs between short-term economic investment versus long-term sustainability, and leveraged its economic and political clout to ensure that the financial assets were in hand to prioritize water management solutions.

Israel’s path to achieve water management success was not simple or easy. At the same time, while Jordan and Palestine have historically encountered many struggles to manage their incredibly scarce water resources, water managers are actively striving to improve the technological capacity and policy portfolio to optimize water use in the future.

Israel’s Geopolitical Advantages

As described in our previous post in Water Currents, Israel is a regional and global leader in water management strategies. Israel has a diverse portfolio of water sources that includes an extensive supply of desalinated water and recycled wastewater and, consequently, puts less pressure on its limited, natural freshwater sources from surface water and groundwater. Israeli water managers have detailed knowledge and data about how much water they have, the precise source of that water, how much water is being used at any given moment, and specifically who is using that water and for what purpose.  Every last drop of water is accounted for. There is a direct line of communication between the Water Authority and Mekorot, the national water utility company, which allows for the supply and demand as well as the pricing of water in Israel to be meticulously monitored and regulated. Israel’s water management system is a well-oiled, robust machine.

Israel’s detailed understanding of its water resources has allowed the nation to strategically invest in new technology and solutions that allow for more stable and sustainable water planning. Furthermore, the economic and political clout that Israel can leverage to finance such solutions is significant. Without investment, political commitment, and long-term planning, Israel’s water success would not exist. In addition, Israel’s geographic assets – mainly it’s shoreline on the Mediterranean Sea – are essential to its success. The Mediterranean provides Israel an unlimited supply of water as long as the investment for infrastructure and energy costs for desalination are met. With new natural gas reserves discovered off the coast, once prohibitive energy expenses will now be obsolete. Armed with detailed knowledge about its water resources, new energy sources, and a strong sociopolitical backing, Israel’s water future looks bright.

An ancient aqueduct in East Bethlehem now runs dry and is filled with trash - a symbol of the West Bank's deteriorated water infrastructure.  Photo by: Kate Voss.

An ancient aqueduct in East Bethlehem now runs dry and is filled with trash – a symbol of the West Bank’s deteriorated water infrastructure. Photo by: Kate Voss.

Tapping the Root of Jordan and Palestine’s Struggle

Yet while Israel is leading the world in innovative water strategies, its neighbors, Palestine and Jordan, are clearly struggling. The core differences in the naturally available water resources as well as the social, economic, and political capability to address water resource management challenges was staggering. Before meeting with water management officials in Jordan, we had the opportunity to drive beyond the sprawl of Amman and into the surrounding desert.

The land outside the city boundaries is vast, dry, and desolate – there are no water resources to speak of. Communities that dot the highway are dependent on either dwindling groundwater reserves or weekly water tankers. The situation is dire. Without proactive efforts to find and transport new sources of water, many of these communities will probably cease to exist, leaving only the shadow of a civilization, akin to the ancient ruins of Petra.

Jordan’s water managers are trying their best to develop innovative, long-term solutions to its water crisis. The pioneering solutions from Israel, such as desalination or wastewater recycling, may have a place in Jordan’s water strategy, but even those options are difficult to acquire. Wastewater recycling necessitates steep financial investment, as does desalination, and these solutions often force Jordan to place its water security in the hands of another nation. Neither option is perfect. Consequently, long-distance conveyance alternatives from friendly neighbors, such as pumping groundwater from Saudi Arabia or tanking water from Turkey, do not seem obscure when forced to cope with a physical water scarcity emergency.

Jordan’s dire water situation is not for lack of effort or vision, but mainly a lack of resources. Few natural water assets combined with a weak socioeconomic foundation makes investment in long-term water strategies incredibly difficult. In Palestine, the situation is similar. According to a World Bank report from 2009, “economic disparities between West Bank Gaza (WBG) and Israel are large – in 2005, Israel’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita was almost eighteen times the Palestinian GNI per capita. Water resources availability in the two neighbors is likewise far apart, with fresh water per capita in Israel is about four times that of WBG. Whereas Israel is known for efficient water infrastructure and management, Palestinians are struggling to attain the most basic level of infrastructure and services of a low income country.”  Add to the weak economy the fact that water rights in Palestine are directly linked to the broader conflict between Palestine and Israel, particularly in the West Bank, and water management in Palestine becomes more convoluted and challenging.  Palestine’s situation is analogous to Jordan’s crisis, but with the added complexity of unclear sovereign rights to access and improve water resources.

The moon rises over Amman, a sprawling city surrounded by desert.  With increasing population and limited water resources, Jordan's capitol is already facing a water crisis.  Photo by: Kate Voss.

The moon rises over Amman, a sprawling city surrounded by desert. With increasing population and limited water resources, Jordan’s capital is already facing a water crisis. Photo by: Kate Voss.

Knowledge for a Sustainable Water Future

While visiting with water management officials  in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, we discussed the shared need for better monitoring — a need that the U.S. has in common with the Middle East — in order to have essential, baseline data for characterizing regional water availability.  Based on this information, water managers can develop short- and long-term strategies that are rooted in the reality of actual water availability and use. Without this information, any decisions or solutions are based on speculation, at best, and politics at worst.

As previously mentioned, Israel has a stronger foundation in data and monitoring than either of Palestine and Jordan. That said, water managers in Palestine and Jordan are actively making substantial efforts to lay the framework for an improved water monitoring system and are beginning to collect core data on their native resources.  With clear evidence about their changing water availability, water managers will hold more power to leverage for the political and economic support they need to create actual change. In the future, our hope is that we at UCCHM will be able to support these efforts by providing training workshops based on our research, to provide the capacity for water managers in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan to utilize new advances in satellite data to monitor and manage their water.

With these fundamental data and information in hand, water managers in Palestine and Jordan can begin to close the gap on their investment needs and to implement their own innovative solutions to tackle their water challenges. For Israel, there are clear economic and political benefits for improved water management in Palestine and Jordan. With any luck, water management will come forward as an issue of mutual interest for regional cooperation. This will, of course, necessitate strong political, economic, and social backing from national, regional, and international leaders.

Throughout the Middle East we heard that “water cannot be removed from politics” in this region. Consequently, the broader political and socioeconomic intricacies must be incorporated into water management and vice versa. With this complexity in mind we can only hope that the political currents of the region lead to improved water management and that, collectively, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan can see the benefit of sustainable solutions for their shared water future.

Comments

  1. Ben
    November 13, 2013, 2:25 pm

    I’ve never seen such an idiotic article written about the water crisis in the region.
    Blaming the Palestinian water crisis purely on poor technology is a gross mistake.

    He left out the fact that Israel steals over 90% of the West Bank’s water resources and controls all the major aquifers.

    The reason that Israelis have water is primarily due to theft, not technology.

  2. Peter Beck
    Accokeek, MD, USA
    July 10, 2013, 8:21 pm

    Believe me, I do understand the political restrictions imposed on journalists (and elected officials) in the US, but as a citizen I have no such limits on what I can write:
    http://www.ifamericansknew.org/cur_sit/waterwar.html
    The use of the words “occupation” and “land theft” are discouraged in American news sources, but they explain much in regard to Israel’s control of most if not all water resources in the region. Mr. Yaakov Sternberg, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza should have the right to dig water wells on their own land without restrictions imposed by a foreign government.

  3. YAAKOV STERNBERG
    United States
    May 14, 2013, 5:37 pm
  4. YAAKOV STERNBERG
    United States
    May 14, 2013, 5:26 pm

    If they have such problems with water, why are the Palestinians building water parks like “Craz Water Park ” (1)
    Which was closed down by Hamas/religious fanatics for religious reasons (like men and women were mingling there, and other stuff.) And then it was burned down to send a message to others not to build such things.(2)

    (1)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crazy_Water_Park http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU5NmRkaIt4&NR

    (2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=L5yepuNio78&NR=1

  5. stan kahan
    United States
    May 14, 2013, 12:53 am

    There have been reports that Syria has sufficient water and could even
    supply brother Arabs in Jordan and Palestine, the water is wasted by inefficiency. The Arabs have to get their own house in order.

  6. david
    usa
    May 13, 2013, 8:49 pm

    How much was per capita Palestinian water usage in 1967 compared to now? And no I didn’t say this already not a duplicate

  7. celo milo
    houston tx
    May 13, 2013, 8:28 pm

    The israelis run the west bank,and a the moment does not permit the Palestinians to collet even rain water. The Palestinians dont have a poor water managemment,they dont have water period.Sugest to go back to the area and better inforn urself abouth israel, palestine and water.

  8. Omar Al Taher
    May 13, 2013, 6:58 pm

    Amazing that this article does not even once mention the word “occupation”. Israel uses the vast majority of the water in the aquifiers of the West Bank, as well as the Jordan River valley. It is because of its occupation of the West bank that Israel is able to do that.
    Without access to those sources, no wonder that Palestine has severe water shortages. It is laughable that this article ignores this elephant in the room.