Israel’s problematic role in perpetuating water insecurity for Palestine

water scarcity

Zena Agha

Atlantic Council  /  June 2019 

Climate change poses an existential and global threat to humanity. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is expected to be impacted more than any other area. At the regional level, the predicted consequences of climate change are an accelerated rise in sea level, a significant increase in average temperatures, and changes in precipitation patterns. Some MENA states are better prepared than others to mitigate and adapt to these climate risks. States like Israel are well-equipped with technologies to deal with climate change, while the territories it occupies—namely Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights—are deprived of both their resources and the technologies necessary to protect them.

Israel is widely regarded as a world leader in green governance and technology, particularly with regards to water management and efficiency. It is often described by its advocates as ‘a superpower of sustainability.’ Israel has adopted advanced policies and plans to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent in the next decade and its implementation of the National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).

The Notre Dame-Global Adaption Initiative (ND-GAIN) Country Index, which is part of the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative, summarizes a country’s vulnerability to climate change as well as its “readiness” to improve resilience. The ND-GAIN ranks Israel as the 29th least vulnerable and the 32nd most resilient country to tackle climate change in the world. Meanwhile, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are not included in this index and are side-lined in most discussions on climate change altogether, even though they face a dual challenge. Not only are the OPT directly threatened by climate change, but the Israeli occupation prevents the Territories from adapting to it.

This presents a contradiction which is rarely accounted for by the international community. The ongoing Israeli occupation, now in its fifty-second year, enables the Israeli state to both exploit Palestinian and Syrian resources (notably water and arable land) and prevent occupied Palestinians and Syrians from pursuing measures to support climate change adaptation.

Prominent features of the occupation include restrictions on the free movement of people and goods; the Separation Wallland grabssettlement expansion and development; settler violence; and poor governance over physical and budgetary resources by the Palestinian Authority (PA), all of which increase Palestinian vulnerability.

Despite inhabiting the same geographical territory, Palestinians under occupation will—and indeed do—suffer the effects of climate change more severely than their Israeli counterparts. So great is the threat of occupation that the United National Development Programme (UNDP) considers it an environmental “risk” in its own right. Palestinians in Gaza are undoubtedly the most vulnerable due to Israel’s military blockade, in place since 2005.

Israel’s environmental policy is Janus-faced; it promotes environmental reform and new technologies for Israelis, while depriving Palestinians and Syrians of their water and natural resources. Water—an already overexploited resource—is arguably the most pressing resource to be affected by climate change; especially in the OPT. And despite what many analysts state, water is not an apolitical resource. The 1995 Oslo II Accord (initially intended as a five-year arrangement, yet still in place twenty-four years later) enables Israel to control approximately 80 percent of water reserves in the West Bank. Moreover, beyond what is permitted by the international community under Oslo, Israel frequently seizes water resources in areas outside its jurisdiction as a smokescreen for land grabs.

However, Israel is still touted as a global innovator in water technology, even establishing partnerships to share expertise with countries such as India. Through drip-irrigation, water recycling, and the desalination of seawater, Israel increased the quality and quantity of water available to Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem, while ignoring the water shortages in Gaza and the West Bank.

Moreover, Israel has created a complicated bureaucracy of licensing, permits, and access rights designed to control and selectively curtail Palestinians’ access to groundwater—the main source of drinking water. Israel exerts this control through the Joint Water Committee (JWC), a governance structure that is theoretically meant to provide equitable water-related decision-making, but is practically directed by Israeli policies.

For the PA, developing new water access routes or repairing infrastructure is entirely dependent on the JWC. Israel grants few permits, and demolishes buildings and wells made without them. In the first three months of 2019Israel demolished 136 Palestinian structures in the West Bank, which is a higher rate of demolitions than has occurred in the last two years. Seven percent of the demolished structures were water, sanitation, and hygiene-related.

This tangibly affects Palestinians’ quality of life. According to estimates from the Applied Research Institute–Jerusalem (ARIJ), only 50.9 percent of households in the West Bank have access to water on a daily basis, dropping to 30 percent in Gaza and often stopping altogether during wartime. The OPT have some of the lowest per capita water availability in the world, at 72 liters per capita per day in the West Bank and 96 liters in Gaza with extremely poor water quality; both less than the 100 liter minimum recommended by the World Health Organization.

As of 2013, Israel’s 600,000 illegal settlers collectively used six times more water than the three million Palestinians in the West Bank for domestic use (and amenities like swimming pools and lawns). Additionally, the destructive actions of settlers, who frequently destroy Palestinian property and infrastructure, only intensify Palestinians’ vulnerability.

In the Gaza Strip, the story is bleaker. In addition to preventing enough clean water from entering Gaza, Israel actively hinders any attempt to build or maintain water infrastructure such as reservoirs or desalination plants by restricting imports of fundamental building materials through the dual-use list.

Meanwhile, the only aquifer in Gaza faces critical over-extraction and pollution; risking depletion as early as next year. Already 90-95 percent of the water in Gaza is contaminated and unfit for drinking or irrigation. Contaminated water accounts for more than 26 percent of all reported diseases in Gaza such as gastroenteritis, severe diarrhea, salmonella, and typhoid fever and is a leading cause of child mortality, at more than 12 percent of child deaths.

The OPT are subject to the international law of belligerent occupation. As the occupying power, Israel is legally responsible to meet the needs of the occupied population which, according to the Hague Convention, includes the guardianship of natural resources. Moreover, the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids the arbitrary destruction and appropriation of property and the destruction, removal, and disablement of civilian objects indispensable to the civilian population, including drinking water installations and irrigation works. In fact, the UNDP cites the Israeli occupation’s strains on Palestinian water and agricultural infrastructure as “prima facie breaches of international humanitarian law, requiring independent investigation by the international community.”

Israel’s unequal water policy is not limited to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Syrian Golan Heights is extremely water rich and, as early as 1968, Israel enacted a series of laws, starting with Military Order 120, that gave it exclusive access to the Golan’s water resources, including a law stipulating that owning land does not involve owning the water on or under it. The effect of such legislation has been extremely harmful for the local Syrian farmers, who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods and have lost access to the water originating from their own land. They are instead obliged to purchase water from Israeli companies, which charge them higher prices and sell them only enough to meet low quotas.

There is a clear power asymmetry between Israel and the territories it occupies. This has deliberately disadvantaged and deprived the occupied Palestinian and Syrian populations. There are, of course, many recommendations one can make to urge Israel to ameliorate the situation: ending the siege on Gaza, halting settlement expansion, or sharing technological best practices. However, there is no incentive for Israel to change its policies and its current ultra-nationalist governing coalition seems unlikely to fulfil its legal obligation.

It is up to the international community—particularly those nations championing green governance—to recognize and constrain Israel’s contradictory and discriminatory treatment of Palestinian resources, particularly water. A first step is water reallocation. In particular, releasing the PA from the shackles of the water clause in the Oslo Accords and granting Palestinians full and uncompromising access to their aquifers and the Jordan River.

If unchecked, climate change will place the OPT under incredible strain over the coming decades which, in combination with the man-made and ideologically driven treatment outlined above, will push an already volatile situation to breaking point.

Zena Agha is the U.S. Policy Fellow for Al-Shabaka: The Palestine policy network, based in New York. Her areas of expertise include spatial practices in Palestine-Israel, Israeli settlements and their impact on Palestinians and the occupied territories.