The black pool of Israeli water politics

Climate & Natural resources04 Nov 2013Anne de Jong

The success of Israel’s innovative water technology is distracting attention from its restrictions on Palestinian access to water.

Israel has made the desert bloom. Despite being located in a particularly dry part of the world and suffering from years of disappointing rainfall, it has managed to create a thriving oasis through the use of innovative technology, creative thinking and sheer hard work. Israel’s experts are honoured guests at international water conferences and only recently the country was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Industry Water Award for 2013. According to the jury, ‘[Israel] contributes directly and concretely to more water – and a better world’.

Behind this success story, however, lies a quagmire of continued dispossession, man-made humanitarian crisis and structural racial discrimination that Israel desperately tries to hide and that the international community seems happy to ignore. A short glance at Israel’s clear water policies quickly exposes a black pool of power politics.

First, the Israeli Water Authority provides a clear map of its national water system (see map in pdf). This map, which uses different colours for the various basins and does not distinguish the Occupied Palestinian Territories, obscures the fact that a large part of the Mountain Aquifer (Yarkon Taninim in Hebrew) lies beneath the West Bank and Gaza and thus under occupied land.1 Through unequal distribution, restrictions on access and violations of equitable utilization, as will be explained below, Israel is therefore operating in direct breach of international humanitarian and human rights law.2

Second, only providing statistics about water use for Israel and Israelis hides the unequal distribution of the Mountain Aquifer’s groundwater resources. Of the aquifer’s potential 679 million cubic metres per year (MCM/y), 483 MCM/y is allocated to Israelis and only 118 MCM/y to Palestinians. While Israelis consequently enjoy 300 litres per capita per day (lpcd), Palestinians have to make do with an average of 73 lpcd, which falls short of the WHO recommended minimum of 100 lcpd.

Third, stating distribution by nationality (Israeli, Palestinian) rather than by geographic location (north, south, Galilee, West Bank, etc.)distracts attention from the racial underpinnings of Israel’s allocation of freshwater resources. Validated charts from internationally acclaimed institutions like the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) provide a more detailed and discriminatory picture. Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law, are hooked up to Israel’s water systems while Palestinians in that same area are not. In fact, these illegal settlements use a staggering six times more water than the entire 2.7 million Palestinian population of the West Bank. In addition, according to OCHA, the Israeli authorities ‘deny Palestinians permits for installing, upgrading or protecting their water sources to provide sufficient quantities, whilst simultaneously continuing to drill deeper and more efficient wells for their own use’.

Fourth, painting a picture of a progressive oasis of innovative water development completely ‘green washes’ the consequences of the day-to-day reality of military occupation. The technological success story effectively excludes the structural violence, oppression and continued dispossession that Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

All this leaves the Occupied Palestinian Territories constantly on the verge of a man-made humanitarian crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis because 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank do not have access to enough water and an additional 1.5 million in Gaza only have access to severely polluted and thus life endangering water. As with any use, or abuse, of natural resources, however, Israel does not operate in a vacuum. When looking at the web of power relations surrounding Israel’s unequal extraction and distribution of water resources, the limited yet important role of the Palestinian Authority, Israeli and Palestinian civil society and international NGOs should also be taken into account.

The Palestinian Authority aims to implement a more just distribution plan while simultaneously creating a water infrastructure fully independent of Israel. As such, the distribution of the Mountain Aquifer’s resources were included in the Oslo Accords in vague yet seemingly more equal terms.3 None of these agreements have been implemented and, with the current round of diplomatic negotiations lacking any kind of transparency, these paper-based regulations seem all but obsolete.4

The Palestinian Authority’s current plans for an independent water system seem nearly as fictional. In 2013 the Palestinian Water Authority put forward an ambitious National Water Plan but without the political ability to rebut or even ease Israel’s restrictions on importing the required technological materials. Consequently the Palestinian Authority’s actions have remained limited to buying high-priced water from the state of Israel.

Palestinian and Israeli civil society, and international donors and NGOs, do have a little more political power to manoeuvre within Israel’s web of control. Several local activist initiatives, like Comet-ME, advocate through information distribution within and outside the territories. In addition, they use innovative technologies to create alternative water resources to directly relieve, albeit on a small scale, local Palestinians who bear the heaviest burden as a result of the water politics described above. International donors and NGOs regularly provide financial assistance to such projects but seem unwilling to address the underlying problems.

NGOs and local ad hoc projects are saving the Territories from a full emergency for the moment. While their work is admirable, however, it also relieves Israel from its obligation under international law to ensure sufficient hygiene and public health standards, as well as provide of food and medical care to the population under occupation. It could even be argued that NGOs and their donors sustain Israel’s unequal water policies because they ‘stay away from politics’ and thus work within this polluted system.5

To be clear, I am not arguing against water projects nor do I deny the innovative nature of Israel’s water technology in itself. What I do propose is that uncritical praise of this technology combined with non-political development aid only serves to sustain Israel’s policy of deliberate dispossession of, and structural ethnic discrimination against, the Palestinian people. In order to really address these problems, all actors involved, including Western politicians, donors and academics, should start to look beyond Israel’s clear water technologies into its underlying black pool of power politics.


1 The area under the Occupied Territories depends on where the line is drawn between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The most conservative estimate, by the Israeli Water Authority, claims that ‘8,900 km2 of the aquifer are located in Israel and 5,600 km2 of the aquifer are located in the West Bank’ (State of Israel, Water authority,The Water Issue Between Israel and the Palestinians, Main Facts. February 2012, p.6, pdf). This does not include Gaza and it should be noted that these figures are highly contested.

2 Particularly articles 11(1) and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and articles 43, 49, 54 (2, 4) and 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. For a detailed description of Israel’s rights and duties under International law, I recommend Amnesty International’s ‘Troubled Waters: Palestinians denied fair access to water’, London: Amnesty International Publications, p. 85-97 (pdf).

3 The Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Annex III. Protocol Concerning Civil Affairs. Retrieved from the archive of Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 09-10-2013 (pdf).

4 Presentation by Dr. Shaddad Attili at the School of Africa and Oriental Studies on 21-22 May, London (pdf).

5 For a detailed analysis of current NGOs and water projects see ‘Down the Drain: Israeli restriction on the WASH sector’ (pdf).