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Thirst for Justice: The failure of the Euro-Mediterranean water talks

Introduction

On April 13, the Fourth Euro-Mediterranean Conference on Water took place in Barcelona, bringing together delegations from the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership’s 43 member states to reach an agreement on a strategy for managing water and to ensure equal access to the resource in the region. The Partnership was established in 2008 in Paris by France and Egypt but was frozen temporarily in early 2009 because of tensions caused by Israel’s war in Gaza. It is composed of 43 countries in Europe, North Africa, the Balkans, the Arab world and Israel, including 27 EU countries and 16 countries of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

The meeting aimed to discuss water strategies in the region and sought “to promote sustainable development and the eradication of poverty, peace, international security and justice”. It seems, however, that Israel’s opposition to a reference in a final draft text to the Palestinian territories once again brought Union for the Mediterranean talks to a halt.


The controversial passage in question merely stated that the strategy for water in the Mediterranean aims “to promote sustainable development, poverty eradication, peace, international security and justice… eradicating the root causes of problems (including those of the occupied territories).” Once again, the Israeli refusal to acknowledge its own flaws blocked the water accord.

 

Israel’s obligations to provide Palestinians with water

By virtue of its military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), Israel must comply with international human rights and humanitarian law with regards to its treatment of the Palestinians. Israel, as the occupying power, has well-defined responsibilities to respect the Palestinians’ human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living, which encompasses the right to water and food, the right to health and the right to work.

The Oslo Accords did not change the legal status of the OPTs and stipulated, “The issue of ownership of water and sewage related infrastructure in the West Bank will be addressed in the permanent status negotiations” (Article 40). The permanent status negotiations, which were scheduled for the late 1990s, have yet to take place.

Article 43 of the 1907 Hague Regulations prohibits an occupying power from changing the legislation which was in effect prior to occupation. In breach of this obligation, the water resources in the OPT were integrated by Israel under its own sovereignty, limiting severely the ability of Palestinians to develop those resources.

The Hague regulations also limit the right of the occupying states to utilize the water sources in occupied territory. Any use has to be limited to military needs and should not exceed this purpose. In flagrant violation of this provision, Israel uses the groundwater of the OPTs in the illegal settlements.

Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits an occupying power from discriminating between residents within occupied territory. In breach of this, the quantity of water supplied to the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank is much greater than that which is supplied to the Palestinians. Similarly, the regularity of supply is much better in the settlements. This discrimination is especially blatant during the summer months when the supply to Palestinians in some areas of the West Bank is reduced in order to meet the increased demand in the settlements which receive water from the same pipelines.

The discrimination in utilization of the resources shared by Israel and the Palestinian Authority is obvious from the difference of water consumption by the two populations. Per capita water consumption in the West Bank for domestic, urban and industrial use is only 22 cubic metres a year, which translates into 60 litres per person per day. Moreover, the World Health Organization and the US Agency for International Development recommend 100 litres of water per person per day as the minimum quantity for basic consumption. This amount includes, in addition to domestic use, consumption in hospitals, schools, businesses and other institutions.

Israeli control of water in the Occupied West Bank

Contrary to the above-mentioned international law, Israel controls and restricts Palestinian access to water in the OPTs to a level which neither meets their needs nor constitutes a fair distribution of shared water resources. Israel uses 80% or more of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the Palestinians’ sole remaining water resource, which is filled almost entirely by the rainfall over the West Bank. Israel has also appropriated the Palestinians’ share of the Jordan River to add to its other water resources which are not shared with the Palestinians.

The amount of water Palestinians can extract from the shared aquifer and the locations where extraction can take place is limited, and is in any case controlled by the Israeli authorities, as is the collection of rain or spring water throughout most of the West Bank. Rainwater harvesting cisterns and water tanks on top of Palestinian houses are often destroyed by the Israeli army under the pretext that they are “easy targets”.

Furthermore, Palestinians are not allowed to drill new wells or to rehabilitate old wells without permits from the Israeli authorities. Such permits are difficult and often impossible to obtain. Even pipelines connecting wells to Palestinian towns and villages require Israeli permits.

Israeli control of water in Gaza

The situation in Gaza is even worse. During the 22-day Israeli military offensive in December 2008-January 2009, Israeli attacks caused some US $6 million worth of damage to the water and wastewater infrastructure in Gaza. Four water reservoirs, 11 wells, sewage networks and pumping stations, along with 20,000 metres of water mains, were damaged or destroyed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. Sewage treatment plants in north and central Gaza were damaged, resulting in raw sewage flooding more than a square kilometre of agricultural and residential land, destroying crops and causing a serious health hazard.

The stringent restriction imposed by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of the infrastructure, makes it virtually impossible for the damaged wells and aquifers to be brought back into use.

A group of European MPs and Ministers went to Gaza recently at the invitation of the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza and assessed the conditions on the ground first-hand, one year after Operation Cast Lead. Upon their return, they stated that “about 90% of the water supplied to Gaza residents was not suitable for drinking, according to WHO standards, because of infiltration by the sea and contaminated water. This lack of access to drinkable water means that water-related illnesses are widespread, and conditions are worsening and life-threatening. Easily preventable diseases like diarrhoea alone cause 12% of childhood deaths, and 40,000 newborn babies this year, at least half of the total newborn babies, are at immediate risk of nitrate poisoning.”

Sewage disposal was reported as another grave concern. According to Ibrahim Radwan of Gaza’s Engineering Syndicate, waste water treatment facilities suffered a “complete breakdown” during Operation Cast Lead. As a result of this, raw sewage flows to the sea and at times into the streets, with contaminants leaking into tap water.

The importance of water for Palestinians

Historically, Palestinians in the Jordan Valley earned their livelihood from farming, herding goats and sheep, and selling the milk and cheese they produced. However, in recent years, the lack of water has made it impossible for villagers to farm and to keep more than a few animals (now their only means of sustenance).

This lack of access to water for Palestinians also significantly hinders their social and economic development in the OPTs, and denies many communities of their rights to an adequate standard of living and to food, health and work.

By contrast, Israeli settlements established on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law have unlimited access to water to irrigate vast tracks of farmland. Irrigated agriculture is the main economic activity in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and most of the produce is exported. The inequality is pronounced between Palestinian communities and unlawful Israeli settlements; swimming pools, well-watered lawns and large irrigated farms in Israeli settlements in the OPTs have been developed next to Palestinian villages whose inhabitants struggle to even meet their essential water needs. Green farmlands and blue swimming pools stand in stark contrast with dry Palestinian lands and provide a striking example of Israel’s discriminatory policy towards Palestinians in the OPTs.

Failure of the Euro-Mediterranean water talks

During the Barcelona conference, the participants from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories indicated that despite disagreement on the issue of water rights, they had no option but to cooperate on the issues of sewage, waste water treatment and desalination. Proposals discussed included Israel providing more water to the Palestine Water Authority at a subsidized rate, on the basis of their assurance that the waste water would be properly treated before seeping into the aquifers. Another approach discussed was to agree on similar norms for waste water treatment to enable each to implement cooperative decision-making and create a system of interdependence which will foster responsibility on both sides. However, it is unlikely that such low-key cooperation could pave the ground for later cooperation in more difficult areas.

Moreover, the Palestinians’ inalienable rights to their water resources are at stake and should not be compromised. During the second workshop of the Barcelona talks some participants had the audacity to propose the swap of resources such as “Israeli water” for Gaza gas. Luckily, other participants acknowledged that such an arrangement would amount to a violation of their natural rights.

The failed Euro-Mediterranean talks are evidence that unless these proposals include Palestinian control over their own natural water resources, it is useless to talk about an independent Palestinian state, with real sovereignty over its water, air, land and sea.

Conclusion

The water problem thus remains one of the most contentious issues that needs to be resolved between Israel and Palestine. The Oslo Agreements recognized Palestinian water rights, but due to the complexity of the negotiations the water issue was left to the final status negotiations, which have yet to start. To this day, Israel continues to neglect the importance of engaging in serious negotiations relating to water and Palestinians have yet to be granted their legal entitlements from the water resources they own. Because the water issue is multidisciplinary in nature, any solution relating to the water situation will affect Palestinian-Israeli relations in general. No viable “peace negotiations” will be secured until Israel faces up to the core issues which affect Palestinians, who have been thirsty for decades.

MEMO calls on the Israeli authorities to address as a matter of urgency the desperate need for water security in Gaza and the OPTs, brought about by their violations of Palestinians’ human rights. The Israeli authorities should, without delay,

  • Lift the restrictions currently in place which deny Palestinians access to sufficient water to meet personal and domestic needs as well as to enjoy their rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living;
  • Put an end to policies and practices which discriminate against Palestinians and confer privileges to Israel settlers with respect to access to water in the occupied West Bank;
  • Prohibit further demolitions of water facilities; and
  • Lift the blockade on Gaza and allow immediate entry to Gaza of spare parts and construction and other materials and equipment needed for the repair of the sewage, water treatment and water supply infrastructure.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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