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Water, an obstacle to peace in Palestine?

Ferran Izquierdo Brichs
Universitat Aut˛noma de Barcelona
Ferran Izquierdo

Ferran Izquierdo

The area around the Jordan River basin and the aquifers of the West Bank is one of the focal points of the international conflict for water resources. The reasons for the conflict can be attributed to its scarcity, the lack of alternative sources, as well as the dependence of some of the actors in the region, bearing in mind the power struggle in the basin, and due to the important role played by water in political, economic and security matters. In addition to the aforementioned factors, the dispute for water overlaps the political conflict and conquest of the region has determined the distribution of resources, whereby a sense of injustice prevails among the regions Arab actors.

The differences in water consumption are reflected in both the overall volume as well as its use for irrigation and domestic purposes. The position of Israelis and Jewish settlers in Palestinian territories is clearly superior in terms of all possible uses of water1. Currently, the largest consumer of water (in the region of 50%) is agriculture, however, in the near future; water scarcity will be such that domestic and urban water consumption will have to take precedence of place2. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is the determining factor in water scarcity and inequality among Palestinians, and as a result, one conflict is interwoven with the other. This is clearly evident today in the construction of the Apartheid Wall inside The West Bank, which not only separates Palestinians from large tracts of land but also expropriates wells and important quantities of water in favour of the settlements.

The conflict for water resources in Palestine is normally presented as a significant obstacle in the negotiations to end Israeli occupation. On occasions, principally during seasonal periods of drought, water is presented as one of the fundamental interests for Israel in the Occupied Territories. Nevertheless, a careful analysis of the situation allows us to appreciate that this perspective is simplistic and that the water requirements to ensure the well-being of Israeli or Palestinian people is not directly related, nor can it be said to represent the cause of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

For the purpose of this analysis, we will be using Guillem Farrés' concept of conflictual complex. From his perspective, in the majority of cases conflict analysis cannot be restricted or limited to the superficial conflict. In other words, we are almost always faced with a series of actors with multiple conflicts between them: "That is how we see what we used to consider an international conflict (or between large social groups) is actually a system comprising a set of conflicts and power relationships between a multitude of actors involved; we refer to this system as the conflictual complex. (…) We must identify the dominating conflict within the conflictual complex which, even though on occasions this is not the most visible, is the conflict by which the dynamics of all other power relationships and conflicts within the system are subject, and which has a profound affect the behaviour of the actors involved. Revealing the true structure of the conflicts involved in a conflictual complex, and identifying the predominant conflict, appears to be crucial in order to tackle the resolution of any conflictual complex."3

In order to analyse the conflict for water resources, we should therefore evidence the dominant conflict in this conflictual complex. In theory, conflicts for water respond to the need for water resources belonging to population groups in order to provide for their well-being needs (drinking water, food, hygiene, work…). Nevertheless, if the real objective of the disputed water were actually people's well-being, on this all the technical experts agree in that cooperation in the management of resources is essential to achieve maximum levels of efficiency and use.4 Management of the entire basin and of all the sectors associated with the water resources is essential to tackling the problems of scarcity and to respond to the needs of every member of the community.

In the case of water and the Palestinian aquifers, it is especially important to bear in mind economic and social needs, given that the developmental differences and consumption between the Israeli and Palestinian people presents significant inequality in terms of their respective needs. It is much easier for Israel to give up water for irrigation given that it possesses a richer and more diversified economic structure, and therefore it can free up significant volumes of water to be allocated to other purposes. Moreover, Israel's capacity to access alternatives in terms of supply is much greater than the rest of the co-riparians.

For example, through desalination5, Israel already possesses the technology required and continues to make significant investment in this sector. In relative terms, the cost is much lower given the enormous difference between its GDP and that of its neighbours. In addition, access to the sea as well as to brackish water is much easier in Israel. Other possible solutions might be to redistribute water between its uses, principally from agricultural to domestic, industrial and urban consumption; importing water; redistribution between territories; improving infrastructures for both channelling as well as recycling and optimal use...

Nevertheless, what we can observe upon close analysis of the conflict for water in Israel and Palestine is that the predominant conflict is the struggle for power by Israeli elites. Water is merely an excuse to maintain the occupation, and therefore the solution to the problem of scarcity and the response to the needs of both communities in Israel and Palestine, follows the same lines as the peace process, in that there should not be any Israeli elites benefitting from maintaining this situation of permanent conflict.

[1] For the distribution of resources and consumption, see: ISAAC, J. y SABBAH, W., "The need to alleviate Palestinian fears of a dry peace,"  (Bethlehem: Applied Research Institute Jerusalem, 2009).; WORLD.BANK, Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development, Report No. 47657-GZ, Middle East and North Africa Region. Sustainable Development. The World Bank, 2009.; PALESTINIAN.MINISTRY.OF.NATIONAL.ECONOMY.&.ARIJ, The economic costs of the Israeli occupation for the occupied Palestinian territory, Bethlehem, West Bank, Applied Research Institute Jerusalem, 2011.;

[2] REJWAN, A., The State of Israel: National Water Efficiency Report, Planning Department of the Israeli Water Authority, 2011.

[3] FARRÉS FERNÁNDEZ, G., "Poder y análisis de conflictos internacionales: el complejo conflictual", Revista CIDOB d'afers internacionals, 99, 2012.

[4] See IZQUIERDO BRICHS, F. "El  agua como factor de hostilidad y de cooperación en el ámbito internacional." En GUTIÉRREZ ESPADA, C. E. A., ed., El agua como factor de cooperación y de conflicto en las relaciones internacionales contemporáneas. XXII Jornadas de la Asociación Española de Profesores de Derecho Internacional y Relaciones Internacionales, Murcia 20 al 22 de septiembre de 2007, Murcia: Fundación Instituto Euromediterráneo del Agua, 2009.

[5] For information regarding desalination in Israel, see DREIZIN, Y., TENNE, A. y HOFFMAN, D., "Integrating large scale seawater desalination plants within Israel's water supply system", Desalination, 220, num. 1, 2008.. For information regarding potential uses of desalination as a facilitating mechanism in the resolution of water conflicts, see LARSON, R., "Innovation and International Commons: The Case of Desalination Under International Law", Utah Law Review, Forthcoming, 2012.