Opinion

How the Environment Can Bridge the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse

Palestinians and Israelis may be politically separate, but their environmental interdependence is inescapable. The supply and treatment of water is one issue that can be leveraged for a limited form of cooperation - in both sides’ self-interest.

Efrat Settlement seen above trees of the West Bank village Artas, 2007.
Tess Scheflan

Last summer I witnessed first-hand the water shortages faced by Palestinians in their homes.

I met with Palestinian youth in Yatta who told me that they received municipal water as infrequently as once a month. I followed a polluted stream, originating in the West Bank city of Hebron, where domestic and industrial sewage was being released untreated into the stream that then flowed to the Israeli city of Beersheva. I met the proud mayor of the Israeli Eshkol Regional Council, opposite Gaza, who despite the last war and his own personal loss (both of his legs were cut off by a Hamas rocket) told me that his community would never have peace if Gaza remained in ruins, without even clean water.

I then journeyed into Gaza myself and saw children standing in line waiting to fill jerry cans with potable water distributed by private vendors, given that in their homes the water flowing from their taps was both too saline and polluted to drink. I saw streams of raw sewage in the street, polluting ground water and then flowing into the Mediterranean Sea, destined northwards to contaminate Israeli beaches.

The visit made clear to me how, no matter what the temperature of the political environment is, or how engaged each side is politically with the other, the Israeli and Palestinian environments are inextricably bound together and interdependent in terms of the natural environment and their use of a critical natural resource: water. That fact should also function as the motivation for a form of cooperation that improves lives and preserves the region's ecology independent of the progress of other issues related to the peace process.

In recent years I hear people in Israel, a country that's an integral part of my life and my family history, speak less about peace and more about building walls and strengthening ‘fortress Israel’, protecting themselves from an increasingly incendiary geo-political landscape. But despite the complexity and intractability of the problems here, issues surrounding water are one element that carries far less political baggage and can act as an important milestone on the path to a stable future for the region. And it can be solved today.

One of the five pillars of the Oslo peace process was water, (together with borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements). Despite the disruptions and paralysis of the overall process, Israel and the Palestinians could still reach a new agreement on water issues - and it could happen immediately.

Largely due to Israel’s leadership in water technology, a new agreement on the fair apportion and sustainable management of shared Israeli Palestinian waters could today be in easy reach. Thanks mostly to desalination, for the first time in Israel’s history, Israel has excess water. Israel has today the built capacity to produce more desalinated water then she can consume.

This means that the natural water shared between Israelis and Palestinians can be more fairly distributed without any sector in Israel seeing a reduction in allocation. In other words, with regards to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, water is no longer a zero sum game but a win-win one, with the added value of imparting a valuable lesson about mutual dependence and responsibility.

On water and environment there is much more that can be done now. Last year, Israel agreed to double the sale of potable water to Gaza from 5 to 10 million cubic meters (mcm). However Gaza needs five times more than this - an additional 50 mcm annually for basic domestic needs.

Until the details of building a large desalination plant in Gaza are fully worked out by the international community, it is in Israel’s interest to double again the water supplied to Gaza now. The Nachal Oz fresh water pipeline, linking Israel with Gaza, has the capacity to carry the additional water needed and it’s not a gift: the international community is willing to pay.

On wastewater treatment the World Bank is near completion of a new sewage treatment plant that would treat a third of Gaza’s sewage. For three years, the World Bank has requested additional electricity from Israel, needed to guarantee the operation of the treatment plant (people in Gaza have only 6-8 hours of power a day) but failed to get a response, until the NGO EcoPeace Middle East, on whose advisory committee I sit, revealed through a freedom of information request that Israel’s Ashkelon desalination plant had been closed down at least twice this year due to pollution from Gaza. Several weeks ago Israel agreed to supply the electricity needed.

Looking at the water and sanitation issues facing Gaza alone, we must recognize the pending regional disaster and severe threat to Israel herself. 95% of the groundwater of Gaza is either too saline or too polluted to drink. The sewage of 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza is either poorly treated or not treated at all.  The sewage contaminating the coastal aquifer is shared with Israel and an estimated 90 million liters of sewage per day, flow into the Mediterranean Sea carried by the currents towards Ashkelon and its desalination plant. Poor sanitation in Gaza risks the outbreak of pandemic disease. Even Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu noted these concerns, in June: “It is in Israel’s clear interest to deal with the water problem in the Gaza StripWhen the aquifers become polluted, this is not limited to the Gaza side of the aquifer but also passes over to the aquifer on our side.outbreaks do not stop at the fences.” 

With international support it’s time for Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to solve the water and sanitation issues across Israel and the Palestinian Territories. There are no favors being done here but self-interest with clear mutual gains for everyone. And no time to lose.

Kate Rothschild is a member of the International Advisory Committee of EcoPeace Middle East.