BACKGROUNDER: Does Israel Use “Palestinian” Water?

In recent years press accounts have charged Israel with unfairly and illegally draining water from “Palestinian aquifers,” enabling Israelis to enjoy green lawns, clean cars and full swimming pools, while leaving Palestinians with barely enough to drink. Thus, the New York Times reported last year that:

In the West Bank, water allocation is a zero-sum game, and Palestinians consider local scarcity a direct and unjust consequence of the resources given to Jewish communities. With their watered lawns and community pools, the 160,000 settlers enjoy the same suburban life as Israelis elsewhere. (July 15, 2000)

This 1203-word Times story quoted numerous Israeli and Palestinian critics of Israel, but not a single Israeli official or independent water expert. In a similar story National Public Radio reported that Israel is:

violating international law … [by] helping itself to most of the water that runs beneath Palestinian lands… the average Israeli consumes about six times more water than the average Palestinian … Israeli officials say that their policy is to ensure Israelis get sufficient water to live properly and develop economically. It’s unfortunate, they say, if there’s not enough water left over for the Palestinians. (July 27th, 1999)

Palestinian swimming pool Palestinian swimming pool

Palestinian swimming pools in the West Bank, which seem never to be noticed by Western journalists.

Despite these reports, and similar ones from the BBC, the AP, etc., the facts tell a different story. For one thing, Palestinians have their own swimming pools. For another, Israel has never “helped itself” to water “beneath Palestinian lands.” Israel obtains roughly 50 percent of its water from the Sea of Galilee and the Coastal Aquifer, both of which are entirely within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Another 30 percent comes from the Western and Northeastern Aquifers of the Mountain Aquifer system. These aquifers straddle the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank, but most of the stored water is under pre-1967 Israel, making it easily accessible only in Israel.

Thus, even in the 1950s Israel used 95 percent of the Western Aquifer’s water, and 82 percent of the Northeastern Aquifer’s water. Today, Israel’s share of these aquifers has declined to 83 percent and 80 percent, respectively. That is, under direct Israeli administration the Palestinian share of these aquifers has actually increased.

In addition, every year over 40 MCM (million cubic meters) of water from sources within Israel is piped over the Green Line for Palestinian use in the West Bank. Ramallah, for example, receives over 5 MCM. Israel sends another 4 MCM over its border for Palestinian use in Gaza. Thus, it is the Palestinians who are using Israeli water.

And not just the Palestinians. Despite its own meager supply, Israel annually provided 600,000 CM of water to ten otherwise dry villages in South Lebanon, and provides more than 55 MCM annually to Jordan. Perhaps no other country in the world, facing the severe shortages that Israel does, has shared so much water with its neighbors.

A Factual Look at Middle East Water Issues

1. Israel’s Water Sources

Israel has 3 main water sources: the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), the Coastal Aquifer, and the Western and Northern Aquifers of the so-called Mountain Aquifer. In a normal year these sources together have a safe annual yield of roughly 1350 MCM (higher extractions, though possible, are damaging). (Nurit Kliot, Water Resources and Conflict in the Middle East, p. 234) Unfortunately, the region has suffered through a string of dry years, and the water supply and usage have both dropped dramatically. The figures for supply and usage given below are for average years rather than these drought conditions.

The Galilee and the Coastal Aquifer are both entirely within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, and both were extensively developed and used by Jewish residents even during the period of the British Mandate (that is, well before 1948). Therefore, charges that Israel is using “Palestinian water” usually center on the Western and Northern Aquifers, which straddle the border between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank.

The Western Aquifer

The Western Aquifer, with a safe annual yield of roughly 360 MCM, is fed by rain falling on the western slopes of the West Bank’s Judean and Samarian mountains. The water percolates through porous surface rock into the aquifer far below the surface, and then naturally flows downwards toward the Israeli coastline. Prevented from actually reaching the coast by natural hydrologic barriers, the water instead emerges in natural springs which are almost entirely in Israel. (Jehoshua Schwarz, Water Resources in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, ed. Daniel Elazar, 1982; Eyal Benvenisti and Haim Gvirtzman, Harnessing International Law to Determine Israeli-Palestinian Water Rights: The Mountain Aquifer in Natural Resources Journal, V 33, Summer 1993)

• Most of the Western Aquifer’s springs are in Israel and were developed by Israel

The major outlets of the Western Aquifer are the Rosh-Ha’ayin springs near Petah Tikva in central Israel, and the Tannanim springs, in northern Israel near Hadera. With an annual yield of over 300 MCM, these springs were unused for millennia. Their uncontrolled discharge created large swamps that were drained at the turn of the century by Zionist pioneers, thereby finally allowing the water flow to be harnessed. (Schwarz, p. 91) This is especially important because under international law the development of water sources, and their first and continuing use, are key elements in establishing water rights.

• As Early as the 1950’s Israel used 95% of the Western Aquifer’s Water

The Western Aquifer’s water is easily accessible only where the aquifer’s storage area approaches the surface, and this accessible region is almost entirely within Israel. As a result, already by the 1950s Israel was using about 95% of the aquifer’s water, the rest being used by Arab farmers in the West Bank towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarem, via springs and wells. The aquifer’s water was accessible in these towns because they are literally within meters of the border with pre-1967 Israel. (Benvenisti and Gvirtzman, p. 557-8)

Assertions that gaining control of the West Bank in 1967 has allowed Israel to use “Palestinian water” from the Western Aquifer are therefore completely specious.

• The Northern Aquifer

The Northern (Nablus-Gilboa) Aquifer, with a safe annual yield of 140 MCM, is fed by rain falling on the north-central slopes of the Samarian Mountains. Most of the aquifer’s catchment area is in the West Bank, but, again, most of the water from wells and springs emerges in pre-1967 Israel. (Benvenisti and Gvirtzman, p. 559)

• The Springs of the Northern Aquifer

The major springs emerging in Israel from the Northern Aquifer are the Gilboa and Bet- Shean Valley Springs; before pumping began these had a total annual yield of 110 MCM. Today the supply in Israel from this aquifer is unchanged, but the springs contribute only 10 MCM and pumping accounts for the rest.

The springs emerging in the West Bank are the Wadi Farih Springs near Nablus, with an annual yield of 18 MCM, and several smaller springs with an annual yield of about 7 MCM. These have been used by Arab farmers mainly for irrigation. Before 1967 Israel used 82% of the water from the Northern Aquifer, and Palestinians used 18%. (Benvenisti and Gvirtzman, p. 559)

2. Present Water Usage

Currently an average of 360 MCM are drawn from the Western Aquifer annually, with 340 MCM drawn within Israel, and 20 MCM drawn by Palestinians in the West Bank. (Benvenisti and Gvirtzman, p 558) However, not all the water drawn within Israel is used within Israel — more than 40 MCM are pumped over the Green line for use by the Palestinians (Haim Gvirtzman, private communication, December 8, 1998). Thus Israel’s share of the Western Aquifer’s water, which was 95% prior to 1967, has declined to 83%, while the Palestinian share of the aquifer’s water has significantly increased.

Similarly, on average of 128 MCM are drawn from the Northern Aquifer annually, with 103 MCM used within Israel from Israeli sources, and 25 MCM used by Palestinians in the West Bank, mostly supplying the Jenin area. Thus Israel’s share of the Northern Aquifer’s water, at 82% prior to 1967, has declined to 80%. In other words, since 1967 the proportion of the Northern Aquifer’s waters used by Palestinians has increased.

3. Domestic Water for West Bank Palestinians has increased by at least 640%

In the period from 1967 to 1995 West Bank Palestinians increased their domestic water use by 640%, from 5.4 MCM to 40 MCM(Judea-Samaria and the Gaza District – A 16 Year Survey 1967 – 1983, Israel, Ministry of Defense, 1983; Arnon Soffer, The Israeli Palestinian Conflict over Water Resources, Palestine-Israel Journal, Volume 5, No. 1, 1998). By way of comparison, in the same 28 year period Israeli domestic usage increased by just 142% (Statistical Abstract of Israel 1996, V47).

This huge jump in Palestinian consumption was possible only because Israel drilled or permitted the drilling of over 50 new wells for the Palestinian population, laid hundreds of kilometers of new water mains and connected hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns to the newly built water system (Background: Water, Israel and the Middle East, Israel Foreign Ministry 1991; Marcia Drezon-Tepler, Contested Waters and the Prospects for Arab-Israeli Peace, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol 30, No. 2, April 1994)

Palestinian sources broadly confirm this picture. For example, Taher Nassereddin, Director General of the West Bank Water Department, has stated that:

[Palestinian] consumption for domestic purposes has increased as a result of population growth and that there were no severe restrictions on drilling new wells for these purposes. (Taher Nassereddin, Legal and Administrative Responsibility of Domestic Water Supply to the Palestinians, in Joint Management of Shared Aquifers, 1997)

It is important to note, however, that for political reasons some Palestinian villages and towns refused to be hooked up to the new water system, and they therefore may not have a reliable water supply today. Thus, as reported in Audubon Magazine, the West Bank town of Marda:

… like many West Bank villages and towns, had refused to hook up with the Israeli water system in the early 1980’s, when Israeli officials offered them the chance. Doing so, the politicians felt, would legitimize the Israeli occupation. Even the villages that did hook up refused to pay into the Israeli water fund that subsidizes the system’s costs. As a result, Palestinians now pay as much as three times what Israelis pay for water. (Bruce Stutz, Water and Peace, Audubon, September 1994)

4. The Price of Water for Israelis and Palestinians

While it is true that Palestinian municipalities which chose to be connected to the Israeli water system refused to contribute to the subsidy fund and therefore pay a higher cost for bulk water, it is not true that Palestinian consumers pay more for water than do Israeli consumers. This is because Israeli municipalities impose a far greater markup on the bulk water they purchase from the Israeli water company than do their Palestinian counterparts, leaving the net cost roughly equal. In some cases, however, Israeli consumers have paid more than Palestinian consumers for the same quantity of water.

For example, in 1995 the following rate schedule (in New Israeli Sheckels) was in effect in Israel for domestic water used by consumers (Jerusalem Post, June 9, 1995):

  • 1 thru 8 CM
  • 9 thru 15
  • 16 and up
2.07 NIS per CM
3.10 NIS per CM
4.57 NIS per CM

In addition there was a .12 NIS per CM surcharge for pipe maintenance.

So an Israeli using 24 CM in the billing period would have been charged 79.39 NIS for water plus 2.88 NIS for the surcharge, for a total cost of 82.27 NIS, or $27.41 (at the 1995 exchange rate of 3.0013 NIS per dollar, Israel Yearbook and Almanac 1996, p 153).

Meanwhile, a Palestinian in Ramallah (which is serviced by a Palestinian utility called the Jerusalem Water Undertaking) would have been subject to a 1995 rate schedule of (JWU Annual Report for 1995):

  • 1 thru 10 CM
  • 11 thru 20 CM
  • 21 thru 40 CM
  • 41 and up
$12.66 flat fee
$1.00 per CM
$1.05 per CM
$1.50 per CM

Thus for 24 CM the Palestinian consumer would have paid $26.86 – that is, 55 cents less than the Israeli consume r paid for the same amount of water.

Indeed, according to Sharif Elmusa, who was a water negotiator for the Palestinian side in talks with Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank pay approximately $1 per CM for domestic water, “virtually identical with the price in Israel …” (Elmusa, Water Conflict, p 144)

Similarly, with regard to agricultural water, Elmusa writes “ … in absolute terms, the price of irrigation water in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan converged, and water prices could not have affected competitiveness in any significant way.” (Elmusa, p 173)

Finally, it should be noted that according to Elmusa, some West Bank towns charged substantially less for water than did Ramallah. For example, per cubic meter of water, consumers in Jericho paid just one quarter what was paid in Ramallah, while consumers in Tulkarem paid one third the Ramallah price. In other words, consumers in Jericho and Tulkarem paid substantially less for water than did consumers in Ramallah or Israel.

5. Israel’s Supply of Water to the Palestinians, Jordan, and Lebanon

Despite charges that Israel uses Arab water, the reality is the reverse: Israel has supplied, from its own sources, large amounts of water to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, to the Kingdom of Jordan, and to a number of villages in South Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Jordan has not supplied the West Bank with any water since 1967, despite its quasi-legal obligation to supply 70-150 MCM annually.

Israeli Water to the Palestinians

As noted previously, more than 40 MCM annually is pumped within Israel and piped over the Green Line for Palestinian use in the West Bank (Haim Gvirtzman, 1998). The Ramallah area alone, through its independent Palestinian water utility, receives more than 5 MCM annually from Israeli sources (Jerusalem Water Undertaking).

In addition, Israel also supplies more than 4 MCM annually to the Gaza Strip through the Kissufim Line of the National Water Carrier, serving the Palestinian localities of El-Bureij, Moazi, Abasan, Bani Suheila and Khan Yunis (Statistical Data on Gaza Area and Jericho, Israel Foreign Ministry, June 1994).

Israeli Water to Jordan

Under their peace agreement (Treaty of Peace Between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Annex 2, Water Related Matters, October 26, 1994) Israel agreed to supply, or arrange for the supply of, 55 MCM of water annually to Jordan. Until the development of new desalinazation plants, all of the additional water is coming directly from Israeli sources (Jordan Times, 25 August 1999). According to the Israeli government the total amount of Israeli water being supplied annually to Jordan amounts to almost 75 MCM (Israel-Jordan Relations, Israel Foreign Ministry, October 26, 1998).

Israeli Water to Lebanon

Ten otherwise dry Southern Lebanese villages received 600,000 CM of water annually from wells within Israel. A ten-inch pipe, for example, ran from Israel to the Lebanese village of R’meish. (Arnon Sofer, The Litani River: Fact and Fiction, Middle Eastern Studies, October 1994; Aaron Wolf, Water for Peace in the Jordan River Watershed, Natural Resources Journal, Summer 1993; Aaron Wolf, Hydrostrategic Territory in the Jordan Basin: Water, War and Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations, conference paper, 1996) Even after withdrawing from the security zone, Israel continued to supply water to at least some of these towns.

Jordan’s obligation to supply the West Bank with 70-150 MCM Annually

In an early attempt to settle water disputes between Arabs and Israelis, Ambassador Eric Johnston, as personal representative of President Eisenhower, shuttled between the nations of the region from 1953 to 1956, making a surprising amount of progress. In the end, technical representatives from Israel and the neighboring Arab states reached agreement on development of the Jordan basin, including division of the existing resources and exploitation of new resources. While Israel was ready to accept the plan, the Arab League rejected it because it might benefit, and imply recognition of, Israel. Despite the rejection, Israel and Jordan informally accepted the quotas worked out by Johnston as a basis for dividing the waters of the Jordan River (Arnon Sofer, The Relevance of the Johnston Plan to the Reality of 1993 and Beyond, in Water and Peace in the Middle East, 1994).

Under these quotas, the West Bank was due 70 to 150 MCM annually from Jordan, and it has been argued that this Jordanian obligation, though unmet, is still owed. (Aaron Wolf and John Ross, The Impact of Scarce Water Resources on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Natural Resources Journal, Fall 1992) Israelis also point out that because of this Jordanian failure, Israel has had to supply water to the West Bank from its own sources. (Aaron Wolf, The Jordan Watershed: Past Attempts at Cooperation and Lessons for the Future, Water International, V18 1993)

6. Israeli Water Use and that of its Neighbors

Many media reports have portrayed Israel as a profligate user of water. The July 27th, 1999 NPR report claimed that “the average Israeli consumes about six times more water than the average Palestinian.” NPR’s claim is grossly incorrect. While Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, use more water per capita than Palestinians, the actual ratio is far less than six. In 1995, for example, Israel’s annual per capita usage was 308 CM (correcting for use of recycled water), while for West Bank Palestinians usage was 124 CM, a ratio of 2.5 to 1 (based on data from Statistical Abstract of Israel, 1996). Moreover, among countries in the immediate area, Israel has the second lowest annual per capita usage: Syria’s is 1069 CM, Egypt’s is 921, Lebanon’s is 444, and Jordan’s is 201. (World Resources 1998-99)

It is also instructive to look at the trend of Israeli water use. In the ten year period from 1984/85 to 1995, for example, Israel’s population grew by 32 percent, but its water use grew by just 3.3 percent, a sign of the country’s great efforts at water conservation and efficiency (calculated from data in the Statistical Abstract of Israel 1997).

In contrast, during the same period Jordan’s population increased by 59 percent, but its water use increased by 113 percent (Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Statistical Yearbook 1987, 1995).

Similarly, in this period Syria’s population increased by 38 percent, but consumption of drinking water increased by 43 percent (figures for agricultural and industrial use were apparently not published) (Syrian Arab Republic, Statistical Abstract 1987, 1998).

7. International Law and Shared Water Resources

Many media reports have uncritically accepted Palestinian charges that Israeli water policies violate international law. Thus, the July 27th, 1999 NPR report alleged that Israel is “violating international law … [by] helping itself to most of the water that runs beneath Palestinian lands.”

Such charges are groundless. The relevant legal norms are the Helsinki Rules (1966), as supplemented by the Seoul Rules (1986), which, according to a leading authority, may be summarized as:

  1. Human conditions, i.e., the actual needs of the communities that depend on the waters, take precedence over the natural properties that exist in the basin.
  2. Among the human conditions, priority is given to past and existing uses, at the expense of potential uses.(Eyal Benvenisti, International Law and the Mountain Aquifer, in Water and Peace in the Middle East, Jad Isaac and Hillel Shuval, eds., 1994, emphasis added)

Thus Israel’s first and continuing use of these water resources is justified by generally accepted international legal guidelines. It is interesting to note that these same guidelines have been invoked by Egypt regarding the waters of the Nile (Egypt is downstream from Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and a number of other African countries), by Iraq and Syria regarding the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates (Iraq and Syria are downstream from Turkey), and by Jordan regarding the waters of the Yarmuk (Jordan is downstream from Syria). (Arnon Sofer, Rivers of Fire: The Conflict over Water in the Middle East, Rowman and Littlefield, 1999)

It is also interesting to note that relevant United States law parallels these international legal guidelines. In Colorado v. New Mexico , 459 US 176 (1982) and Colorado v. New Mexico, 467 US 310 (1984), the Supreme Court held that Colorado could not use water from the Vermejo River, despite the fact that the river originates in Colorado before flowing into New Mexico. The prior use of the river’s water by farm and industrial users in New Mexico was held to entitle them to continued exclusive use of the resource.

8. Water Under the Oslo Accords

Under Oslo 2 (Interim Agreement, Sept. 1995), significant responsibility over water was transferred to the Palestinian Authority, including the right to drill wells at agreed sites. As part of the accords (Annex 3, Article 40), the two sides resolved that in the near term Palestinians would receive an additional 28.6 MCM per year, of which the PA was obligated to supply 67 percent. While Israel has supplied its share of additional water to the Palestinians, the PA has largely failed to do its part.

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