Total water resources in the Middle East region are made up of two
components - surface water and groundwater. The main surface-water
resource is the Jordan River Basin, with the Sea of Galilee as the
major regional water reservoir. It 'has a storage capacity of 4,000
million cubic meters (mcm) or about 1 trillion US gallons, and
receives an average annual replenishment of about 840 cm. The
Yarmuk River is also an integral part of the Jordan River Basin.
Its headwaters join the Jordan River 10 km (6 miles) below the Sea
of Galilee. Groundwater is the most important source of freshwater
supply in the area, and consists of the main West Bank aquifer
systems, as well as the Gaza Strip aquifer. Around 600 mcm of the
annual rainfall is estimated to infiltrate the soil to replenish
the aquifers and about 40 mcm of rain each year percolates to
recharge the coastal aquifer underlying the Strip.
Israel currently has control over a major part of the Jordan Basin
waters. Israel, Syria and Jordan abstract 450 mcm annually from the
Yarmuk River, and Israel siphons a further 470 mcm from the Sea of
Galilee. This reduces the downstream Jordan to a fetid
In Gaza, groundwater is the only source of fresh water, with an
estimated potential of 65 mcm per year. At present, though, the
aquifer is being over¬pumped (100 mcm annually), in quantities
exceeding the replenishment rate, resulting in the gradual invasion
Following its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in
1967, Israel implemented stringent policies that prevented
Palestinians from fully utilizing the West Bank's groundwater.
These included the expropriation of wells belonging to absentee
owners, the denial of permits for the drilling of new wells, and
the imposition of rigorous water quotas.
In sum, due to restrictions on water allocations imposed by Israel,
the water situation in Palestine is approaching a critical phase
that hinders economic development and threatens the livelihood of
the Palestinian population. It is clear that an apportionment of
water rights between the conflicting parties should be considered
on a more equitable basis.
Water Supply and Demand
A serious discrepancy exists between the amount of water supplied
to Palestinians as compared to Israelis. While a Palestinian uses
on average 107-156 cubic meters (cm)/year, an Israeli uses 370
cm/year, and a Jewish settler uses between 650-1,714 cm/year. Such
discrepancy is not limited to water quantities, but extends to
water pricing as well. Israelis pay $0.40 per cm for domestic water
and only $0.16 per cm for agricultural water; whereas, Palestinians
pay a standard rate of $1.20 for piped water.
A re-allocation of this vital resource between the two sides is
possible and imperative, but re-allocation by itself would be an
insufficient means of averting conflict over water resources. Due
to the increasing demand for water to meet the needs of a growing
population and a rise in the standard of living in the Middle East,
an increase in supply relative to demand must be achieved.
Water and the Final-Status Map
Israel's plans for the division of the West Bank water resources
under the Oslo final-status agreement can be gathered from a
strategic map published in the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv. In its
December 4,1997, edition, the newspaper printed a map combining
features of previous ones, according to which 60 percent of the
West Bank would be under Israeli control, leaving 40 percent for
the Palestinian Authority (PA). This 40 percent would be divided
into three separate and distinct cantons, without free and
unrestricted access between the southern canton and the two
As for the specific issue of water, Palestinians will be denied
sufficient water for domestic, agricultural and
industrial needs. They will also be hindered from reaching the
Jordan River Basin - the "food basket" of the West Bank - even
though Palestinians are riparians of this international water
system. Indeed, according to the Johnston Plan of 1955, a West Ghor
canal was to be built to provide Palestinians with an equitable
share of water from the Jordan River. But this West Ghor canal is
nowhere to be seen in Israel's new map, which has been drawn in
such a way that the vast majority of West Bank Palestinian wells
fall within the areas designated for Israeli control.
Under the final-status arrangements as envisaged in the
above-mentioned map, Palestinians are deprived of their own natural
resources, even though these are crucial for the building of a
sustainable future. Such a situation is in direct contradiction to
the spirit of Oslo ("Land for peace") as spelled out in the Oslo II
Interim Agreement, as well as in defiance of international
resolutions - UN resolutions 242 and 338.
Water and Peace
It is now more than six years since the initial peace conference
was held in Madrid. Israel and Jordan have since resolved their
water dispute based on a mutual recognition of the "rightful
allocations" of both parties from the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, as
well as from the Araba/Arava groundwater.
As regards the Palestinians, the first principle in Article 40 of
the Oslo II agreement - dealing with water and sewage - states:
"Israel recognizes the Palestinian water rights in the West Bank.
These will be negotiated in the permanent-status negotiations and
settled in the permanent-status agreement relating to the various
water resources." There is no doubt that this may be considered an
important breakthrough as it is the first time that Israel has
recognized Palestinian water rights.
Accordingly, a Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) has recently been
established and is mandated to deal with all water-related issues,
including wastewater. A Palestinian Water Council, comprising
representatives from the ministries of Agriculture and of Planning
and International Cooperation, in addition to the PWA and
universities, has also been formed.
It remains for Israel to transfer its control of West Bank water to
the new authority.
So far, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have not seen the
Oslo II agreement implemented, translating into water in their
taps. Instead, they are witnessing severe water shortages, and Gaza
Palestinians have no access to clean water.
The following steps, if implemented, can help ease the
• Israel should provide the Palestinians with water data. It
is regrettable that, although Israel has committed to such an
undertaking, it has, to date, done very little in that
• Israel should satisfy the Palestinians' immediate needs for
Assuming 50 mcm/year per Palestinian as the minimum requirement for
domestic use, an additional allocation of 70 mcm/year should be
• Israel should lift the restrictions imposed on Palestinians
to enable them to properly utilize their land and water resources,
especially in the Jor¬dan Valley. To this end, Israelis and
Palestinians should start work right away on clearing the heavily
mined areas there.
• Israel, Jordan and Palestine need to embark on the
construction of the West Ghor canal as agreed upon in the Johnston
• All countries riparian to the Jordan River Basin need to
cooperate in forming a basin-wide regional authority.
• A mechanism should be established to ensure that
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on Palestinian water rights get
moving. So far, there has been no progress on this front and the
impression is that Israel is attempting to impose its own will on
Thus, the potential for an agreement on a solution to the water
crisis does exist. And finding a common understanding of water
issues in the Middle East would go far to enhance the prospect of
attaining stability in the region. A program based on the above
steps would pave the way to resolving conflicts over this precious
resource. Unless there is a will to move in this direction, all
tangible political accomplishments of the last few years will
evaporate, leading to increased regional tensions.
This is a revised version of an article published in
Cornerstone, Issue 11, 1998. Printed by permission.