March/April 2000


Media coverage of complex and explosive water issues regularly neglects the facts.

By Alex Safian, Camera Media Report, Winter 2000 In recent years, press accounts have charged Israel with unfairly and illegally draining water from "Palestinian aquifers," enabling Israelis to enjoy green lawns, and full swimming pools, while leaving Palestinians with barely enough to drink. Thus, in the summer of 1998, the New York Times reported that for Palestinians:
…most taps ran dry a month ago… That would have spelled misery anywhere, but what has made it worse on the West Bank is that Palestinians cannot help but notice that they are the only ones so parched. There is no sign of a water shortage in the Jewish settlements just outside Hebron. There, and in Israel as a whole, residents still water lawns and wash their cars. (Douglas Jehl, 15 August 1998).
More recently, in a July 27, 1999 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.
Other news outlets, such as the BBC and the AP, have reported similarly. But the facts tell a different story, Israel has never "helped itself" to water "beneath Palestinian lands." Israel obtains roughly 30 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 93 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 Israeli administration the Palestinian share of these aquifers has actually increased.

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

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

A Factual Look at Middle East Water Issues

1. What are Israel's Water Sources?

Israel has 3 main water sources: the Sea of Galilee, the Coastal Aquifer, and the Western and Northern Aquifers of the so-called Mountain Aquifer. Together these sources have a safe annual yield of roughly 1350 MCM (Nurit Kliot, Water Resources and Conflict in the Middle East, p. 234).

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).

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

Most of the Western Aquifer's water is stored under Israel, and the water is easily accessible only where the storage area approaches the surface. This accessible region is almost entirely within Israel. As a result, already by the 1950s Israel was using about 95 percent 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. Both towns 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).

2. How Much Water does Israel Consume?

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). Israel's share of the Western Aquifer's water, which was 95 percent prior to 1967, has declined to 83 percent, while the Palestinian share of the aquifer's water has significantly increased.

Similarly, an 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. 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. What About Palestinian Consumption?

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 percent (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 Palestinian, 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 main water system, and may therefore not have a reliable water supply today. And, because those towns that did connect to the new system refused to contribute to the subsidization fund, Palestinian consumers pay a much higher direct cost for water than do Israelis. Of course, because Israelis pay for water twice – directly plus into the subsidy fund – total costs are roughly equal. 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 (Bruce Stutz, Water and Peace. Audubon, September 1994).

4. Israel Supplies Water to the Palestinians, Jordan, and Lebanon

Contrary to 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 obligation, under international legal guidelines, to supply 70-150 MCM annually.

Israeli Water to the Palestinians

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. www.jwu.org).

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, Abason, 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, an additional 55 MCM of water annually to Jordan. Until the development of new desalinization plants, all of the additional water is coming directly from Israeli sources (Jordan Times, 25 August 1999). In recent years Israel has supplied Jordan with 75 MCM annually, or roughly 20 MCM more water than was agreed upon (Israel-Jordan Relations, Israel Foreign Ministry, October 26, 1998).

Israeli Water to Lebanon

Ten otherwise dry Southern Lebanese villages receive 600,000 CM of water annually from wells within Israel. A ten-inch pipe, for example, runs from Israel to the Lebanese village of R'meish (Arnon Sofer, The Litani River: Faction 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: War and Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations, conference paper, 1996).

5. How does Israeli Water Use Compare to that of its Neighbors?

Many media reports have portrayed Israel as a profligate user of water. The July 27, 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 (not per capita usage was 308 CM (not counting recycled water), while for West Bank Palestinians usage was 124 CM, a ratio of 2.5 (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 1089 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 grew by 38 percent, but use of drinking water grew by 43 percent (figures for agricultural and industrial use were apparently not published) (Syrian Arab Republic, Statistical Abstract 1987, 1998).

6. Shared Water: Legal Guidelines

Many media reports have uncritically accepted false Palestinian charges that Israeli water policies violate international law.

The relevant legal norms are the Helsinki Rules (1966) as supplemented by the Seoul Rules (1986), which according to a leading authority state that the actual needs of communities take precedence over the natural properties of the water course, and that among the needs, priority is given to past and existing uses, at the expense of potential uses (Eyal Benentisti 1994).

Thus, Israel's first and continuing use of downstream water resources which flow towards the country from the West Bank is justified by generally accepted legal guidelines. These same guidelines have been invoked, for example, by Egypt, regarding the Nile (Egypt is downstream from Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya), and by Jordan regarding the Yarmuk (Jordan is downstream from Syria).

In light of the above, it is striking that Israel, chronically short of water, and suffering from a terrible drought, continues to generously share the precious resource with neighbors despite being falsely charged with profligate use of stolen water.

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