How water is critical to a lasting Middle East peace

How water is critical to a lasting Middle East peace

While agricultural output in Palestinian territories is a key driver of the domestic economy, uncertainties revolving around water supply and allocations by Israel continue to weaken economic prospects. 

With the recent moves by the Palestinian Authority to garner international recognition in the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, the world’s focus has once again returned to the much disputed strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

While most of the conversation has been centered around the continued construction of Israeli settlements, as well as the future status of the city of Jerusalem, one critical final status issue has not received the attention it deserves: access to water.

Palestinians have complained that the water usage in the region has been far from equitable. A recent report suggests that Israel consumes up to seven times more water than the Palestinians, and potentially 85 percent of the water supply in West Bank.

The territories’ water access

After the Oslo Accords were signed, the number of wells in the West Bank was supposed to increase exponentially, which the Palestinian Authority claims has not happened to this point. One of the more contentious issues regarding the water supply is in regards to the position of the Ariel settlement, which lies on the Western Aquifer, one of the more vital sources of water for the West Bank.

The settlement’s inclusion in any future land-swaps is non-negotiable for the Israeli government, presenting major water access problems for a future Palestinian state.

In the Gaza Strip, Israel has recently doubled its water allocations, but water experts still believe the amount is insufficient to support the needed potable water for the area. The disagreement stems from how much water each side believes Gaza needs. Israel estimates that Gazans consume about 120 million cubic meters while Gazan authorities report that usage as closer to 150 million cubic meters.

With the increased supply by Israel, Gaza now has access to about 70 million cubic meters per year. Unfortunately only about 10 percent of the water, not including the new water from Israel, is fit for drinking. Even worse, the Coastal Aquifer, which currently provides the only access to clean drinking water in Gaza, is set to collapse as soon as 2016.

Perhaps the most fertile part of the Palestinian territories lies in the Jordan Valley, but unfortunately for the Palestinians, 87% of the Jordan Valley is classified as Area C, making it fully under Israeli civil and military control.

Currently, more than 9,000 Israeli settlers live in the Jordan Valley and consume 6.6 times more water per day than the Palestinians in the Valley. Further, the amount of money raised by the settlement agriculture is estimated to be worth $850 million annually.

Effect on the Palestinian economy

Agriculture is a mainstay of the Palestinian economy, and access to limited or polluted water poses greater challenges to an economy that is already struggling. The agricultural sector formally employs 12.4% of the population and informally estimates range as high as 90% of the population, with the recent spike in unemployment in Palestine hitting the agricultural sector the hardest.

The most important part of the agricultural sector in Palestine is the olive trade, which supports over 80,000 Palestinian families.

The water that Palestinians do have access to is often provided to them at marked up prices. A recent study found that the Israeli Mekorot Company, the company that implements Israeli water policy, sells water to the Palestinians at higher prices than the water sold to settlers.

Although often overlooked in the discussions of peace between Israel and Palestine, clean water access is vital to a lasting peace solution. The current situation whereby Israel has ultimate control over the distribution of water may not be viable, for it could hamstring the future Palestinian economy that relies so heavily on agriculture.

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