Palestine, defined here as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem, is facing an acute water crisis not because of the area’s arid conditions but primarily because of the abnormal political conditions represented by Israel’s control over the Palestinian groundwater and surface water resources. Israel is currently utilizing more than 80 % of the Palestinian groundwater resources and denying Palestinians their rightful utilization of the Jordan River. Palestinians are currently allocated 80 mcm per year for domestic use leaving the per capita consumption under suppressed demand at an average of 30 cm/year which is far below the required standards of water supply. For agriculture, Palestinians have access to 150 mcm per year which they are using to irrigate around 10 % of their cultivated lands while Israel is enjoying abundant water to irrigate 50 % of its cultivated land. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Jewish settlers are consuming more than 90 mcm per year from Palestinian water resources.
According to Oslo II agreement, Israel recognized the Palestinian water rights, but these are to be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations. However, so far, no negotiations have taken place to enumerate the Palestinian water rights. The issue of Palestinian water rights will be one of the most difficult issues in the permanent status negotiations. Palestinian water rights include both the groundwater of the West Bank and Gaza Aquifer Systems and the surface water of the Jordan River Basin. While Israel provided Palestinians with additional quantities of water, these quantities are not enough to meet the growing needs of the population which is still experiencing shortage of water supply.
The Oslo II interim agreement divided the West Bank into areas A, B and C where Palestinians have full authority in areas A (less than 3%) and civil responsibilities in area B (less than 27%). Area C which represents more than 70% of the West Bank area includes the most sensitive water resources especially in the Jordan Valley and the Israeli settlements. Different maps representing the Israeli security and strategic zones in the West Bank are being suggested by Israeli leaders. Water security became one of the criteria that was used for determining the extent of further re-deployment of Israeli forces. According to this map, Israel will not re-deploy from Palestinian areas overlying the Western Aquifer System in the West Bank. The Israeli Defense Forces came up with their own security map which calls for the retention of the Jordan valley by Israel. If these maps are both superimposed, it becomes clear that Israel intends to retain its control of the majority of Palestinian water resources.
To alleviate Palestinian fears of a dry peace, Israel needs to provide Palestinians with water data and to immediately satisfy Palestinians needs for water. Israel should also lift the restrictions imposed on Palestinians to utilize the land and water resources especially in the Jordan Valley. Israelis and Palestinians should start working immediately on clearing the heavily mined areas in preparation for the future. Israel, Jordan and Palestine need to start the process of constructing the West Ghour Canal which was agreed upon in the Johnston plan. The international community needs to start the process of building a basin wide regional authority for the Jordan River basin with participation of all riparians. A mechanism must be established to ensure that negotiations on Palestinian water rights between Israelis and Palestinians take off seriously. Unless the Palestinian water rights are addressed immediately and properly according to the international laws and principles that will translate their water rights to actual water in their pipes, Palestinian will remain the thirsty partner in the Middle East with a severe water crisis that will impact the sustainability of the peace process.