Blog Action Day: Water in the Middle East, a Human Rights Issue

The idea that we’re taking water away from someone else is simply preposterous 
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev

Today is Blog Action Day, a day when bloggers around the world unite and write about one topic that has been globally chosen. This year’s theme is access to (clean) water, which in many countries across the globe implies walking long distance to get some water that will not even be healthy to drink.
In the Middle East, access to water is constrained by geopolitical issues, and can’t be analysed or advocated for outside of a political framework. So important is the issue of access to water in the Middle East that countries in the region have been forced into alliances and have shaped what can only be called “water diplomacy”.
With the rise of the Zionist ideology and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 through the brutal occupation of Palestine, the issue of water has taken both an ideological and a political angle. Indeed, water is rooted in the idea of the state of Israel, and on a more practical level, is absolutely necessary to the survival of the ongoing settlements and the agricultural efforts taken by the Zionist State[i]. While the final objective of Israel has always been to develop and expand its water resources, its means of achieving this objective have changed throughout the years, going from bargaining to appropriation and occupation of water heads in the region. From the early days of Zionism, the struggle for water was at the heart of the Jewish search for a land. Following the Balfour declaration, Zionist leaders expressed the desire to see the lower part of the Litani and Yarmouk rivers (In Lebanon and Syria) as well as the Jordan River included in what they considered to be their future state, but to no avail. After 1948, Israel specifically stated that all sharing of water plans were to be submitted to the recognition of their State by Arab states. Sharing plans undertaken under the patronage of different big international powers such as the United States kept failing.
The arrival of massive Jewish settlers in the decades following 1948 put an additional pressure on an already water-deprived region, leading to military interventions by the Hebrew State against Syria and Jordan over the Yarmouk River in 1964, themselves leading to a series of clashes which eventually lead to the 1967 war. From this war, disputes over water have not receded, with for example many observers partly attributing the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to Israel’s desire to gain control of the water resource of the Litani, with Israel diverting water from Lebanon and Syria. The issue with Jordan has been resolved with the Peace Treaty the Hashemite Kingdom has signed with Israel in 1994.
On top of being a much fought-over resource in the region, water also seems to be an additional ethnic cleansing tool that is being used by Israel against the Palestinians. In a report published at the end of 2009, Amnesty International denounced the Gaza blockade and the discriminatory measures taken by the Israeli authorities regarding access to water for the Palestinian population, which are as follows[ii]:
  • Israel has “entirely appropriated the Palestinians’ share of the Jordan river” and uses 80% of a key shared aquifer
  • West Bank Palestinians are not allowed to drill wells without Israeli permits, which are “often impossible” to obtain
  • Rainwater harvesting cisterns are “often destroyed by the Israeli army”
  • Israeli soldiers confiscated a water tanker from villagers who were trying to remain in land Israel had declared a “closed military area”
  • An unnamed Israeli soldier says rooftop Palestinian household water tanks are “good for target practice”
  • Much of the land cut off by the West Bank barrier is land with good access to a major aquifer
  • Israeli military operations have damaged Palestinian water infrastructure, including $6m worth during the Cast Lead operation in Gaza last winter
  • The Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza has “exacerbated what was already a dire situation” by denying many building materials needed for water and sewage projects.
The report also held the Oslo Accords accountable for the dire water situation Palestinians have to endure as the accords gave responsibility to the Palestinians to manage their water resources that were insufficient and used by Israel to start with.  The Palestinian Water Authority has actually extremely limited control over water resources in the West Bank. Under the Oslo Agreement, it merely acquired the responsibility of managing an inadequate water supply. The amount of water that the Palestinians may extract from the shared aquifer is controlled by Israel, as are decisions related to drilling or upgrading wells and implementing other water-related projects. The activities of the PWA are therefore subject to restrictions imposed by Israel and are dependent on funding by international donors.
Overall, the 450,000 Jewish settlers alone use more water than the 2.3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. In Gaza, the blockade made it impossible to return to a functional system of water supply. As a severe consequence, pollution has invaded more than 90% of drinking water.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are established in total violation of International Law, may freely dispose of water resources, while the Palestinians are subjected since 1967 to drastic military orders that put water resources under the sole control of the Israeli army. The water from the Jordan River is actually controlled by the Israeli occupation forces as we mentioned before and 80 % of the most important aquifer is flowing into Israel. Palestinians on their side are forbidden to build water supply facilities without permission from the army or to repair existent ones. Between 1967 and 1996, only 13 permits were issued (Amnesty International). The water supply facilities, built or repaired without authorization, are regularly destroyed by the Israeli army.
Water consumption of the Palestinians is barely 70 litres per person per day, while each Israeli settler exceeds 300 litres per day, four times more. In some rural areas, Palestinians survive on just 20 litres per day, the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for domestic use in emergencies. About 180 000-200 000 Palestinians live in rural areas without grid running water and the Israeli army often prevents them from collecting rainwater.
Those military orders from the Israeli occupation forces greatly hinder access to water for the Palestinian population and are distributed in a discriminatory way between Israeli settlers and Palestinians living in certain areas. They therefore constitute a violation of their right to water because they are manifestly incompatible with pre-existing legal obligations of domestic or international law relating to water.
With its diminishing water supply, Israel might want to have greater access to rivers such as the Litani while continuing its discriminatory policies against the Palestinians.
This is why many observers foresee water related conflicts happening in the region in the near future. Food for thoughts for next time we open the faucet.

[i] Dolatyar Mustafa, Water Diplomacy in the Middle East, University of Newcastle, St Malo Press
[ii] Report: Palestinians Denied Water , BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8327188.stm
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