Moving Water from last to first in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Jan 8, 2014 | Israeli Politics

Many people have said that the last thing on which Israelis and Palestinians will be able to agree is fresh water.  They are very likely wrong.  Over the past year, the two governments have been discussing a draft water agreement that was designed by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian organization that has earned numerous plaudits for its work with communities in the Jordan Valley that share water problems but are separated by a national border.

Israel WaterGiven the Palestinian need for more water, Israel’s new water supply from large-scale desalination. and a mutual need to deal with untreated sewage, restarting negotiations with water as a first priority makes economic, ecological, and, most importantly, political sense. For Palestinians, it would increase fresh water availability in every home. For Israelis, it would remove pollutants from rivers and streams that flow through its main cities. For both it would represent a Final Accord on Fresh Water and not another interim step.

The Failings of the Oslo Process

Since the start of the Oslo process in 1993, all attempts at negotiating the peace process have been predicated on the belief that a peace agreement can be created only by simultaneous solution to all issues (i.e. “nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon”). Despite sincere efforts, this approach has failed.

Based on the development of a draft water agreement for the Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) by two Canadians, David B. Brooks and Julie Trottier, as well as informal discussions with the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies and the Palestinian Water Authority, the best chance for reviving the floundering peace process is by first tackling certain “easier” issues, such as the issue of fresh water.

Breaking Away from the Oslo Model for Water

In contrast to the Oslo agreements, which proposed a fixed quantitative allocation of water to Israelis and Palestinians, the new draft proposes a joint Israeli-Palestinian process that adjusts water allocations over time and ensures that withdrawals of water always stay within sustainable limits.

The Oslo agreements were proposed in 1993 as a five-year interim step until a final status agreement was concluded, presumably by 1999.  The world is still waiting for that final status agreement.  In the meantime, water sources are degrading, and water pollution from both agricultural fields and urban sewage is growing.

The FoEME Proposal asks two questions of principle:  First, why wait for conclusion of a final status agreement?  If, instead of fixed allocation as with the Oslo agreements, one thinks of ongoing joint management, agreement can be reached right now.  This is not just the claim of FoEME.   The immediate past Director of the Palestinian Water Authority, Dr. Shaddad Attili, and former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, to the EU and to NATO, Oded Eran, both stated the same during their public presentation at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, in October 2013.

Second, why does the FoEME draft agreement seem likely to work when the Oslo agreement has not?  For several reasons:  The Oslo agreement is dependent on a particular set of borders; the FoEME Proposal is adaptable to any set of borders.  The mandate of the Oslo-designed Joint Water Committee is limited to what is deemed Palestinian water with no authority for dealing with Israeli water; the FoEME Proposal includes joint management of all shared water, which is to say any water that flows along, across, or under the border.

There are additional problems with the Oslo approach for dealing with fresh water for Israelis and Palestinians.  For one thing, it settles on specific allocations in physical terms (so many cubic metres for you; so many for me) without attention to social and political equity, to economic efficiency, or to environmental sustainability. Those criteria are central to decision-making (and to trade-offs) in a true joint management process.  Finally, the Oslo approach looks at water as a supply issue; in contrast, the FoEME Proposal gives as much attention to reducing demand as to increasing supply.

More generally, one cannot divide water as if it were a pie.  Trans-boundary agreements can divide land this way, but not water which flows along, under, and even through national borders.  Water may start as rainfall, but it is then typically used by humans over and over again, sometimes by a group of Palestinian farmers cooperating in a decentralized way, sometimes by the highly centralized Israeli water network.  Equally important, each time the water is used, its quality changes – perhaps fertilizer and pesticide residues; perhaps poorly treated sewage – after which it is used again.  The Oslo approach treats water as if it were both immobile in space and constant in quality.  In contrast, the FoEME Proposal recognizes that water is mobile in space and variable in quality.

An Israeli-Palestinian water agreement is possible. And it is possible now.  Though not designed for any purpose other than managing their shared water, it could well be the first step of the final status agreement that has eluded negotiators for so many years.

The full 180,000 word version of An Agreement to Share Water between Israelis and Palestinians: The FoEME Proposal (with Arabic and Hebrew translations of key chapters) by David B. Brooks and Julie Trottier is available at: http://foeme.org/uploads/13411307571~%5E$%5E~Water_Agreement_FINAL.pdf

An 8,000 word version entitled Changing the Nature of Transboundary Water Agreements: The Israeli-Palestinian Case by Brooks, Trottier and Laura Doliner is available at:







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