Israel lays claim to Palestine's water

10:15 27 May 04

Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition.

Israel has drawn up a secret plan for a giant desalination plant to supply drinking water to the Palestinian territory on the West Bank. It hopes the project will diminish pressure for it to grant any future Palestinian state greater access to the region's scarce supplies of fresh water.

Under an agreement signed a decade ago as part of the Oslo accord, four-fifths of the West Bank's water is allocated to Israel, though the aquifers that supply it are largely replenished by water falling onto Palestinian territory.

The new plans call for seawater to be desalinated at Caesaria on the Mediterranean coast, and then pumped into the West Bank, where a network of pipes will deliver it to large towns and many of the 250 villages that currently rely on local springs and small wells for their water.

Israel, which wants the US to fund the project, would guarantee safe passage of the water across its territory in return for an agreement that Israel can continue to take the lion's share of the waters of the West Bank. These mainly comprise underground reserves such as the western aquifer, the region's largest, cleanest and most reliable water source.

For Israelis, agreement on the future joint management of this aquifer is a prerequisite for granting Palestine statehood.

Global funding

The first public hint of the plan emerged earlier in May in Washington DC. Uri Shamir, director of water research at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, told the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations that the desalination project was "the only viable long-term solution" for supplying drinking water to the West Bank.

Shamir told New Scientist this week that the project could be complete in five to seven years. "The plant will be funded by the world for the Palestinians. Israel will not be willing to carry this burden, and the Palestinians are not able to."

But other leading hydrologists contacted by New Scientist point out that desalinating seawater and pumping it to the West Bank, parts of which lie 1000 metres above sea level, would cost around $1 per cubic metre.

"The question is whether an average Palestinian family can afford it," says Arie Issar, a water expert at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Sede Boker, Israel, who helped green the Israeli desert a generation ago by finding new water sources in the region. "It would be foolish to desalinate water on the coast and push it up the mountains when there are underground water resources up there, which cost only a third as much."

Tony Allan of King's College London, a leading authority on Middle East water, agrees: "Pumping desalinated water to the West Bank is not the best technical or economic option."

But the project is being supported by Alvin Newman, head of water resources at the Tel Aviv office of USAID, the US international development agency, which would fund the desalination project. "Ultimately it's the only solution," he said in an interview with New Scientist.

Unusual cooperation

Water supply is one of the few areas where cooperation between Israel and Palestine has survived the current intifada. Every day on the West Bank, Palestinian engineers help repair and maintain Israeli water pipes, and vice versa.

But Palestinian water negotiators are deeply uneasy about the plans being drawn up on their behalf, especially if they involve abandoning claims to the water beneath their feet. "We cannot do that. We don't have the money or the expertise for desalination," Ihab Barghothi, head of water projects for the Palestinian Water Authority, told New Scientist.

Palestinians badly need more water. Under the Oslo agreement they have access to 57 cubic metres of water per person per year from all sources. Israel gets 246 cubic metres per head per year. And in the nearly 40 years that Israel has controlled the West Bank, Palestinians have been largely forbidden from drilling new wells or rehabilitating old ones.

The region's sources of water are the West Bank aquifers; the river Jordan, which rises in the Golan Heights and flows into the Sea of Galilee, where it is largely tapped by Israel; and the coastal aquifer, an increasingly polluted reserve of underground water that extends south to the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip.

Sewage effluent

Over the years, Israel has developed a good reputation for using water efficiently, and in the 1980s it began recycling sewage effluent for irrigation. In 2004, Israel signed a deal to buy water shipped by tanker from Turkey.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip depend almost exclusively on small wells tapping the coastal aquifer. As the water table falls, the aquifer is becoming increasingly polluted by salt water from the sea. UN scientists say Gaza will have no drinkable water within 15 years.

Despite earlier efforts to develop desalination, the Israel government only decided to invest heavily in the technology in the past four years. Some, including Israeli liberals and Palestinian optimists such as Barghothi, believed that once Israel began desalinating seawater for its own use it would be prepared to relax its grip on the West Bank aquifers.

But now it appears that Israeli water planners see desalination as a means of retaining control of those aquifers.

The desalination plant to supply the West Bank would parallel a similar US-funded reverse osmosis plant to fill taps on the hard- pressed Gaza Strip. The scheme has already been approved and funded, but is currently on hold because of continuing conflict in Gaza. Taken together, the two schemes would leave an independent Palestine more dependent on desalination than almost any other nation in the world.

Fred Pearce, Jerusalem ©

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