Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Water Scarcity and the Future of "Greater" Israel

by Tefel Hall (April 21 2003)

For thirty-five years, Israel has thwarted the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Ostensibly, Israel claims that such a state would be a threat to its own security: it insists that it needs a buffer zone between itself and its hostile neighbors, and it claims that the Palestinians cannot be trusted with independence. These claims are of doubtful validity. A more plausible explanation for Israel's intransigence is that a Palestinian state would expose the hypocrisy of Israel's unfair water policies.

In the early 1950s, Israel began siphoning off water from the Jordan River and the Lake of Galilee. The amount of water it takes from these sources is considerable. Driven by the Zionist of ideal of "making the desert bloom", the Israelis aggressively built a National Water Carrier - a network of pipes and canals - that brought water from the highlands of Galilee to the Negev desert and the coastal plain (Deconinck).

Largely as a result of this construction, the water level of the lower Jordan dwindled to a trickle. Today, the amount of water that empties into the Dead Sea is only one-eighth the amount that emptied into the sea fifty years ago (Barlow). Furthermore, the water of the lower Jordan has become excessively saline, threatening the environment ("The Jordan River Basin").

Needless to say, the drying up of the lower Jordan also affects the economic development of the people who live on its banks: Palestinian Arabs who once depended on the river for water. Their complaints, however, have fallen on deaf ears. The Israeli government claims that water should be harnessed at its source (Darwish, "Water Wars"). In effect, the government is basing its water rights on the Harmon Doctrine, an outdated legal principle which asserts that upstream countries can use their water resources any way they like, without concern for riparian communities downstream (Topkaya).

After the 1967 war, Israel took control of the West Bank. Among the many restrictions it placed on the West Bank Palestinians, the military administration strictly limited the ability of the Palestinians to drill new wells ("Control over Water"). As the Palestinian population rose, per capita water consumption in the Occupied Territories decreased. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers were permitted to drill extremely deep wells, and the amount of water that settlers draw from the West Bank aquifer has caused many of the shallower Palestinian wells to run dry (Darwish, "Water Wars"). Naturally, Palestinians feel that this is grossly unfair. The mountain aquifer is right beneath their feet: why shouldn't they be allowed equal access to it?

The reason, say the Israelis, is matter of geography: much of the rainwater that falls on the West Bank soaks into the mountain aquifer, then trickles gradually down the slopes into Israel proper, emerging in the foothills from springs (Deconinck). In other words, Israel is downstream of the aquifer, and if the Palestinians extract more water in the hills, then less will flow to the plains.

The only legal justification for depriving Palestinians of rainwater which falls on their own land is another out-dated legal theory, the theory of "absolute territorial integrity". According to this principle, a riparian State may not develop its water resources if it will cause harm to a downstream state (Topkaya). Obviously, this theory is in direct contradiction to the Harmon Doctrine.

In short, the Palestinians are being squeezed by two contradictory legal theories: they are being denied access to the waters of the Jordan because they are downstream of Israel, yet at the same time, they are being denied access to their own aquifer because it is upstream of Israel. The inconsistency of the Israeli position is blatant, and it is doubtful that any Israeli lawyer would care to defend the Israeli position in an international court. Conveniently, they don't have to: the West Bank is not a sovereign state, and therefore international laws cannot be applied (Darwish, "Water Wars").

However, if the Palestinians were to gain their independence, their legal position would be greatly strengthened. According to Franklin Spinney, a writer who works in the US Department of Defense:

"Establishing a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank could internationalize as much as two thirds of Israel's water budget. Such a development would place Israel on the horns of a dilemma: if Israel insisted on its downstream rights to the mountain aquifer, it would validate the same Palestinian claim on water flowing out of the Upper Jordan basin. But if Israel denied the Palestinian downstream riparian claim on the Upper Jordan basin, it would invite a reciprocal preemption by the Palestinians with regard to water flowing out of the mountain aquifer."

Clearly, Israel has an interest in maintaining the status quo, based on its military superiority. It is therefore not surprising that when President Bush recently offered a "roadmap" for a political settlement (March 2003), Ariel Sharon's government responded by asking that all references to an "independent" Palestinian state be eliminated. Instead, the Israelis claim that they are prepared, in theory, to accept a Palestinian state with "certain attributes of sovereignty", as long as Israel maintains control of Palestine's underground water resources (McGreal).

This is but the latest incident of many which demonstrate how jealously Israel guards its water supply. In 1965, Israel attacked Syria to stop it from completing a damn project that would have diverted water from the Jordan river (Grunfel). And in 1967, water tensions flared into all-out war. Ariel Sharon (then a general) has said, "People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six-day war began. That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two-and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan" (quoted in Darwish, "Water Wars").

Prime Minister Sharon no doubt takes pride in Israel's legendary "victory", but one must not forget that victory is incomplete without peace, and a final peace deal between Israel and Syria has yet to be reached. Nor is such a peace deal likely in the foreseeable future, considering the fact that Israel cannot return the Golan Heights to Syria without risking its claim to about one-third of its fresh water (Zaslavsky). Indeed, according to an Israeli military report, water security is one of the primary reasons that Israel's military opposes the return of the Golan Heights, despite the fact that their occupation is the main obstacle to peace (Darwish, "Water Wars").

Given these historical trends, it is unlikely that in the future Israel will accept international arbitration on water issues, either with Syria or with a potentially independent Palestinian state. In 1997, Israel abstained from voting for the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the most recent attempt to codify international water laws. Among Israel's objections to the Convention was Article 33, which gives the United Nations a voice in settling disputes ("United Nations"). Israel, it seems, prefers to settle disputes by relying on its military superiority, without outside interference.

But Israel's water disputes with the Palestinians aren't likely to go away, nor can Israel continue indefinitely to suppress the Palestinians militarily. When people are dying of thirst, they have not choice but to rebel. And Palestinians are already suffering from a severe water crisis. Water rationing in the Occupied Territories is commonplace, and Palestinians in Gaza are exposed to severe health risks because the water in the Gaza aquifer has become salinated and polluted, due to over-pumping (Gould).

Israel tries to deflect responsibility for this crisis by blaming the Palestinians; it claims that Palestinians mismanage their water resources. But the fault lies in the lengthy occupation. For 35 years, Israel has made only minimal investments in the water infrastructure of the the Occupied Territories, while the depressed economic condition of the Palestinians has prevented them from switching to more water-efficient methods of agriculture (Grunfel, Deconinck). Even following the Oslo accords, Israel has continued to maintain almost total control of the water sector in the Occupied Territories ("Water Issues"). For these reasons, a 1998 report by the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem places the blame squarely on Israel's shoulders, and it lambasts Mekorot (Israel's water authority) for the blatant way it discriminates against Palestinian Arabs:

"The discrimination between Palestinians and Israeli settlers regarding the supply of water is especially conspicuous in the many cases where [Israeli] settlements are located near a Palestinian town or village and are connected to the same Mekorot well. While the settlers benefit from an unlimited quantity of running water - including filling swimming pools and watering lawns, the Palestinian towns and villages suffer a severe shortage of running water, even for drinking and bathing" ("Disputed Waters").

Only by addressing these inequalities can Israel hope to end the civil war raging within its de facto borders. And Israel must also be prepared to invest heavily in the Palestinian water sector, in order to alleviate the shortages. It is estimated that sixty percent of the water supplied to Jenin is lost through leaks from improper maintenance ("Control"). And many Palestinian farms still use primitive methods of irrigation, wasting untold quantities of water to evaporation. Israel is a world leader in the area of drip irrigation ("Water Consumption"). By extending a helping hand to the Palestinians, it could forestall the depletion of the aquifers on which Israel itself depends .

Israel could also do more to combat wasteful consumption by its own population (Deconinck, Zaslavsky). To do this, Israel must confront some entrenched, but foolhardy, ideologies. For example, Israel has always placed a lot of emphasis on food self-sufficiency, despite the fact that agriculture is a heavy user of water. Shifting its economy away from agriculture would help alleviate Israel's chronic water shortages (Al-Khayari). At the very least, Israel should stop exporting water-rich fruits and vegetables, as this is tantamount to exporting "virtual water" (Swain). Another example of reckless water management has been pointed out by author Adel Darwish: "For some bizarre ideological motives a number of Israeli farms insist on growing every fruit, vegetable or a crop of which they read in the bible, even if that was not always economically feasible" ("Water Wars").

Unfortunately, efficient water management is not an adequate long-term solution to Israel's water problems. The real issue that must be addressed is population growth. In the words of Robert May, a research professor at the University of Oxford:

"Patterns of accelerating resource use, and their variation among regions, are important but secondary: problems of wasteful consumption can be solved if population growth is halted, but such solutions are essentially irrelevant if populations continue to proliferate" (quoted in Bartlett).

Biologist E O Wilson is even blunter:

"The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people but to poor ideology or land-use management is sophistic" (quoted in Bartlett).

At current birth rates, the population of Israel (including Palestine) is expected to double within the next twenty years (Darwish, "Water Wars"). The consequences of leaving this growth unchecked are enormous. According to a 1997 United Nations study, consumption of fresh water tends to increase at twice the rate of population growth (Melanne). There is simply no way that the Jordan River basin can provide that much fresh water. In the words of ecologists, the basin will have exceeded its "carrying capacity", the number of humans a region can support without damage to the environment. Already, both Israelis and Palestinians complain about the lack of fresh water, and already the depletion of the areas resources is causing permanent environmental damage (Welsh).

Therefore, solving the population problem is key. But slowing population growth is politically difficult, and halting it altogether is probably not feasible. Even in highly developed countries where education and birth control are widely available, populations continue to rise, straining resources (Bartlett). In Israel, the problem is exacerbated by the Zionist tenet of encouraging Jewish immigration, and the high birth rate of the Palestinian population (Al-Khayari).

Immigration could probably be curbed, given the political will. But only draconian laws are likely to bring the area's birth-rate down to zero. It is highly doubtful that the Israeli government would ever impose such laws on its Jewish population, as the Jewish culture places importance on the duty of procreation ("Judaism"). And while the Israeli government might conceivably try to impose birth control on the Palestinians, it is hard to imagine that such an effort would prove successful.

In fact, there is only one well-known tendency which gives any reason for hope: as societies develop economically, birth rates usually fall (Fargues). Yet this, sadly, is probably a false hope, because developed societies make greater demands on the environment (Deconink, Gould). Thus, Israel now faces a stark and somewhat paradoxical dilemma: It can reduce the environmental impact of the Palestinian population by encouraging economic development in the Occupied Territories, yet economic development would probably only exacerbate its chronic water shortages.

The problem of development is easy to grasp if one thinks of the two hundred thousand Palestinians who are currently not connected to any water network ("Not Even"). Every day, these people must fetch water from a well or a water truck. Some of them have to walk long distances, carrying water in bottles and jerricans. It is hardly surprising that these people consume only a fraction of the water consumed by the average Israeli.

Connecting these people to a water network is a requisite step on their path to the modern world. Yet by doing so, Israel would hasten the depletion of the area's aquifers. This is the essence of Israel's conundrum: if it helps to lift the Palestinians out of poverty, it will also be hastening the day when all the area's wells run dry.

Statistics seem to back up this pessimistic view. The population growth rate in Israel is about one-third of that in the Palestinian territories, yet each Israeli uses, on average, six times as much water as the average Palestinian (Fargues; "Not Even"). If Israel encourages Palestinian development, the environmental savings made by slowing their birthrate will probably be trumped by a net increase in overall water consumption.

Dying democracy

Isaac Asimov, the renowned futurist, had a deep insight into the relationship between overpopulation and democracy. In an interview with Bill Moyers, he was asked: "What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?" Asimov responded:

"It will be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to, stay as long as you want for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom; it should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, 'Aren't you through yet?' and so on. In the same way, democracy cannot survive [overpopulation]. Human dignity cannot survive [overpopulation]. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters" (quoted in Bartlett).

Using Asimov's analogy, it is clear that Israel has a bathroom shortage - and the people who share the apartment are getting snippety. Palestinians are blowing themselves up on crowded buses, and IDF snipers are shooting little children in the head. Yet few people seem to understand the true nature of the problem. Human rights activists lament the lack of democracy, and they try to address this problem by advocating for Palestinian rights. They believe that if everyone were treated with dignity, then cooperation between Jews and Arabs would eventually solve the water problem.

This is naive. It is the shortage of water which is creating the lack of democracy, not the other way around. The Jewish people are not inherently racist. On the contrary, Jews have a reputation for humanism and tolerance. Yet faced with water scarcity, the Jewish nation has turned its back on its lofty ideals, becoming one of the most racist and undemocratic countries in the developed world.

Even more disturbing, Israel has, for the last several years, targeted Palestinian water sources, as a way of punishing its restive Palestinian population. For example, according to a 1998 news report:

"Units from the Israeli forces have been shooting on water tanks on the roofs to worsen the acute water shortage they have helped to create. Furthermore, they have prevented vehicles with water tanks from reaching a number of sections of the city. There have also been incidents reported of Israeli soldiers shooting at residents who have tried to get water across the checkpoints or the roofs of houses" ("The Israeli Blockade").

Israel's descent into barbarism seems to confirm Asimov's predictions. Yet some people still find reasons for hope. They claim that desalination plants could eventually alleviate the water shortage, or that water could be imported into Israel from water-rich countries such as Turkey. Indeed, plans to import water from Turkey are already in the works. But these solutions would be easier to believe in, were it not for these disquieting facts: desalination requires a cheap source of energy, and the price of oil is expected to rise sharply in the coming decade (Campbell). Moreover, the rest of the world is facing water crises of its own. Turkey, for instance, is currently fending off threats from Syria and Iraq, both of which accuse Turkey of diverting too much water from the Tigris and Euphrates (Darwish "Troubled").

Only a miracle of technology can avert widespread droughts, famine, and misery in the not-too-distant future. And the kind of warfare we see in Israel today is likely to spread to the rest of the world tomorrow. Israel's hypocrisy with regard to the water that flows into and out of the West Bank is a telltale sign that the world is thirstier than we have thus far acknowledged, and humanity is far more selfish.

Works Cited

Al-Khayari, Ahmed, et al. "Water Scarcity in the Middle East: A Potential Public Health Crisis". Boston University School of Public Health. 1999. 20 March 2003.

Barlow, Maude, and Tony Clarke. Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water. New York: The New Press. 2002.

Bartlett, Albert A. "Reflections On Sustainability, Population Growth, And The Environment - Revisited". Renewable Resources Journal, Vol 15, No 4, Winter 1997-98, Pages. 6-23. 20 March 2003.

Campbell, C J. "Oil Price and Depletion". The Coming Global Oil Crisis. 6 June 2000. 21 March 2003.

"Control over Water under Occupation". B'Tselem. 19 March 2003.

Darwish, Adel. "Troubled Water in Rivers of Blood". World Media. 3 December 1992. 21 March 2003.

Darwish, Adel. "Water Wars". Geneva Conference on Environment and Quality of Life. June 1994.

Deconinck, Stefan. "Israeli water policy in a regional context of conflict: prospects for sustainable development for Israelis and Palestinians?" Centre for Sustainable Development. Ghent University (Belgium). 2002.

"Disputed Waters: Israel's Responsibility for the Water Shortage in the Occupied Territories". B'Tselem. Sept. 1998. 19 March 2003.

Fargues, Philippe. "Fertility as a Political Weapon in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict". Population Council. 26 October 2000. 23 March 2003.

Gould, Beth. "Nowhere a drop to drink: The Politics of Water in the Middle East". Satya. July 1998. 19 March 2003.

Grunfel, Lilach. "Jordan River Dispute". ICE Case Studies. Spring 1997. 19 March 2003.

"Judaism and the Population Crisis". The Schwartz Collection of Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights. 20 March 2003.

McGreal, Chris. "No independent Palestine, Sharon insists". Middle East Information Center. 17 March 2003. 21 March 2003.

Melanne Andromecca Civic. "Water Scarcity in the Jordan River Basin". USIS Global Issues. March 1999. 20 March 2003.

"Not Even A Drop". B'Tselem. 8 May 2001. 19 April 2003.

Swain, Ashok. "A New Challenge: Water Scarcity in the Arab World". Arab Studies Quarterly. Winter98, Vol. 20 issue 1, p1. 19 April 2003.

"The Jordan River Basin". Green Cross International. 22 March 2003.

"The Israeli Blockade of Hebron". LAW - The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment. 27 Aug. 1998. 19 April 2003.

Topkaya, Bulent. "Water Resources in the Middle East: Forthcoming Problems and Solutions for Sustainable Development of the Region". Akdeniz University Faculty of Engineering, Dept of Environmental Engineering. Antalya Turkey. July 1998.

"United Nations General Assembly Press Release GA/9248". The Water Page. 21 March 2003.

"Water Consumption". M.F.A. 19 April 2003.

"Water Issues under the Oslo Accords". B'Tselem. 19 March 2003.

Welsh, Paul. "Water conflict in the Middle East". BBC News. 2 June 2000.

Zaslavsky, Dan. "Definition of Israel's Water Problems". Technion-Israel Institue of Technology. 14 June 2000.>.

Bill Totten


  • This is an excellent, excellent paper. I have to give a presentation on the water problem in Israel and have found nothing that can compare with this paper. Many thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:52 PM, October 24, 2005  

  • Hello,
    While I think your report blames Israel too much, it is still a master piece in pointing how much the demand for water is driving the problems in that region.

    The previous poster is correct, I also have never seen such a clear report on the water problems there. I wish the news reports here in Canada were written so well.

    Have you done any work on the use of sea-water -> Dead Sea to generate electric power and RO fresh water to reverse some of the damage done?

    Please note I am just changing ISPs, I don't have a e-mail address yet, but I will be back to read your blog some more.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:52 PM, January 03, 2006  

  • The only legal justification for depriving Palestinians of rainwater which falls on their own land is another out-dated legal theory, the theory of "absolute territorial integrity".

    By Anonymous Health Blog, at 7:05 PM, February 24, 2011  

  • Thanks so much for this post, really helpful material.

    By Anonymous girls escort roma, at 2:53 PM, July 14, 2011  

  • Quite effective info, thanks so much for the post.

    By Anonymous, at 2:46 AM, October 16, 2011  

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