Things could get worse

Like so many of the issues that divide Palestinians and Israelis under conditions of conflict, water has its urgent, seemingly intractable short-term aspect, and its long-term solutions. The urgent issues don’t seem to have changed appreciably since last dealt with the issue, just two years ago: Palestinian villages lack running water, over-pumped wells in the Gaza Strip are producing dangerously poor quality water, and the disparities between settler quality of life regarding water and that of neighboring Palestinian villages cry out for rectification. The situation is at its worst in summer.

As in the case of human rights and health issues, there is precious little that can be done while decision-makers are preoccupied with security; the path of the Israeli security fence, for example, has at times ignored negative ramifications for Palestinian access to water resources. Meanwhile, people of good will on both sides are devoting considerable effort toward improving, in small but important ways, Palestinian access to water and prevention of contamination of joint water resources by sewage runoff. Indeed, at the "ground" level, water cooperation has survived the current conflict remarkably well.

Yet no near term developments seem likely to create the necessary stability in the Palestinian Authority and confidence among donors, to enable long-term water solutions to be instituted. Indeed, the growing sense of anarchy and lack of leadership among Palestinians in many ways constitute a strong deterrent against constructive international involvement in water or other areas of development.

Do the real improvements, then, have to await an end to the conflict?

Two years ago I argued that Israel can and should not wait for peace in order to lay the groundwork for its role in solving regional water problems. Israel has a Mediterranean coastline where (in the long-term) large-scale desalination plants can be built, and/or (in the shorter term) freshwater shipments from Turkey can be offloaded. It has the technological know how and the capacity to raise funds to create a large desalination infrastructure. It is currently making a modest beginning in this direction, but only to supply anticipated Israeli needs.

If Israel were to build a 500 million cubic meter capacity water desalination infrastructure, it could supply a portion of the water needs of Palestine (the West Bank, but also Gaza until it can desalinate its own water), Jordan, and southern Syria. The requisite pipelines, and a subsidy for the cost of the water (which would be no higher than water pumped from wells), would almost certainly be financed by an international community eager to help out. After all, at the time of Camp David II (July 2000), Israel and the United States were seriously discussing an American-led campaign to raise ten billion dollars precisely for this purpose.

Yet that vision was supposed to be realized under conditions of Israeli-Palestinian peace. And peace has receded further and further into the realm of illusion in the course of the past four years. In the absence of peace–indeed, with no leadership for peace in either Israel or Palestine, and no real external leadership from the United States–and with unilateral separation increasingly accepted by Israelis as the only feasible interim measure, it appears doubtful that basic solutions for the region’s water problems will be undertaken in the foreseeable future.

Remember the schemes hatched by Middle East visionaries to bring water from the Nile to Gaza and the Negev? To lay a peace pipeline from Turkey via Syria and Lebanon to Jordan, Israel and Palestine and even Saudi Arabia? The Med-Dead and Red-Dead pipelines or canals? These ideas never got much traction even in the best of times. Today they can be filed away for the most part as curiosities. The logic of the countries of the Levant living at peace with one another and interacting on key infrastructure issues like water has been sidelined.

Israel has the requisite infrastructure to cope with its water shortages in the near term. The Palestinians, under conditions of conflict, growing anarchy and possibly separation imposed by Israel, do not.