Transboundary water cooperation in the Levant

Water cooperation remains a key challenge for Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Jordan. Oxford University researchers are collaborating with key stakeholders to improve water resource management in the region.

The breakdown of the Oslo peace process in the 90s, left Israeli-Palestinian water cooperation in a state of limbo. The “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach adopted by negotiators, stymied an agreement on shared water resources, which could not take place in the absence a broader permanent settlement. This uncertainty has been to the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians and their riparian neighbours in Jordan. The absence of an agreement left a governance vacuum which has led to severe environmental degradation, while maintaining an unfair water allocation arrangement.

Over-abstraction has vastly diminished the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, and the Dead Sea; the once mighty Jordan now sees 95% of its flow diverted, and is a mere trickle as it enters the Dead Sea, which has lost a third of its surface area, and continues to recede at a rate of one meter per year.

The Interim Agreement (Oslo II), which was to provide the basis for final peace negotiations, established inequitable water sharing of the Mountain Aquifer, dividing water 80:20 in favour of Israel. This was not intended as a permanent solution, but has endured over the last two decades, significantly restricting the water resource development within the West Bank.

These challenges are not confined to the Jordan Basin. In Gaza, 1.8 million rely on the shallow, over-abstracted, coastal aquifer – a resource blighted by saline intrusion, untreated sewage effluent and agriculture run-off; 95% of groundwater is no longer potable and by end of year this is expected to rise to 100%. There is also currently no single functioning wastewater treatment plant in Gaza: an estimated 9 million litres of raw sewage flow into the Eastern Mediterranean daily. This forced the temporary shutdown of Israel’s neighbouring Ashkelon desalination plant earlier this year. Similarly, transboundary flow of untreated effluent between the West Bank to Israel continues to pollute both surface and groundwater.

Scope for future water cooperation

The Ashkelon shutdown is a stark reminder of how the fortunes of Israeli and Palestinians are bound together: the flows and water and sewage effluent do not respect man made boundaries. Transboundary cooperation is not only essential for protecting the environment, but is also key to peace and prosperity in the region.

Fostering water cooperation between Israel, Palestine and Jordan is a primary focus of EcoPeace (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East), a peace-building, environmental NGO. Israeli and Jordanian directors Gidon Bromberg and Munqeth Mehyar recently presented the work of EcoPeace at a seminar held at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, while visiting Oxford to attend the Skoll World Forum. In 2009, the Skoll Foundation recognised EcoPeace’s work via a $750,000 Social Entrepreneurship Award. EcoPeace has played a key role in regional water negotiations, proposing an approach to water sharing between Israelis and Palestinians in 2012.

While the experience of the past two decades does not suggest a bright future for regional water cooperation, EcoPeace is quietly confident that conditions are now ripe for change. EcoPeace believes that the political burden of reaching an agreement has been greatly reduced by recent water supply advances. Israel is now a leader in desalination and reuse technology, and has significantly increased potable water availability via these technologies over the past decade.

While desalination is energy intensive, the proximity of water production to coastal cities, makes it price competitive when compared to pumping water from the Sea of Galillee in the north. Supplying coastal settlements frees up more natural water elsewhere in Israel’s well-connected water distribution system, allowing more water to be released from the Sea of Galilee along the Jordan, or to be abstracted from the Mountain Aquifer. With more water in the system, the potential for political concessions is now much greater.

Oxford’s contribution to water research in the Middle East.

Last month, Baroness Deech raised a question in the House of Lords highlighting the role of UK water research collaboration in Israel and the Middle East more generally. Oxford is leading water research in the region via a number of projects:

Oxford researchers are collaborating with EcoPeace in Bethlehem and Tel Aviv and the WANA Institute in Amman, on the DeFWS (Delivering Food and Water Security for a Middle East in Flux) project. The project, funded by British Council Institutional Links program under their Trilateral Water Research call, is led by Professor Steve Rayner of Oxford’s Institute of Science, Innovation and Society (INSIS) and coordinated by Dr Michael Gilmont (Environmental Change Institute and INSIS)

The project, which was launched in April 2016 and runs until early 2017, will specifically analyse current water use levels between different economic sectors in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, the water intensity of different elements of agricultural production. Evaluations will be made as to the potential for greater economic returns on water across different sectors, and the scope for increased agricultural productivity through changes in crop productivity and crop type. Additional work will examine the feasibility of change from a political and social perspective, and evaluate relative risks to water and food security of action and inaction.

ITRC – UNOPS collaboration
The Oxford-led ITRC (Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium) is collaborating with the UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services) to support infrastructure planning in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The project aims to apply ITRC’s innovative “system of systems” approach, which supports the planning of interdependent infrastructure, help develop a national infrastructure master-plan for the Palestinian Authority. It is expected to the first phase of a longer term engagement with UNOPS which will see further roll-out of ITRC approach to other post-disaster, post-conflict areas.

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