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Political Currents of Water Management: Challenges in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan

Posted by Kate Voss, UCCHM Water Policy Fellow. This is the fourth in a series of posts on our Water Diplomacy trip to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine inspired by our paper on ‘Groundwater Depletion in the Middle East.’ Other posts in the series: 1) Middle East Lost a Dead Sea Amount of Water in 7...

Posted by Kate Voss, UCCHM Water Policy Fellow. This is the fourth in a series of posts on our Water Diplomacy trip to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine inspired by our paper on ‘Groundwater Depletion in the Middle East.’ Other posts in the series: 1) Middle East Lost a Dead Sea Amount of Water in 7 Years, by Jay Famiglietti, 2) Parallel Worlds:  Water Management in Israel and California, by UCCHM Policy Fellow Kate Voss, and 3) Desalinating Holy Waters with the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance by UCCHM Graduate Fellow Sasha Richey.

The geopolitics of water management in the Middle East are primarily governed by the basic distribution of freshwater resources: there are vast differences between the naturally available water resources in the region. Layer to this the additional complexity of political stability, financial assets, and other socioeconomic factors, and the potential for improved transboundary water management in the Middle East becomes vastly complicated.

Simply, some nations have few water resources and a lack of capabilities to effectively manage their limited resources – their water security is at risk. Other nations, those with more technological and economic capacity to maximize their limited resources, have less at stake. Our recent trip to the Middle East in February underscored the well-known perspective that while Israel is making great advances in water management in the region, Palestine and Jordan are simply further behind.

The actions, decisions, and processes that led to this imbalance are complex. While Israel is currently a regional (and global) leader in water management strategies, the nation has faced many challenges with competing user-groups, made trade-offs between short-term economic investment versus long-term sustainability, and leveraged its economic and political clout to ensure that the financial assets were in hand to prioritize water management solutions.

Israel’s path to achieve water management success was not simple or easy. At the same time, while Jordan and Palestine have historically encountered many struggles to manage their incredibly scarce water resources, water managers are actively striving to improve the technological capacity and policy portfolio to optimize water use in the future.

Israel’s Geopolitical Advantages

As described in our previous post in Water Currents, Israel is a regional and global leader in water management strategies. Israel has a diverse portfolio of water sources that includes an extensive supply of desalinated water and recycled wastewater and, consequently, puts less pressure on its limited, natural freshwater sources from surface water and groundwater. Israeli water managers have detailed knowledge and data about how much water they have, the precise source of that water, how much water is being used at any given moment, and specifically who is using that water and for what purpose.  Every last drop of water is accounted for. There is a direct line of communication between the Water Authority and Mekorot, the national water utility company, which allows for the supply and demand as well as the pricing of water in Israel to be meticulously monitored and regulated. Israel’s water management system is a well-oiled, robust machine.

Israel’s detailed understanding of its water resources has allowed the nation to strategically invest in new technology and solutions that allow for more stable and sustainable water planning. Furthermore, the economic and political clout that Israel can leverage to finance such solutions is significant. Without investment, political commitment, and long-term planning, Israel’s water success would not exist. In addition, Israel’s geographic assets – mainly it’s shoreline on the Mediterranean Sea – are essential to its success. The Mediterranean provides Israel an unlimited supply of water as long as the investment for infrastructure and energy costs for desalination are met. With new natural gas reserves discovered off the coast, once prohibitive energy expenses will now be obsolete. Armed with detailed knowledge about its water resources, new energy sources, and a strong sociopolitical backing, Israel’s water future looks bright.

An ancient aqueduct in East Bethlehem now runs dry and is filled with trash - a symbol of the West Bank's deteriorated water infrastructure.  Photo by: Kate Voss.
An ancient aqueduct in East Bethlehem now runs dry and is filled with trash – a symbol of the West Bank’s deteriorated water infrastructure. Photo by: Kate Voss.

Tapping the Root of Jordan and Palestine’s Struggle

Yet while Israel is leading the world in innovative water strategies, its neighbors, Palestine and Jordan, are clearly struggling. The core differences in the naturally available water resources as well as the social, economic, and political capability to address water resource management challenges was staggering. Before meeting with water management officials in Jordan, we had the opportunity to drive beyond the sprawl of Amman and into the surrounding desert.

The land outside the city boundaries is vast, dry, and desolate – there are no water resources to speak of. Communities that dot the highway are dependent on either dwindling groundwater reserves or weekly water tankers. The situation is dire. Without proactive efforts to find and transport new sources of water, many of these communities will probably cease to exist, leaving only the shadow of a civilization, akin to the ancient ruins of Petra.

Jordan’s water managers are trying their best to develop innovative, long-term solutions to its water crisis. The pioneering solutions from Israel, such as desalination or wastewater recycling, may have a place in Jordan’s water strategy, but even those options are difficult to acquire. Wastewater recycling necessitates steep financial investment, as does desalination, and these solutions often force Jordan to place its water security in the hands of another nation. Neither option is perfect. Consequently, long-distance conveyance alternatives from friendly neighbors, such as pumping groundwater from Saudi Arabia or tanking water from Turkey, do not seem obscure when forced to cope with a physical water scarcity emergency.

Jordan’s dire water situation is not for lack of effort or vision, but mainly a lack of resources. Few natural water assets combined with a weak socioeconomic foundation makes investment in long-term water strategies incredibly difficult. In Palestine, the situation is similar. According to a World Bank report from 2009, “economic disparities between West Bank Gaza (WBG) and Israel are large – in 2005, Israel’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita was almost eighteen times the Palestinian GNI per capita. Water resources availability in the two neighbors is likewise far apart, with fresh water per capita in Israel is about four times that of WBG. Whereas Israel is known for efficient water infrastructure and management, Palestinians are struggling to attain the most basic level of infrastructure and services of a low income country.”  Add to the weak economy the fact that water rights in Palestine are directly linked to the broader conflict between Palestine and Israel, particularly in the West Bank, and water management in Palestine becomes more convoluted and challenging.  Palestine’s situation is analogous to Jordan’s crisis, but with the added complexity of unclear sovereign rights to access and improve water resources.

The moon rises over Amman, a sprawling city surrounded by desert.  With increasing population and limited water resources, Jordan's capitol is already facing a water crisis.  Photo by: Kate Voss.
The moon rises over Amman, a sprawling city surrounded by desert. With increasing population and limited water resources, Jordan’s capital is already facing a water crisis. Photo by: Kate Voss.

Knowledge for a Sustainable Water Future

While visiting with water management officials  in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, we discussed the shared need for better monitoring — a need that the U.S. has in common with the Middle East — in order to have essential, baseline data for characterizing regional water availability.  Based on this information, water managers can develop short- and long-term strategies that are rooted in the reality of actual water availability and use. Without this information, any decisions or solutions are based on speculation, at best, and politics at worst.

As previously mentioned, Israel has a stronger foundation in data and monitoring than either of Palestine and Jordan. That said, water managers in Palestine and Jordan are actively making substantial efforts to lay the framework for an improved water monitoring system and are beginning to collect core data on their native resources.  With clear evidence about their changing water availability, water managers will hold more power to leverage for the political and economic support they need to create actual change. In the future, our hope is that we at UCCHM will be able to support these efforts by providing training workshops based on our research, to provide the capacity for water managers in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan to utilize new advances in satellite data to monitor and manage their water.

With these fundamental data and information in hand, water managers in Palestine and Jordan can begin to close the gap on their investment needs and to implement their own innovative solutions to tackle their water challenges. For Israel, there are clear economic and political benefits for improved water management in Palestine and Jordan. With any luck, water management will come forward as an issue of mutual interest for regional cooperation. This will, of course, necessitate strong political, economic, and social backing from national, regional, and international leaders.

Throughout the Middle East we heard that “water cannot be removed from politics” in this region. Consequently, the broader political and socioeconomic intricacies must be incorporated into water management and vice versa. With this complexity in mind we can only hope that the political currents of the region lead to improved water management and that, collectively, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan can see the benefit of sustainable solutions for their shared water future.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jay Famiglietti
Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he was Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Jay's research group uses satellites and develops computer models to track changing freshwater availability around the globe. Jay is a frequent speaker and an active science communicator. His team's research is often featured in the international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, CNN/Fareed Zakaria GPS, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and others. Jay also appears in the water documentary called 'Last Call at the Oasis.'