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A river runs through it

27 December 2013 By Antony Currie

Israel’s tri-state water deal deserves two cheers. In mid-December Tel Aviv agreed to share some resources, and develop others, with Jordan and Palestine. Such regional agreements are crucial for economic growth in areas where water is scarce. Israel, though, is only giving up a token amount and remains in complete control.

Access to water is almost as contentious in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as land. Managing the flow of the Jordan river was an integral part of the Jewish state’s policy of “making the desert bloom” in its early years, augmented after the 1967 Six-Day War by the underground springs in the West Bank.

Each Israeli now uses around 300 liters a day while Palestinians manage just 73 liters, a third below what the World Health Organization reckons is the safe minimum, according to University of East Anglia researcher Mark Zeitoun.

The Palestinians have failed to upgrade leaky infrastructure or employ many water-saving techniques. Israel, meanwhile, re-uses 80 percent of residential consumption, according to Goldman Sachs. On the other hand, Israel’s army has on occasion ripped down everything from olive groves to rain cisterns in Palestine. Both sides accuse the other of using water as a weapon.

Whatever the reasons, the paucity of water in Palestine has stunted its economy. For example, only a tenth of agricultural land is irrigated, according to a World Bank study in October. Increasing that to its full potential in so-called Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank still controlled by Israel, could add perhaps $1.2 billion a year to output – equivalent to almost 20 percent of 2012 GDP, as measured by the Palestine Monetary Authority.

For now, Israel has agreed to sell 20 million cubic meters of desalinated water a year to the Palestinian Water Authority. That will increase its annual allotment by around a tenth. It’s not enough to bridge the gap, but it does mark a start at broader cooperation – as does Israel’s agreement to build a desalination plant with Jordan.

The three-way deal could also serve as a model for others, be it Egypt and 10 other countries on the Nile; Vietnam, Thailand and others on the Mekong River; or Iraq, Turkey and Syria on the Tigris and Euphrates. Sharing water more amicably doesn’t completely defuse international tensions. But greater cooperation that comes with economic benefits can only help.


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