The new Memorandum of Understanding signed between Israel and West Bank in December 2013 goes some way to addressing Palestinian water shortages but it does not address the root causes of this shortage and the disparity in water supply between Israel and the West Bank.
The memorandum signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities stipulates that the Israeli water authority, Mekorot, will supply the West Bank with 20-30 million cubic metres of desalinated water a year. This will help to alleviate severe water shortages that currently beset the West Bank. In 2009 the World Bank reported that litres per capita availability in many areas of the West Bank fell far below WHO’s recommended guideline. WHO recommends 100 litres of water per capita per day (lpcd), but for a quarter of the population connected to the water supply network availability fell to below 50 lpcd.
The new supply of water that the West Bank will receive represents a 21.5% increase upon its current total supply of 139.6m cubic metres. This has the potential to increase water availability for each person in the West Bank by approximately 47 litres per day. Such an increase could bring the average total water supply in the West Bank closer to WHO’s optimal water supply recommendation.
The new memorandum is also a significant political achievement for the region. Both sides have managed to put the greater Arab-Israeli conflict aside and cooperate over water to improve the livelihoods of people in the West Bank. Such breakthroughs bring both sides together which may help to spur reconciliation and peace in the region.
However, whilst this agreement will supply the West Bank with much needed water, it will not help to get rid of some of the root causes behind the severe water shortages in the West Bank. The World Bank, Amnesty International and the UNHCR have all criticised Israel at times for how it has restricted Palestinian access to water in the West Bank. In the past, West Bank Palestinian communities have had their wells destroyed by the IDF. Palestinians have also been restricted from developing their own domestic water sources because of Israeli vetoes in a Joint Water Committee (JWC) that manages the water infrastructure in the West Bank. Such actions have had the effect of limiting the Palestinians water authority’s ability to develop its own domestic water supply system.
All the while, Israeli authorities have been known to promote the development of water infrastructure to Israeli settler communities in the West Bank to the detriment of the Palestinian population. Israeli authorities have also over-extracted groundwater from aquifers in the West Bank above an agreed quota with the Palestinians. Consequently, in 2009 the World Bank noted that ‘Palestinian per capita access to water resources in the West Bank is a quarter of Israeli access and is declining.’
Part of the water shortages can be put down the Palestinian Water Authority’s weakness; the PWA does recognise that it struggles to cater for the population of the West Bank and has asked for outside help to help improve its capabilities. Nevertheless, the new Memorandum of Understanding does nothing to change the conduct of Israeli authorities when it comes to water supply in the West Bank. Instead, the West Bank has now become more dependent upon Israel for its water supply; 49% of the water supplied to the West Bank will come from Israeli sources, up from 38% in 2009. Given the conduct of Israeli authorities in the past, this may be a cause for concern for some West Bank Palestinians.
Above all, it is important that the West Bank gets the water that it needs. It should not be a concern if this water comes from a foreign country or not, especially if hydro-political cooperation may facilitate cooperation in other areas. However, taking into consideration the conduct of Israel in the past and some of the reasons behind water shortages in the West Bank, it is important to question this agreement and consider what other measures may need to be taken in the region to ensure an equitable supply of water to the West Bank.