Event Reports

Water - a Connecting Element

by Nadine Carlson (geb. Mensel)

Roundtable Discussion on Water and Energy Supply

Disregarding all the tension currently sweeping the region, channels of dialogue do still exist. To make use of those opportunities is of utmost importance to the work of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Israel. That is why we posed the question whether some disputes related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be addressed on a grassroots or practical level. What difference does it make if policy experts and researchers become involved in the negotiation scheme, who are not challenged by an electorate?

When it comes to identifying such a policy field that calls for a pragmatic approach, three preconditions ought to be met: first, a problem exists that is affecting Israelis and Palestinians to a comparable degree already. Second, if the problem remains neglected the costs for all sides will become tremendously high, and third, the problem itself is of an interdependent nature, i.e., if only one party intends to act it will be of no effect unless the other is taking on an active role, too.

Which areas of interest do fulfil these criteria? Certainly more than one can think of, but the issue of water allocation seems particularly important. Therefore, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in cooperation with the S. Daniel Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College hosted a roundtable discussion*, bringing together water experts from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan. In that respect, the event served another purpose: to strengthen regional and cross-border cooperation. The underlying rationale is clear: If distinct policy areas exist where not only the affected parties can express their interests, but were actually able to work together on pragmatic solutions, examples of good practice might spill over to other disputed issues.

Dealing with water allocation is of special significance, because it is a connecting element in many respects. Take the Mountain Aquifer, the Dead Sea, the Lake Kinneret or the Jordan, for example, they are transboundary water bodies. Thus, the adjoining countries or territories need to engage in direct dialogue to address water pollution, water scarcity and recycling. Moreover, water serves as a connecting element due to its link to producing solar energy. With the expansion of economic activities and ongoing population growth in the region it is of no question that the consumption of energy will increase. Because of shrinking conventional energy resources, such as oil and gas, renewables will increasingly serve as substitutes. In order to run a solar energy plant, water is needed constantly. But different economic and anthropologic activities compete when resources are scarce. Using desalinated water instead of fresh water to run a solar energy plant is a viable solution worth investing in. The participants of the roundtable discussed this very idea of solving problems of water allocation and energy production at the same time.

A representative from the Ministry of Regional Cooperation emphasised on the many, but to the wider public unknown projects that bring together Palestinians and Israelis in the field of environmental protection. His ministry is particularly addressing facilitators and experts who work in the water and energy sectors. Through those cooperations results can be achieved within a reasonable time, proving that the two sides share interests and are ready to take action. The representative from the ministry elaborated on various examples, such as desalination plants, sewage and sanitation infrastructure, as well as agricultural water distribution. If bilateral cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians was to increase, savings of up to NIS 14 billion can be achieved.

Michael Mertes, Director of the KAS Israel Office, compared the prospect and the necessity of trans-border cooperation in the Middle East to the beginnings of European integration. In that respect, cross-border activities of German, Dutch and Belgian municipalities might serve as an example. For the time being, one cannot overlook the fact that opportunities for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue were not necessarily increasing over the course of the past months. Therefore, the roundtable discussion should mark only the beginning of further engagements, especially when it comes to environmental topics.

Legal, political, moral and economic dimensions in the area of joint water and energy projects were discussed later on. As for the allocation of water and the supply of energy, economically convincing incentives need to be applied according to one participating consulting engineer. In order to increase the supply of fresh water to the Palestinians, desalination would help to provide water to the agricultural sector, which currently uses most of the fresh water. In order to proceed in that direction, one will need a proper analysis of the water and energy needs of the various economic sectors. Although a lot of international donors are occupied with such endeavours already, the progress seems to be very limited according to the consultant.

A water expert from Ben-Gurion-University of the Negev remarked on the implicit threats of the current patterns of water and energy consumption. The overuse of water resources, especially from the aquifers and the Lake Kinneret, have led to salinization and pollution. Israeli research labs are leading in developing new crops that rely on few water only. Thus, the transfer of know-how and technology should be broadened and intensified.

But to increase efficiency in water consumption through applying state-of-the-art technology needs to be complemented by enlarging the volume for usage through accessing alternative sources. As an expert in the field from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem calculated, it is possible to save up to 10 million cubic meters (MCM) per annum through repairing leaking pipes alone. Another 15 MCM can be added, if drip irrigation is applied systematically rather than the widely used practice of flooding the fields.

One has to keep in mind that saving water is also a matter related to the expansion of renewable energies. An economist from the School of Business Administration at the Netanya Academic College explained that especially solar panels require a lot of water. New (low-cost) technologies ought to be invested in that lead to less consumption of water, but allow for an increase in energy production. Israel seems to be the right place to elaborate on such as endeavours.

Unfortunately though, the development of modern technology is not enough. Water and energy policies in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan ought to see changes, as well. Until there is no political will from the top, the current situation will likely remain as it is, like two representatives from the Friends of the Earth/ Middle East Branch observed. Moreover, according to his impression the water issue is kept hostage of the conflict. A de-politization should therefore take place allowing for pragmatic approaches and creative solutions. In the end, without a regionally integrated water management the situation will deteriorate dramatically to everyone’s loss.

By drawing attention to the crisis of the Dead Sea, whose sea level is decreasing by one meter per annum, as well as the water scarcity in the Jordanian capital, Amman, the roundtable participants became aware of the manifold hydrological problems in the region. Amman does not have access to fresh water on a regular basis, but only for six hours a day. In order to supply the city, water is pumped from Aqaba at the Red Sea up north at very high costs (approximately 17 per cent of the government’s budget annually). At the same time, the Jordanian government subsidizes water for agricultural use. Accessing other water sources and reducing subsidies would immediately free government funds to develop other sectors of the Jordanian economy and society.

After the presentations from the experts, the discussion centred on water consumption in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, as well as on the outlook toward joint bilateral or even trilateral water projects. It became clear that more efforts need to be undertaken to increase the volume of treated water, which can be reused for agricultural purposes, among others. Most of the water which Palestinians in the West Bank use, remains untreated due to several reasons, e.g. lack of technology and infrastructure, but also due to a lack of awareness. Water pipelines are not kept and maintained properly, thus, a considerable amount of water is lost because of leakage.

Future joint projects in the field of water and energy management should learn from cross-border cooperation endeavours in other regions. Singapore and Malaysia present possible case studies to look at. As far as future Israeli-Palestinian agreements are concerned, three different goals should be targeted: (1) to find and develop new water sources, (2) to treat water and reuse it, and (3) to distribute water according to the principles of the market. But setting up expert committees alone will not suffice. Any future cooperation should seriously seek to involve representatives from the private business sector, the civil society and decision-makers from the local or municipal levels. The issues of water allocation and energy production, especially with regard to renewable energy, can only be dealt with a simultaneous bottom-up and top-down approach.

  • Note that the participants agreed to confidentiality. This roundtable was a non-public event. For the sake of future cooperation projects, we refrain from mentioning any names.

Nadine Mensel