Annexation will threaten region’s water and food security, report says

Arava Institute for Environmental Studies predicts West Bank move would also freeze essential cooperation on environmental issues, likely intensify effects of climate change

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Palestinian farmers harvest onions in Jordan Valley in the West Bank, on February 10, 2020. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinian farmers harvest onions in Jordan Valley in the West Bank, on February 10, 2020. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Potential Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank is likely to intensify the effects of climate change, threaten the region’s strategic water supplies, endanger the food security of the region’s Palestinians and halt essential cross-border environmental cooperation, a new report has warned.

Issued Sunday by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the paper said: “Unilateral approaches like annexation of parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley threaten to block any possible cooperative regional approach to solving the water, energy and food security issues which currently plague the region and will be exacerbated by the growing population and climate change.”

It stressed, “Climate change is a cross-border global issue with serious natural resource and environmental justice implications… As the world and the region are trying to recover from a devastating pandemic and facing an existential threat from rising average annual global temperatures, leaders of Israel must ask themselves if this is the time to attempt to fulfill the dreams of a small minority of Israeli citizens while ignoring the needs of the majority of Israeli citizens and our neighbors for a future with hope.”

Following the January release of the US administration’s peace plan for the region, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Israeli government would annex the 132 settlements in the West Bank and the strategic Jordan Valley, some 30 percent of the territory. Despite disagreements among Israeli leaders, reservations emanating from the US, and fierce international criticism, he pledged to start the process on July 1, which has since passed. He recently cited “diplomatic and security considerations” for the delay, and it is not clear whether the plan will move forward.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Jordan Valley with former US National Security Advisor John Bolton, June 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Abir Sultan, File)

The Arava Institute carries out research and brings together Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, and participants from around the world to study environmental issues and build personal relationships with the aim of protecting shared environmental resources and serving as a model for cross-border cooperation in other areas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Warning that the Jordan River Basin is a climate change hotspot, it cited research showing that the region’s dry summers are set to lengthen by two months, at the expense of winters — the main period of rainfall that allows for agriculture year-round.

The Sea of Galilee in northern Israel — the main water reservoir for Israel as well as Syria, Jordan and the West Bank — is on course to shrink. This is despite the occurrence of occasional rainy winters, such as last year’s, which enabled the lake to replenish itself with fresh water, keep salinity levels in check, and give some respite to pumping from the region’s second main storage source — groundwater. The lake, said the report, is “one of the most important parameters in Israel’s homeland security.”

View of the Sea of Galilee as seen from the promenade of Tiberias on March 18, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israel’s groundwater is found in two underground aquifers, both of which run between Israel and the Palestinians. A substantial part of the Mountain Aquifer lies within the West Bank, where it is the only accessible source of water for the Palestinian Authority. Gaza’s only source of fresh water is the Coastal Aquifer, a subterranean basin that runs through the Gaza Strip and along part of the Israeli coast. Both aquifers are already being overpumped, with the result that water quality is declining — particularly in the Gaza Strip, where it has become undrinkable — and with population growth and climate warming, demand will only increase.

Pumping has to be properly managed through strong bilateral water agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said the report, to ensure that the aquifers can continue to function properly. But “unilateral annexation by Israel of territory in the West Bank will mean less access to groundwater for the Palestinians and will make the opportunity of bilateral water agreements almost impossible. Without water security there cannot be regional security — unilateral actions will threaten both.”

A Palestinian man fills a tank with clean water, to be trucked for families who don't have safe drinking water at their homes in Gaza City, on March 22, 2012 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
A Palestinian man fills a tank with clean water, to be trucked for families who don’t have safe drinking water at their homes in Gaza City, on March 22, 2012 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Annexation, the report continued, also acts as a “threat multiplier” by preventing moves to reach a sustainable and fair solution for saving the shrinking Dead Sea.

Finally, annexing the Jordan Valley would threaten Palestinian food security, the report said. The Jordan Valley, a fertile strip of land that runs along what remains of the Jordan River, forms more than a quarter of the West Bank. While relatively sparsely populated, it produces 60 percent of the vegetables consumed by the West Bank Palestinian population. That population is expected to double over the next 40 to 50 years.

Palestinian farmers harvest onions in Jordan Valley in the West Bank, on February 10, 2020. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

“Annexation may deny access to thousands of Palestinian farmers to agricultural land which both Israel and Palestine rely on to feed the population in the region,” the report warned. “If the food supply to the Palestinians is reduced due to the limitation of access or the expropriation of Palestinian lands, food security will be threatened.”

The report stressed that its work “is not part of the right/left political spectrum. It has received support from multiple Israeli governments over time and addresses the needs of the planet earth and the human beings who populate it. Engaging in cross-border environmental cooperation will be impossible once the annexation process has begun and will lead to major environmental consequences.”

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