The (successful) politics of West Bank water

Israel and the PA have been quietly cooperating to ensure a safe, clean, and water-ful environment west of the Jordan River

Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau speaks at the Cleantech Business Forum (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau speaks at the Cleantech Business Forum (Photo credit: Courtesy)

While politicians in Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue their on again/off again posturing and peacemaking, some facts on the ground are bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer together — notably when it comes to environmental issues.

Quietly, Israel and the PA have been cooperating extensively to preserve the environment of the entire land mass west of the Jordan River, according to a top water engineer from a large Palestinian-controlled city in the West Bank. The PA needs and wants Israel’s help in keeping water clean, expanding agricultural opportunities for farmers, and ensuring safe disposal of waste and trash, the engineer said.

Attending the 17th annual International Cleantech Business Forum in Tel Aviv this week along with about a dozen other PA engineers and municipal officials, “Amar” (who asked that his real name and employer’s name not be used in this article) told The Times of Israel that everyone in the PA, without exception, had nothing but admiration for Israel’s accomplishments in technology, especially water and agricultural tech. “We want and need the advanced systems that Israel has developed to preserve the environment and to enhance agricultural output. We are neighbors, and we share the same environment, so it is to both our advantages that we cooperate on these issues.”

Far from the limelight, said Amar, Israel and the PA have developed numerous joint projects to tackle environmental problems. “For example, this June a new sewage treatment facility in Emek Hefer will come on line, which will be connected to sewage flow from Tulkarm, Jenin, and other West Bank towns.”

The project is actually the completion of a long-standing effort by officials on both sides of the Green Line to do something about the wastewater from PA cities which had for years choked and threatened to destroy the Alexander River, which flows near Netanya. The project required extensive cooperation between Israel and the PA, with contractors building cesspools, pipes, and other infrastructure. “Even during the wars [Operation Defensive Shield in 2002-2003, Operation Pillar of Defense last year] the cooperation continued,” Amar said. The more, and higher quality, water available, the more West Bank farmers will be able to plant, and the higher their incomes and living standards will be. “That’s good for everyone as well,” Amar added.

Amar’s comments presaged those of outgoing Water and Energy Minister Uzi Landau, who spoke a few minutes later at a symposium on water and energy at the Cleantech Forum. “Our neighbors are in great need,” said Landau, citing the severe and chronic water shortage in Jordan, and the longstanding erosion of water resources in Syria that has forced many farmers off their land. “Water in the Middle East is becoming scarce, even more scarce than oil. Already, in the past, it has sparked war in the region.”

While the water situation around Israel deteriorates, Israel, said Landau, has found the solution to its own water problems — and is ready and willing to export its knowledge and experience to any who seek it, include its long-time enemies. “Within a few years, there will be a 70% to 80% chance that the water coming out of your tap will be desalinated.” Thanks to technology, Landau said, “Israel’s water supply is now stable.”

Already, Landau said, about a quarter of Israel’s water economy is based on desalinated water, a figure that will reach 50% within two years; the goal is to raise that to 75% by 2020.

But desalination isn’t the only area Israel excels in. “Already 75% of the water supplied to agriculture comes from recycled sewage and waste water. According to the UN, which has declared 2013 ‘The Year of Water,’ there is no ‘waste water,’ only water that has not been recovered. The UN has called on nations around the world to aim for a 50% recovery rate of wastewater by 2025. In Israel we have a 95% recovery rate.”

Israeli companies, concluded Landau, are the world leaders in desalination and sewage recycling. “And if our neighbors choose to seek our help, we will gladly provide it,” Landau added.

For Amar, that invitation is nothing new. “We are just as interested in preserving water resources and having a clean environment as Israel, and we have done our share to preserve resources as well.”

For example, Amar said, the PA has stopped drawing water from the badly-depleted Jordan River, even though it is entitled to a share, along with Jordan, according to the Oslo Accords. Instead, Israel has been compensating the PA with water from the National Water Carrier, which draws from the Kinneret, the Coastal Aquifer, and increasingly, from desalination plants.

Of course, no discussion of issues involving Israel and the PA can avoid politics, but for Amar, politics takes a distant second to practicalities, at least in the area of environmental cooperation.

“It is true that we are still under occupation,” he said, somewhat apologetically, hesitant to offend the sensibilities of an Israeli in the heart of Tel Aviv. “One day the political issues will be worked out, but no matter what happens, we must continue to cooperate as equals,” a situation, Amar added, that for the large part prevails right now.

In fact, as far as he is concerned, politicians should stick to their jobs and not get in the way of the water professionals. “Cooperation in these areas is good, and we have respectful relations with our Israeli colleagues on the basis of a common concern. Personally, I have no use for politicians, and I don’t trust them, neither yours nor ours,” said Amar. “I trust scientists and specialists. That’s why I’m at this show.”

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