BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 2

In part one of this article we looked at the various historical claims made by Martin Asser in his article on water – one of four in a series entitled “Obstacles to Peace” which appear among the pages comprising the Israel country profile on the BBC News website. This second part will deal with Asser’s claims regarding the current situation.

When he turns to the subject of contemporary water affairs in Judea and Samaria, Asser’s sloppy use of history becomes more than just badly researched misinformation: it forms a basis from which he advances a specific political narrative. 

“In the 1967 war Israel gained exclusive control of the waters of the West Bank and the Sea of Galilee, although not the Litani.

Those resources – the West Bank’s mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee – give Israel about 60% of its fresh water, a billion cubic metres per year.

Heated arguments rage about the rights to the mountain aquifer. Israel, and Israeli settlements, take about 80% of the aquifer’s flow, leaving the Palestinians with 20%.

Israel says the proportion of water it uses has not changed substantially since the 1950s. The rain which replenishes the aquifer may fall on the occupied territory, but the water does flow down into pre-1967 Israel.”

 Asser’s claim that the Sea of Galilee provides 60% of Israel’s fresh water is long out of date (the actual figure is 10% today) and he  fails to give adequate explanation of that last sentence, either in terms of the geography itself or its ramifications. 

A very valuable resource on this subject is the paper published in January 2012 (which is well worth reading in full) by Professor Haim Gvirtzman – Professor of Hydrology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. First, it is useful to take a look at the mountain aquifer basins and to note that indeed they do not lie solely in areas under Palestinian Authority control. 

Mountain aquifer

As Prof. Gvirtzman notes in his paper: 

“Geographical and hydrological factors are among the natural parameters according to which shared water resources should be divided. Since the natural replenishment of the Mountain Aquifer (by rainfall) takes place principally in the area that is or will be part of Palestinian territory, the Palestinians claim that all or most of this water belongs to them. This claim, however, ignores the fact that the geographical and hydrological characteristics of the aquifer include not only the replenishment areas but also the discharging areas. As seen in Figure 11, the Mountain Aquifer is discharged through major springs located west and north of the Green Line – specifically the Yarkon springs (which naturally collect 220 MCM/Y) and the Taninim springs (which naturally collect 110 MCM/Y) in the western basin, and the Harod and Beit Shean springs (which naturally collect 110 MCM/Y) in the northern basin. Also, the storage areas of the aquifer are not located beneath the replenishment area, but rather beneath the discharge areas, as the water flows eastward and westward away from the replenishment area.”

Asser’s simplistic claim that Israelis “take about 80% of the aquifer’s flow, leaving the Palestinians with 20%” thus not only ignores geography, but also the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, signed in Washington, D.C., September 28, 1995 as part of the Oslo Accords. Under that agreement, the allocation of water from the mountain aquifer to Israel and the Palestinian Authority is clearly set out. Useful information on that subject is available in this factsheet

“According to the agreement (Article 40) Palestinians are entitled to 196 MCM of self-extracted water per year, plus an additional 31 MCM that Israel needs to actively supply from its own water and with its own infrastructure. Combined, the Agreement states that the Palestinians in the West Bank are entitled to an availability of 227MCM of water.”

In practical terms, Israel supplies the PA with more water than it is obliged to provide under the terms of the agreement.

“In reality, West Bank Palestinians have access to over 248 MCM of fresh natural water. This is because Israel supplies an extra 21 MCM beyond its obligation.(2010 figure). Adding to this, approximately 17MCM of water is extracted through unapproved wells from the Northern and Western Basins, against the Interim Agreement and at Israel’s expense (because the water current naturally flows towards the Israeli side).

This gives us a per capita sum of 124 m3/year without counting unapproved extraction (based on 2010 census).

In comparison, Israel’s per capita sum of fresh natural water is 150 m3/year . (2010 census)” [emphasis added]

Despite the fact that 96% of the Palestinians living in the area reside in the PA-controlled territories and hence have not lived under “occupation” by a “belligerent military power” for almost twenty years, Asser writes:

“But the Palestinians say they are prevented from using their own water resources by a belligerent military power, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to buy water from their occupiers at inflated prices.”

And despite the fact that two decades ago the Palestinian Authority signed agreements setting out the terms of joint water management between Israelis and Palestinians within the framework of the Oslo accords, Asser continues:

“Moreover, Israel allocates to its citizens, including those living in settlements in the West Bank deemed illegal under international law, between three and five times more water than the Palestinians.

This, Palestinians say, is crippling to their agricultural economy.

With water consumption outstripping supply in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, Palestinians say they are always the first community to be rationed as reserves run dry, with the health problems that entails.”

In fact, most of the water supplies of those 96% of Palestinians living in Areas A & B are under the auspices of the PA’s Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). As Prof.  Gvirtzman explains:

“The Palestinians claim that the water consumption of the average Israeli is four times greater than that of the average Palestinian.However, this claim is not factually supported.”

“In 1967, Israel’s total water consumption was 508 cubic meters per capita per year (m3/c/y), while that of the Palestinians was 93 m3/c/y. But by 2006 the gap had significantly narrowed to 170 m3/c/y for Israelis and 129 m3/c/y for Palestinians.  The acute decrease in per capita fresh, natural water consumption has taken place in Israel due to both the natural decrease in available water and the dramatic increase in population. At the same time, a very significant rise in per capita fresh, natural water consumption has taken place in the Palestinian communities in spite of the population increase, due to the dramatic advancement in water supply systems. Since 2006, these trends have continued due to the drilling of 15 new wells for Palestinian consumption that produce 15 MCM/Y. The current per capita consumption is 150 m3/c/y for Israelis versus 140 m3/c/y for Palestinians.”

So what is the reality behind the Palestinian claims and the political use of water as a means to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the international community? A very good overview of that subject is given in this recent article which is based on the findings in a thesis titled “The Politicization of the Oslo Water Agreement,” written by Lauro Burkart, a Swiss graduate of the Institute of International and Development studies in Geneva. The thesis itself is available here and well worth reading in full. As mentioned in the article, some key points include the following:

  • The goals of the Oslo II water agreement have been reached regarding the quantities of water provided to the Palestinian population (178 mcm/year in 2006). The Oslo water agreement estimated that demand would eventually reach 200 mcm/year.
  • The JWC [Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Committee] functioned well in the first years following signature of the agreement, but since 2008 cooperation has come to a halt.
  • Dr. Shaddad Attili, head of the PWA [Palestinian Water Association], was appointed in 2008. Attili, a Fatah member, is responsible for the de facto ending of the cooperation with Israel in order to bolster Palestinian water rights claims. He did this to strengthen the position of Fatah after the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. The abundance of donor money [from foreign governments and bodies such as the EU] allowed Atilli to continue the noncooperation strategy which has led to a complete stagnation of the water negotiations during the past five years.
  • One of the results of the refusal to cooperate with Israel is that almost all of the 52 mcm of waste water generated by the Palestinian population flows untreated into Israel and the West Bank, where it contaminates shared groundwater resources. 
  • Most of the Palestinian waste water treatment and reuse projects have already received foreign funding and were supported by Israel. The PA, however, has not taken sufficient action to execute those projects. 
  • Israel offered to finance water and waste water projects that would serve Palestinian communities in the West Bank. The Palestinians did not respond.
  • Israel made an offer to the Palestinians to build a desalination plant in Hadera south of Haifa and pump the desalinated water to the northern West Bank. The Palestinians rejected this solution since it would put Israel in an upstream position to the West Bank. Another reason for this rejection has to do with water rights since the Palestinians claim the Mountain Aquifers.
  • The fact that the PA pays most of the water bills of the Palestinian population gives no incentive for saving and leads to an unreasonable use of water in the domestic sphere as well as in the agricultural sector. 

(By way of comparison, Israeli domestic consumers currently pay 9.09 shekels (£1.58 / $2.46) for the first 3.5 m3 of water consumed and 14.60 shekels (£2.53 / $3.95) per m3 beyond that.)

Towards the end of his article, Asser ‘zooms out’ to discuss the subject of water at a regional level, in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole.

“Demand for water already outstrips supply, requirements are rising and current supply is unsustainable.

Hydrologists say joint solutions need to be found, because water requirements are interdependent and water resources cross political boundaries.

That necessitates improved conservation and recycling by both sides.

Improving the political atmosphere would allow supplies to be piped from neighbouring countries. Also crucial, experts say, are investment in desalination and other technical advances.

Such solutions are desperately needed in the medium to long term. In other words, Israel and the Palestinians must work together, because they cannot survive as combatants.”

Asser neglects to mention that on the regional scale, Israel is the most water-efficient country in the region, having made significant technological advances in the field of waste water recycling for agricultural use, innovative irrigation methods and desalination, combined with public awareness regarding water conservation. As Prof Gvirtzman points out:

“For the sake of comparison, the per capita consumption of natural, fresh water in Israel (150 m3/c/y) and in the PA (140 m3/c/y) are less than that of their Middle East neighbors, such as Jordan (172 m3/c/y), Egypt (732 m3/c/y), Syria (861 m3/c/y) and Lebanon (949 m3/c/y). Israel overcomes this water shortage by recycling sewage for agricultural irrigation, and by desalinating seawater for domestic use.However, in many of these adjacent countries, most water is used for (inefficient) agricultural irrigation, creating severe shortages in domestic water supply in the cities and towns.”

It is ironic that Asser concludes his article with the recognition that Israelis and Palestinians must work together (which was precisely the aim of the establishment of the Joint Water Committee under the Oslo Accords – which Asser fails to mention at all) after having spent the entire piece advancing the politically motivated, factually incorrect and historically lacking Palestinian water narrative which undermines and actually seeks to prevent such co-operation. 

A mere glance at one of the photographs used to illustrate Asser’s article – and its caption – is a clear indication of the article’s intent:

Israeli soldier gives Palestinain prisoner a drink of water
Palestinians say water politics are just part of the injustice of occupation

That photograph, which has nothing to do with the subject of the article itself, is clearly designed to leave an impression in the reader’s mind of helpless, bound Palestinians entirely at the mercy of an anonymous, faceless oppressor. 

It is doubly ironic that the BBC could place such a factually inaccurate and partial article under the heading ‘obstacles to peace’, as its unquestioning adoption and propagation of a one-sided political narrative is a major contribution towards preventing BBC audiences from understanding the real barriers to peacemaking.  

Despite the criticism offered by CAMERA almost six years ago, this article was not corrected. The passage of time has rendered its inaccuracies, distortions and omissions even more blatant and misleading. Clearly, the article should be removed from the BBC website. 

Related posts: BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 1

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