Overdrafted Aquifers, Limited Wastewater Reuse Are Critical Issues
Mousa Diabat adapted his presentation at the AzIP conference to serve as a guest view. An Arab-Israeli, Diabat is Ph.D. candidate at Oregon State University, majoring in water resources sciences with an intent to study the integration of water quality in shared water treaties. He plans to work with parties involved in water disputes.
Natural resources are at the heart of the long and ongoing dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Complexity intensifies as disagreement over the Mountain Aquifer. The Israelis base their claim on historical use of the water, while the Palestinian claim is geographical: 85 percent of the recharge originates within the West Bank area. Both sides also express concern over the sustainability of the aquifer. The Israelis fear the Palestinians will over exploit the Mountain Aquifer, and the latter claim the Israelis are already doing so. While the Palestinians have wells only inside the West Bank, Israeli wells are located inside the West Bank as well as in Israel near the West Bank borders.
The Mountain Aquifer is the only groundwater source for drinking water in the West Bank, while it is, along with other sources, important for Israel's water supply. The Mountain Aquifer, which is separated into three regions: eastern, northeastern, and western, intersects the 1967 (Green Line) border between Israel and the West Bank at several locations. More than 80 percent of the aquifer's basin lies beneath the West Bank.
In order to meet its demand for water, the Israelis suggest that Palestine look to other countries within the Jordan basin for necessary resources along with desalination technology. The Palestinians, on their side, reject both ideas, insisting on tying water rights to land sovereignty. The Israelis base their requests for water shares on 80-year use of the Mountain Aquifer.
There are twenty basins, shared between Israel and the West Bank, all originating in the West Bank. In most of them, Israel is located downstream, while Gaza is downstream of Israel in three basins. Eight basins flow toward the west, into Israel then to the Mediterranean Sea, and the rest flow towards the Jordan valley. The overall area of the West Bank is considered shared basins with Israel. Technically, Israeli settlements located in the West Bank are upstream of Israel and several Palestinian communities.
About 800,000 of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank live in major cities and the rest live a rural liefstyle and in villages. In addition, close to 300,000 Israeli Jewish settlers live in the West Bank. Due to differences in water use habits and water availability, the Israelis consume, per capita, two to three times as much as the Palestinians. All residents as they consume water are, in turn, generating wastewater that demands treatment.
Extremely high percentage of wastewater generated in Palestinian towns is not treated compared to the amount in Jewish towns in the West Bank (3.2 of 56 million cubic meters in the Palestinian towns, and 12 of the 17.5 MCM in the Jewish settlements). This is the result of various factors. The Palestinians have to make do with poor infrastructure and the Israelis have access to better maintenance of treatment plants. Palestinian authorities complain that the Israeli army limits access of trained Palestinian employees to the treatment facilities and limits their maintenance activities. As a result, wastewater effluents are released to unsupervised septic systems and wadis (open sewer canal) in nearby areas.
Consequently, wastewater runoff saturated with nitrates, phosphates, domestic and industrial chemicals, and medical matters flow freely in many wadis. Such wadis flow eastward to the Jordan valley (Dead Sea) and westward to the Mediterranean Sea over the Israeli territory. Additionally, those conditions put the Mountain Aquifer under risk of heavy pollution. Accordingly, this major source of drinking water for Israelis and Palestinians is in danger.
Since the early years of the twentieth century, principles of water quality have been incorporated in international water laws to better manage water quality in transboundary basins. To maintain healthy and functional communities, three important principles, among others, are relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: (a) guaranteeing territorial sovereignty, in order to prevent harm and to develop functional committees; (b) establishing basin level authorities that aim to prevent or control water pollution and to set mutual objectives of cleaner basins; and c) sharing real-time monitoring information.
To conclude, currently, the Palestinian population in the West Bank suffers from water scarcity and has limited access to water, and this is reflected by low-water consumption. With limited wastewater treatment and little rain water harvesting, consumption demand on the Mountain Aquifer increases. This could subject the aquifer to over exploitation or water contamination due to discharging raw sewage in the wadis. By this free discharge of untreated wastewater to the wadis, the areas downstream have high pollution potential too.
In order to integrate the principle of water quality, the discharge of untreated wastewater should be regulated. Israeli authorities have a larger role and responsibility in enforcing this action to prevent the continued contamination of the aquifer and affiliated basins. Mutual work is needed to prevent harm to both sides by establishing and maintaining a working wastewater treatment network and facilities. However, developing equal membership of joint, Israeli- Palestinian committees and functional teams of professionals is necessary to accomplish this step.
For any long term agreement, both sides would likely find it important to increase sovereign control on sovereign water and allocate to meet basic needs for all by establishing an equal “block” system. To ease the demand for pumped groundwater, both sides should increase the recycling of water. Furthermore, building healthy cooperative communities relies on establishing trust between citizens and their governments and by translating governmental cooperation into tangible trust.