Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Shared Water Resources in Palestine

Jericho, Palestine - Shared Water Resources in Palestine
Photo 1: Wadi Al Qelt in Jericho, Palestine. Source: Honza Pernica, Flickr

All surface and groundwater resources in Palestine are shared, mainly with Israel. Shared water usually needs to be governed through agreements on allocation and use between the different parties.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispute is over whether both parties are governing the shared water according to the relevant agreements, with each side blaming the other for failing to do so. Two agreements were formulated to regulate the water issue, starting with the Johnston Plan of 1955 that was never ratified, and followed by the Oslo Agreement that was signed in 1995. The latter has shaped the current management system of the shared water resources between Israel and Palestine and had a major influence on the Palestine water sector, as mentioned in the first section.

Johnston Plan of 1955

The first attempt after the UN partition declaration in 1947 to resolve shared regional water issues was the Johnston Plan of 1955. Mediated and supported by the United States, the plan attempted to allocate all water resources in the Jordan River basin among the countries that shared the basin at the time: Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The agreement stated that 55% of available water in the basin should go to Jordan (which at that time included the Palestinian West Bank), 26% to Israel, 9% to Syria and 9% to Lebanon. The technical committees of the riparian countries accepted the plan, but it was never ratified. The waters of the Jordan River have since been exploited by unilateral projects without any compliance with the water allocations that were proposed.[1]

Oslo Agreement

The Oslo Agreement, consisting of the Oslo I and II Accords, created a climate of hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved.[2] The Oslo process was divided into two tracks: bilateral and multilateral negotiations. The bilateral track was intended to lead to peace treaties between Israel and each of the regional parties, namely Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. The multilateral track was intended to complement and support the bilateral track by promoting regional cooperation. Part of this resolution addressed the allocation of water resources. Annex III of the Declaration of Principles (13 September 1993) called for the following:

  • The development of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian plan for the exploitation of shared water resources and regional water development projects;
  • The preparation of proposals, studies and plans dealing with the water rights of each party; and
  • Equitable utilization of joint water resources in and beyond the interim period.

Oslo II (1995) was a broad agreement to protect the environment and utilize the natural resources on a sustainable basis. Water is referred to under Article 40 of Annex III, the ‘Protocol Concerning Civil Affairs’. The main issues agreed upon are as follows:

  • Israel recognizes Palestinian water rights in the West Bank. These rights will be negotiated in the final status negotiations and settled in the Permanent Status Agreement relating to the various water resources.
  • Israel will transfer to the Palestinians the powers and responsibilities in the sphere of water and sewage in the West Bank that are related solely to Palestinians, and that are currently held by the military government and its Civil Administration. This transfer will not pertain to issues that will be negotiated in the final status negotiations.
  • The issue of ownership of water and sewage-related infrastructure in the West Bank will be addressed in the final status negotiations.
  • The future needs of the Palestinians in the West Bank are estimated to be 70-80 MCM/yr.
  • The immediate need of the Palestinians for fresh water for domestic use during the interim period is about 28.6 MCM/yr (23.5 MCM/yr for the West Bank and 5.1 MCM/yr for Gaza. Of the West Bank increment of 23.5 MCM/yr, 20.5 MCM/yr has to come from additional wells and 3.1 MCM/yr from Mekorot) (Table 1).

Table 1: Allocation of the water resources of the three shared aquifers under Article 40 (MCM). Source: The World Bank, 2009.

Aquifer Estimated potential Total Palestine Total Israel Total
Western 362.022.0340.0362.0
North-eastern 145.042.0103.0145.0
Eastern (unallocated) 78.0
Total 679.0118.0483.0601.0

The Oslo Agreement has been criticized for not dealing with the Palestinian water share of the Jordan River, the shared Western and North-Eastern basins of the Mountain Aquifer, nor with a reduction in Israeli water consumption of Palestinian water resources or the quantities provided to the illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Moreover, the agreement ignored the issue of equitable and reasonable distribution of the available water resources. Accordingly, the inequitable division of the shared aquifer systems was maintained, with the same 80% allocated to Israel and 20% allocated to the Palestinians.[3]

The Oslo Agreement was intended to be revised within a five-year period as part of the final status negotiations, but 26 years since coming into effect in 1995, it still governs the Palestinian water sector. It is worth mentioning that the Oslo Agreement applied (and still applies) only to water resources within the boundaries of the West Bank as defined by the ‘Green Line’ (or 1949 Armistice Line). Water resources lying outside of this line, including a significant part of the Mountain Aquifer, are unilaterally managed by Israel and are not limited by the Oslo Agreement framework in terms of the amount of water that can be extracted annually.