Israelis and Palestinians often play the blame game on the crucial issue of water. Palestinians scream “water apartheid” and Israelis respond with accusations of a “sewage intifada.”
But recently there has been some important progress in the form of an Israeli-Turkish agreement to normalize diplomatic relations signed last month. It permits Turkey to lead efforts to build a new seawater desalination plant in Gaza, as well as a power station. The desalination plant could supply urgently needed drinking water, while the power station could help run a World Bank-built sewage treatment plant that has so far been unable to open for lack of electricity.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited Gaza’s water problems as a key justification for the deal with Turkey. His concerns are well founded. Gaza has no modern sewage treatment plants, and its untreated sewage pollutes the aquifer that it shares with Israel.
“It is in Israel’s clear interest to deal with the water problem in the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said. “When the aquifers become polluted, this is not limited to the Gaza side of the aquifer but also passes over to the aquifer on our side.”
Poor sanitation threatens outbreaks of pandemic diseases and, as Netanyahu rightly observed, “outbreaks do not stop at the fences.” An estimated 90 million liters of raw sewage from Gaza flow into the Mediterranean Sea every single day, polluting not only the shared coastline, but threatening Israel’s desalination plant in Ashkelon. The Ashkelon plant supplies 20 percent of Israel’s drinking water.
The rationale for urgent action on sewage in Gaza applies equally to the West Bank, whose sanitation problems affect Israelis just as much as Palestinians. Every Palestinian city in the West Bank, from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south, is emitting sewage into streams that either flow west into Israel or east towards the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
Every year about 50 billion liters of untreated West Bank sewage pollute shared groundwater, including the Mountain and Coastal Aquifers, as well as Israel’s Mediterranean beaches. Just as Gaza’s effluent threatens Ashkelon, West Bank sewage carried by cross-border streams brings the potential for disease into the heart of major Israeli cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hadera, Netanya, and Be’ersheva.
Drinking water has run out in Gaza
Sewage isn’t the only problem. Some 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza have run out of drinking water. The Coastal Aquifer that is virtually the sole source of their water supply is no longer potable. On top of pollution from untreated sewage, over-extraction has caused seawater to be drawn into the aquifer, making it too saline for human consumption.
Water shortages in many West Bank Palestinian towns and cities are even worse than in Gaza. In summer, municipal water is supplied to many Palestinian homes as little as once a month.
Despite the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, allowing Turkey to take the lead in Gaza demonstrates that there are still ways to make progress on water issues. We have an opportunity to build on the momentum of the Gaza deal and expand this breakthrough to the West Bank, especially in light of summer water shortages.
Israelis are proud of their ingenuity in solving water problems. Israel is the world leader in wastewater treatment and reuse, and a world leader in desalination. Thanks to these technological achievements, Israel today enjoys a substantial water surplus—meaning we can increase supplies to the Palestinians without cutting water allocations to Israelis. The political cost is low, while both sides stand to gain enormously. More water in every Palestinian home is a chance to strengthen moderate Palestinian leadership.
Two decades ago, Palestinians and Israelis signed the Oslo accords, which included an interim deal on how to share water resources until a final agreement on all issues could be reached. Oslo linked water with other final status issues such as Jerusalem and borders. This was a mistake. Water and sanitation have been held hostage to a broader political agreement, with potentially disastrous consequences for public health.
We urgently need to disentangle these critical issues and forge a new agreement to manage water and sanitation across the West Bank and Gaza, in the interests of both peoples. Such an agreement could stop water from poisoning both the imaginations and the daily lives of Palestinians and Israelis. Instead it could show that the two sides, separated by seemingly unbridgeable animosity, still can make concrete progress on vital issues that affect them both.