By Robert Lalasz

Policymaking over transboundary environmental issues is often marked by political division and an absence of hard scientific data. But new research projects in the Jordan Valley and Gaza Strip are using integrated teams of Israeli and Palestinian scientists to pinpoint the causes of freshwater degradation and scarcity in these water-stressed and conflict-ridden areas.

In this Wilson Center meeting co-sponsored by ECSP and the Middle East Project, hydrologist Avner Vengosh and political scientist Erika Weinthal discussed the projects and how their findings could inform environmental peacemaking in the region.

Scarcity and Degradation: Catalysts for Conflict or Cooperation?

While water has largely escaped as a target of the recent cycles of Middle East violence, Weinthal said that many of the region's transboundary water resources are undergoing substantial degradation and scarcity—conditions that could catalyze local and regional conflict in the near future.

She noted that salinity has risen dramatically in both the Mountain Aquifer and the Coastal Aquifer (shared by both Israel and its neighbors) as well as the groundwater of the Gaza Strip—severely degrading these resources for both human consumption and agricultural use.

But because all parties have continued to cooperate over water despite the high level of tension, Weinthal said new regional water-management schemes that account for increasing scarcity and equitable distribution could catalyze wider peacemaking.

"A good understanding of hydrological data linked with a good understanding of international law is crucial to building any kind of water-sharing regime in the future," she said.

New Research Results

Vengosh followed by summarizing the findings of three joint research projects that precisely identified the sources of rising salinity in the Eastern Mountain and Jericho Aquifers, the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip—exercises that each have surprising and nuanced consequences for future transboundary water management in the region.

In the Eastern Mountain case, high levels of chlorine (attributable to overexploitation of the aquifer and subsequently declining water levels) render moot the Oslo Accords provisions for water division between Israelis and Palestinians. Vengosh also said that the Jordan River's historical flow has been reduced ten-fold because of irrigation and consumption, with sewage and saline water making up most of the river's upstream flow.

But extensive isotopic research showed that eliminating the Jordan's upstream sewage discharge (as per the Jordan-Israel peace treaty) would actually increase salinity downstream, where chlorine levels from irrigation runoff approach that of the Mediterranean Sea.

"As weird as it sounds, sewage is a good thing for the system," Vengosh said. "The implementation of the treaty [accords on water sharing between Jordan and Israel] and further pumping would lead to desiccation."

Vengosh also detailed the degradation of water in the Gaza Strip, where groundwater, the area's only source of drinking water, is severely contaminated. Water consumption is already outstripping both natural and lateral aquifer replenishment in Gaza, where the current population of 1.2 million (living in an area only 20-30 kilometers wide) is expected to double over the next ten years. Not surprisingly, deep hydrological depressions and unsafe concentrations of chlorine, nitrates, and boron mark Gaza groundwater.

Vengosh praised the diverse composition of these research projects. For example, he said that the Jordan River project was "a true cooperative effort among Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. scientists."

"Each collected water simultaneously from their parts of the river and exchanged samples among different labs in each of the regions, which were all able to measure water chemistry and carry out extensive isotopic study to determine the sources of salinity in the river," Vengosh said.

Policy Implications

While urbanization, population growth, and illegal well-drilling have placed enormous pressure on the region's water resources, Weinthal noted that the retardation of the Palestinian Authority's capacity and state-building during the intifada has resulted in a lack of authority, funds, and technical resources to carry out effective water management.

She added that international law is also immature with regards to groundwater issues, and such situations as the Jordan River are further complicated because Israel's upstream pollution is actually maintaining minimum usability levels downstream.

Weinthal argued that a strong third party was needed in negotiations concerning Middle East regional water management. She sketched two scenarios involving third parties: (1) separation of Israeli and Palestinian management, which would lead to increasing aquifer and river salinity as well as reliance by the Palestinians on expensively imported water or desalination plants; or (2) joint management based on serious political negotiation.

In the case of the Coastal Aquifer, she said, the second solution would require the creation of a joint commission for water issues, an agreement to a pumping plan that would reduce the saline water flow from Israel, and the use of saline groundwater and wastewater as sources for a low-cost desalination plant.

Weinthal argued that joint management was highly preferable and could push the two parties towards other cooperative ventures that would build confidence and environmental peacemaking opportunities.

"But science and politics must speak to each other" to be effective, she said. "Both sides aren't going to get very far in squabbles because there isn't enough water."

Weinthal added that, while there is a "clear power asymmetry" between the Palestinians and Israel, it could still be productive to link water negotiations to other issues. "In the case of Mexico and the United States, issues such as the drug trade and illegal migration make the United States more sensitive to water-rights claims by Mexico," she said.

"Palestinian issues such as population growth increases and the rise of Islamic movements can be linked with water," Weinthal concluded. "A third party in the negotiations can also level the asymmetry between the parties and put the Palestinian authority on almost a level playing field. You need to look at the broader negotiating arena and what you can put on the table."