Friday, 28 January. 2022
Your Key to Palestine
The Palestinian Initiatives for The Promotoion of Global Dialogue and Democracy

According to UN estimates, there are currently 460 million people living in countries affected by high water stress and limited water resources. By the year 2025, approximately two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in areas that are subjected to high water stress if the current unsustainable trends in water consumption continue unabated. These statistics, along with the fact that the world’s population will increase from the present 6 billion to more than 9.3 billion in the coming half century, are particularly worrying when considering the resulting potential for future political clashes over water resources. Political clashes are already occurring over this issue, particularly in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is a historic war over water as well as land. The Palestinian-Israeli dispute over limited water resources, and Israel’s inequitable distribution of water to the population, has caused a serious humanitarian crisis in the majority of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is rooted in the 19th century British colonization of historical Palestine, is widely perceived to be simply a conflict over land. However, the question of water rights is a key factor of the conflict that deserves equal political attention. Throughout the past decade, the region has experienced a period of severe drought that has significantly damaged both its agriculture and its few existing water resources. The legal and political issues surrounding the ownership of the region’s water resources, along with the unbalanced distribution of water between Israelis and Palestinians, is one of the most problematic aspects of the conflict and negotiations that requires fair resolution if a peace agreement is ever to be reached.

The region lived in by both Israelis and Palestinians relies on the following three main sources of water: the Jordan River basin, including Lake Galilee, and two major aquifers – one that extends from the West Bank into Israel, and another that stretches along the coastal plain across both Israel and the Gaza Strip. Currently, the state of Israel exercises almost “exclusive control” over the aquifers and other water resources in the region. Alwyn Rouyer, a professor of Political Science at the University of Idaho and a specialist in regional water issues, has conducted extensive research in the area. Describing his findings regarding the water distribution in the region, he writes:

The distribution of shared water resources between Jews and Arabs is fundamentally unfair; Israel does not divide available water according to need, in accordance with international law. Palestinians receive only 20 percent of the mountain aquifer, and have no access to water from the Jordan situation. In normal times, Palestinians per capita consume only one third as much water as Israelis for household use and only one sixth as much for irrigation. Since the fall of 2000, with the drought and the intifada, the gap in water consumption has widened considerably.

Particularly following the advent of the second intifada in 2001, Israel has restricted Palestinian access to this water in what many consider to be an “act of suppression” and collective punishment against the Palestinian people. From a legal perspective, Israel has been termed by The Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War as a “belligerent occupation”. Yet according to international law, even a “belligerent occupation” is required to provide the civilian population occupied under its hostile power a degree of human-rights protection. The civilian population under occupation is considered “protected” and “entitled to respect for their persons,” and, an Occupying Power must also “actively safeguard the welfare of the population”. However, the stories and statistics described in this paper provide evidence that Israel has in fact not been safeguarding the welfare of the Palestinians living under its occupation, but has instead been denying them their human rights in what it is a direct violation of international law.

In 2000, the Palestinian Water Authority conducted a study of the development of Palestinian infrastructure since the 1995 implementation of the Oslo peace accords. According to this study, approximately 1.38 million Palestinians (86% of the total population) in the West Bank are supplied with water through piped water networks that are regulated by Israel. The study also found that the use of water for municipal and industrial purposes in the West Bank averages at about 55 liters per capita per day (l/c/d). This rate of water usage is significantly lower than the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended minimum value of 100 l/c/d required to meet domestic needs and maintain good health. The situation grows only more dire due to the rapid growth rate of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank, which is estimated to increase from 3 million in 2010 to 3.5 million in 2015.

The majority of Palestinians living in the localities of the West Bank that do not have regular access to piped water rely on the use of rainwater catchments, such as cisterns, as an alternative water resource. In his evaluation of the efficiency of such tools, environmental engineer R. J. Heggen argues that cisterns are a “robust technology for sustainable development” that ought to be utilized particularly in areas suffering from drought. However, in the case of the Palestinians, many of these cisterns have intentionally been rendered ineffective by Israel. As Alwyn Rouyer informs us in his essay “Basic Needs vs. Swimming Pools,” a significant portion of Palestinian water infrastructure, such as these cisterns, has been destroyed by Israeli warfare. In his study, Rouyer establishes the following disturbing statistics: “In the summer of 2002, monitoring of 153 communities found 34 with extensive shooting of roof tanks. There has also been destruction of pipelines, public stations, cisterns, wells and springs. In 2001, an Israeli helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip destroyed wells serving 200,000 people.”

The Israeli government’s distribution of water resources seems even more unjust when the amount of water allotted to Palestinians is compared to the amount reserved for Israelis. According to statistics provided by a number of non-governmental organizations in the region, Israeli settlements receive on average fifteen times the amount of water allocated to the Palestinians. For example, in the years 1999 and 2000, the Israeli settlement Kiryat Arba’, with a population of about 5,000, received the same amount of water as it neighboring Palestinian city of Hebron, which has population of 170,000. In the words of B’TSelem, an Israeli human rights group, “at a time when the Israeli public debates whether to water their lawns or wash the car, Palestinians suffer from a shortage of water to meet their most basic needs”. Because of the lack of available drinking water needed to maintain good health, as well as the infrastructure needed to keep water clean and drinkable, many Palestinian villages are now facing a health crisis that they are ill-equipped to withstand.

According to the Palestinian National Authority’s report of the quality of the water resources available to the West Bank, the quantity of drinkable water has been reduced to levels so low that they represent a substantial danger to health. In the West Bank, over 250 Palestinian villages and refugee camps do not received piped water, and their principal source of water is rainfall either collected on rooftops or stored in cisterns near the houses. These sources generally only meet household needs during the period from November to May. In these villages, the water pressure is so low that taps rarely bring forth water and toilets rarely flush. This reduction of available water results in the decrease of water quality and presents a serious health hazard which is evidenced in the “significant increases in amoebic dysentery among both children and adults” affecting a large number of Palestinian villages. The limited water resources in the West Bank are also threatened by pollution due to “inadequate wastewater disposal”. Furthermore, fecal waste has been found in spring outlets and there is a significant danger of animal diseases being transferred to humans.

In “Management of Transboundary Water Resources,” Juha Uitto maintains that “Lessons for promoting peaceful cooperation for environmental management, benefit-sharing and sustainable use of transboundary water resources are highlighted through examples from Africa, Central Asia and Latin America. Experience shows the importance of processes that bring together all sectors and actors whose actions affect the transboundary waterbody at regional, national and local levels.” In order to properly manage water resources, Uitto maintains that it is necessary for the parties to cooperate and work together. To this end, the water accords in the 1995 Oslo II Interim Agreement established a framework of institutions, such as the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC), that would cooperate to find a viable solution to the water dispute. Following the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel and Palestine agreed to implement a number of development projects that aimed for a “rehabilitation, expansion, and improvement” of the municipal agency in the water supply sector. In the year 2000, Karen Assaf, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority, outlined the plans for a Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources. The four main objectives of the group were: “Data exchange, coordination, enhancement of water resources and enhancement of the joint management of water resources.” Although this group still exists today, its progress has been limited due to the lack of resources and opportunities for Palestinians to access the information they need. Furthermore, the humanitarian aims of the JWC have been thwarted due to the fact that Israel has used its veto power in order to block many new Palestinian water projects, claiming infringement on its own water rights.

In their article “Groundwater Resources and International Law in the Middle East Peace Process,” Yoram and Gabriel Eckstein describe what they call the “dire need for the Israelis and Palestinians to shift their focus from accusation and condemnation toward efforts geared at finding new sources of freshwater”. Following a similar approach, Sharif El-Musa argues that Israel stands to gain both economically and politically from working with Palestinians in reallocating and managing water resources in his study “Dividing Common Water Resources According to International Water Law”. In contrast to these authors, David Scarpa, a lecturer at Bethlehem University, recognizes the complexity of the issue and expresses his doubt in the potential for the equitable water distribution between Palestinians and Israelis.

Scarpa argues that the Palestinian economy must be diversified, and that dependence on water for irrigation and industry must be reduced, in order for the required amount of drinking water to be made available from sources under Palestinian control. However, this will only be possible if Palestinians maintain and upgrade the few water resources available to them, a task that they are incapable of completing because of restrictions placed upon them by Israel. For example, since the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Water Authority has submitted over 200 applications for new wells in the West Bank, and the Israeli members of the JWC have rejected all of them. Such relentless limitations have severely hindered Palestinian development goals to improve their living situation, and will continue to do so in the future if a fair settlement is not reached with regards to equitable water distribution.

The author has given permission for the publication of this study.


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