Despite intifada, water links enemies

WASHINGTON — Though a winter of heavy rains and new desalination plants that are expected in the near future, water supply remains a contentious issue for Israel and the Palestinians.

But as the intifada rages on, water is one of the few areas where the two sides still manage to cooperate.

Palestinians continue to dispose of their sewage improperly, say Israeli officials, who also accuse Palestinians of drilling illegal wells in the West Bank.

At the same time, aid workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip complain that Israeli restrictions have made it difficult for the Palestinians to access clean and plentiful water.

"In terms of water cooperation relations are not good, but they are reasonable," said one Israeli official, pointing out that since the intifada began more than two years ago Israel has "no way of knowing" whether illegal well drilling by Palestinians in the West Bank is damaging the water table.

Palestinian officials, and a number of Israeli water experts, see the situation optimistically.

Speaking at a December conference on desalinization at the Haifa-based Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, the Palestinian Authority's water minister, Nabil Sharif, surprised some Israeli officials who had become accustomed to Palestinian grumbling on the issue.

"The only area in which Israelis and Palestinians are continuing cooperation, in spite of 25 difficult months of intifada, is water," Sharif said.

"It was very interesting to hear that from the water minister," said Rafi Samiat, a desalinization expert at the Technion. "This is not what they claim all the time."

The spokesman for Israel's water commissioner, Uri Shor, said the Palestinians are "not dealing with" sewage problems and pirate wells, both of which could have devastating effects on Israeli water sources.

Sharif denied that the Palestinians are drilling any illegal wells and said efforts to improve sewage management are "ongoing."

In a survey conducted by a group of nongovernmental organizations last year, 16 out of 101 Palestinian communities in the West Bank were found to be consuming less than 30 quarts of water per person per day, an international standard for hygiene and health.

But hundreds of millions of cubic feet of desalinated water are expected to come online in the next decade in six planned Israeli desalination plants, making questions of water management easier for Israel and the Palestinians to agree on than refugees, the status of Jerusalem or the final borders in a two-state solution.

Since the intifada began, consecutive Israeli water commissioners have joined with Sharif to urge the two sides to leave precious water resources out of the conflict.

"Palestinian and Israeli water and wastewater infrastructure is mostly intertwined and serves both populations. Any damage to such systems will harm both Palestinians and Israelis," wrote Sharif and Noah Kinarty, then Israel's water commissioner, in a joint statement in February 2001.

Before the intifada, officials jointly monitored West Bank water use and illegal drilling.

Now, said Uri Shamir, founding director of the Technion's Stephen and Nancy Grand Water Research Institute, the same bilateral group — known as the Joint Water Committee — receives applications from West Bank residents on either side for well-drilling approval, and continues to operate by consensus.

"In the end, there are no boundaries for water," Sharif said.