Today there is a window of opportunity to advance new Israeli–Palestinian water arrangements that can improve livelihoods, foster confidence building, and advance peace. The looming climate crisis demands that measures be taken urgently. Israel’s recognized and innovative leadership in the water sector, the dire impact of the climate crisis on Palestinian freshwater availability, and the opportunity presented by the new political awareness in Israel all combine to create a unique context in which decisions could be taken toward conflict resolution, cooperation, and trust-building in the water and climate sectors.
A long-standing impediment to progress on Israeli–Palestinian water issues is the zero-sum mindset, which sees one side’s gain as the other side’s loss. That is why EcoPeace works on the ground with schools and municipalities, as well as young professionals and decision makers, highlighting to all that we are fully dependent on one another from an environmental perspective, and therefore working together is not doing a favor for the other but rather a matter of self-interest and mutual gain.
EcoPeace’s bold initiative “A Green Blue Deal for the Middle East” calls on the Israeli and Palestinian governments to act cooperatively on water issues under a climate-crisis paradigm, rather than continuing to hold water issues hostage to the politics of the final status negotiations (which seem unlikely to take place anytime soon). By advancing the Green Blue Deal, water security and climate resilience can be achieved for Israelis, Palestinians, and all in the region.
The Status Quo Threatens Water Security and Public Health
Israel is well known for its leadership in the water sector and its ability to advance climate adaptation on water issues. Over 70% of Israel’s drinking water is now sourced from desalination plants. In addition, Israel is a global leader in treating and reusing wastewater for agriculture, creating water security for its farmers.
But while Israel has achieved a high level of water security, the conflict-related sanitation crisis in the West Bank and Gaza threatens the gains that have been made. In the West Bank, over 60 million cubic meters of Palestinian-sourced raw and poorly treated sewage are released annually into the environment, contaminating scarce ground water. Israeli and Palestinian communities that live in proximity to the 12 cross-border streams suffer from severe public health concerns. Similarly, the conflict-related sanitation crisis in Gaza risks the health and welfare of Palestinians and Israelis alike. The sewage from Gaza released into the Mediterranean leads to the intermittent closure of Israel’s southernmost desalination plants, directly affecting the Israeli water supply.
To protect its citizens, Israel unilaterally builds sewage treatment plants on its side. Israel, however, deducts the cost of sewage treatment, including the capital costs of construction, from Palestinian taxes. In 2019, these deductions totaled over 110 million NIS. The deductions weaken the Palestinian Authority and create a disincentive to find sanitation solutions on the Palestinian side. As indicated in a 2017 report of the Israel State Comptroller’s Office, the current water and sanitation arrangements harm both sides and fail to effectively protect scarce shared natural waters. This failure poses a threat to the gains made in Israel’s water security.
The Climate Crisis Further Contributes to Palestinian Water Insecurity
EcoPeace is determined to help its respective governments and peoples understand that the climate crisis can and must lead to increased cooperation. Israelis and Palestinians are experiencing firsthand the impact of the climate crisis. Climate change is no longer seen in the region as theoretical but is recognized by all as an immediate threat to water, health, and national security interests. The combination of conflict, internal management issues, and the climate crisis significantly contributes to Palestinian water insecurity, loss of livelihood, and animosity toward Israel.
Israel’s New Approach Presents New Opportunities
In recent months, political players in Israel have reached out to the PA with a desire to increase cooperation in the environment and water sectors. If implemented, such cooperation will improve the reality on the ground and build confidence, essential to advancing peace efforts. Led by the Ministry of the Environment, Israel has identified the climate crisis as an issue of national priority.
Israel has expressed a desire to work closely with the Biden administration and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in the global fight against climate change. Most recently, Israel’s President Herzog created a National Climate Forum and a working group on regional cooperation was established. The link between the climate crisis and regional security is also acknowledged by the Israeli security community.
EcoPeace’s Recommendations for Immediate Action
Much has changed since the EcoPeace’s three co-directors presented their perspective to the UN Security Council in 2019. At that time, EcoPeace outlined a vision of how the respective governments could promote climate resilience by harnessing the sea, through increased desalinated water, to be powered by harnessing the sun, through large-scale investment in solar energy. Within less than a year since the release of the Green Blue Deal report, largely due to the opportunities and changing circumstances previously described, the governments of Israel and Jordan signed a declaration of intent to establish a large-scale solar facility in Jordan, which will sell electricity to Israel in exchange for desalinated water sales to Jordan. The deal represents a landmark climate resilience agreement for the region. The same Green Blue Deal rationale can now bring water security for Israelis and Palestinians, build confidence, and keep alive prospects for peace.
EcoPeace is calling on decision makers to embrace a climate resilience perspective, and to prioritize Israeli–Palestinian climate security by calling on the parties to agree on new arrangements for natural water allocation and pollution control. Furthermore, the organization is inviting foreign ministers to follow the lead of Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, and help create a “coalition of the willing” to advance a Green Blue Deal of climate resilience in the Middle East. EcoPeace additionally calls on the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to widen its mandate to include renewable energy and climate concerns, to be a primary vehicle of advancing climate security in our region. Finally, the organization calls on the Security Council to recognize globally that climate change is a “threat to peace” within the meaning of Article 39 of the UN Charter.
*Adapted from a statement made by the author to the UN Security Council on January 19, 2022.