Freshwater Pollution in Israel-Palestine and Policy

A case-study on the correlation between water politics, water management and freshwater pollution in Israel-Palestine

Author: Gabriella Maimon | December 2014


This case study examines the correlation between freshwater water pollution in Israel and Palestine and water legislation & water management. This legislation is both domestic (Oslo Accords) and international (Hague Convention). The Oslo II Accords, signed in 1995 model as the prevailing doctrine of water management between Israelis and Palestinians. It has served as the focus of this report for this reason. An in-depth literature review from both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of the State of Israel will act as the primary sources of information. This paper makes note of where there is polluted water, how this water became polluted, why is it polluted and how it can be rehabilitated. The implications of such research will be useful in the political arena and for further policy-making in the region as great changes are needed to further political cooperation.

Key words: Israel, Palestine, water management, water policy, Oslo Accords, desalination, water

Terms and Abbreviations

Area A – Full Palestinian Control

Area B – Israeli military control & Palestinian civilian control

Acea C – Full Israeli control

IWA – Israeli Water Authority

PWA – Palestinian Water Authority

JWC – Joint Water Committee


Water politics in Israel are a highly contentious issue which is often left ignored internationally by the public and media. The politics of water play significant roles in the daily life of people within Israel and Palestine. These nations share a common land and a common set of resources which has often been considered the source of conflict.. The role of water is thought to have shaped modern Israeli politics as the most contentious portions of land were obtained in the War of 1967. The ‘67 War, or the Six Days War as it is often referred to, was initiated by the acquisition of water from the Jordan River. The result of this war was the obtaining of Judea and Samaria from Jordanian control, the Golan Heights in the North and parts of Jerusalem. As each seeks to secure the safety and sovereignty of their respective people, the quantity and quality of water received is incredibly important.

Natural freshwater in Israel is obtained primarily from the Kinneret Sea in the North of Israel,  the remainder is obtained through aquifers scattered throughout the country. Recently however, improvements in technology have shifted reliance away from these sources for all freshwater purpose. The use of effluent water is now prevalent across Israel for uses in con-consumable forms. However, the pollution of these natural resources is a continuous issue. By observing and documenting the varying states of water pollution across the Israel-Palestine, we will find a correlation between the water pollution and water legislation.

This paper is constructed of four parts, the first will discuss the current state of freshwater sources and water management in Israel-Palestine. Part II will discuss the pollution seen within freshwater systems after 2000.  Part III will provide an overview of international and domestic legislation pertaining to water within Israel and Palestine.  Part IV  is the future outlook and model of water legislation in the region. It will discuss the prevailing issues and the correlation found as well as possible revisions to be made.

Part I: Overview of Water Politics in Israel-Palestine

A. Natural Freshwater sources in Israel

As the populations of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples continue to rise, the demand for water does so in tandem. The Palestinian population has seen immense growth in that last 20 years, with a rate of approximately 3.5 [1] and the Israeli population is estimated to reach 9.84 million by 2025[2] .  This leads to an increased concern in the already scarce resources of water scattered across the region. Residents of Gaza and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank receive their water from the same sources as Israelis.

The main source of water for Israelis is Lake Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee located in the northern portion of Israel, near the cities of Tsfat, Haifa and near the Golan Heights. This is the only source of fresh surface water and is roughly 21 km long, 12 km wide and an average depth of 25 meters[3]. The Kinneret receives its water from the Upper Jordan River, the Hermon River, the Golan River, natural groundwater and slight precipitation. The Kinneret also supplies a substantial amount of fish, which is heavily impacted by water quality, quantity and fluctuations in such.

Additional sources of freshwater come from the many aquifers scattered across the region. The Coastal Aquifer is the largest subterranean source of freshwater to both Palestinians and Israelis.  The aquifer spans the majority of the coast along the Mediterranean Sea, from Binyamina in the North to Gaza in the South. The Mountain Aquifer, found in Judea and Samaria, is found east of the Coastal Aquifer is divided into two parts: the Eastern Basin and the Western Basin. The Western Basin is more commonly used and has been considered as over-extracted, called the Yarkon-Taninim. This basin  along with the Coastal Aquifer are the sources of the majority of consumable groundwater. These areas fall within the Green Line, or the areas within Israeli domain and Israel proper.

B. Water Management

There are two prevailing water supply systems: the Palestinian Water Authority and the Israel Water Authority, each is primary source of management and supervision of water systems  to their respective constituents. The PWA (Palestinian Water Authority) and IWA (Israeli Water Authority) each aim to manage and oversee water management in their respective regions.

Mekorot, the Israeli Water Carrier (IWC) is the prevailing source of management for Israeli water transportation, which includes water supplied to both Palestinians and Israelis. Water transportation into solely Palestinian territories is overseen by the Palestinian Authority. The PWA oversees domestic water supply plants within the domain of the Palestinian municipality. The water supplied by these plants has two origins; Palestinian wells and natural water springs and water which originates from Israeli-operated sources that are diverted. The amount of water supplied by the IWA to the Palestinian Authority is dictated in the Oslo II Accords in 1995.

The treatment of sewage and wastewater is of the greatest importance in Israel and Palestine as the natural water sources are being depleted and endangered due to decreases in rainfall, contamination and overuse. The water obtained from the Kinneret, approximately 640 MCM per year [4] is the largest supplier of water of all the natural sources. The two largest uses of water are irrigation for agriculture and waste removal in the urban sector. The increased use of effluent  water, or treated wastewater, and the addition of desalinated sea water which are used in non-consumable forms. This addition has been beneficial to the water economy as it added million of cubic meters of water.

Part II: Pollution of Natural Water Sources

A. Lake Kinneret

As noted in Aviva’s State of the Environment – 2010  the changes in water levels of the Kinneret fluctuate greatly over time. This fluctuation is dependent upon the levels of recharge which are comprised of rainfall runoff along the surface and the Kinneret watershed..The underground flow into Lake Kinneret varies as well, dependent upon rainfall and levels of extraction. Changes in upstream water use for agriculture,drought and pumping by Mekorot-National Water Carrier only exacerbate the problem. However, the addition of effluent water into the water economy was reportedly 144.5 mcm in 2001 (Water in Israel; Consumption and Production – 2001 , 11). Also in the Sviva report was the concentrations of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, which are incredibly important for algae growth. Large amount of these two elements in water can lead to eutrophication or “dead zones,” which is an indicator of poor water quality. The concentrations follow seasonal trends, they are greater in Spring than Fall. This is due to the influx of floodwaters during the Winter “wet” season. This is also due to increased runoff that picks up agricultural runoff, containing high amounts of these substances. The mixing that takes place along the water column also takes place in the winter. Chloride concentrations measure the salinity of the water in Lake Kinneret. This is important as the salinity affects biodiversity and the ability of the water to be treated for human consumption.The increase seen is likely due to the high pumping which is taking place to meet with population growth and times of drought. Both processes exacerbate this increase in salinity as the saline flows from the Watershed are relatively stable but surface levels of the Lake are decreasing.

B. Streams

          The Hebron Stream flows from the Hebron Hills of the Northeast all the way into the Gaza Strip. . Over the years it has seen a great deal of infiltration by wastewater from Hebron, Kiryat Arba and over 100 industrial facilities from Israeli facilities.The Nablus Stream is essentially the wastewater channel for the Tulkarm wastewater after treatment, however many instances of site failure have lead to the infiltration of raw (untreated) sewage into the stream. The Alexander Stream derives the majority of its organic and effluent matter from the Nablus Stream (Tal,17) highlighting the importance of the maintenance of this stream as well.

ALthough there is not a lot of water obtained from streams and rivers for use in consumables, the infiltration and pollution of these systems is wholly prevalent. The stream water is far more likely to leach the underlying watershed, thus contaminating the groundwater and well-water that is used. There have been numerous instances of shell closures due to the contamination of drinking water. Beit Fajjar within the Bethlehem Municipality, Ein Kerem and Al-Azhariya in the Jerusalem area and Mitzpe Yericho and Na’aran in the Jordan Valley are but a few examples of well closures.

C. Aquifers

The pollution of privately owned wells has been found to contain the following toxins: cyanide, arsenic, dichloroethylene and simazine.  The water derived from aquifers is fed through wadis (springs), streams and lakes. As previously mentioned, the polluted waters of streams and rivers can infiltrate the aquifers below. The polluted waters of the Hebron Stream in the Besor Basin leach into the aquifer below and are of incredibly low quality, considered as raw sewage. Ephemeral streams contaminated by agricultural runoff as well as pharmaceutical wastes are also leaching into aquifers. A study conducted by Kibbutz Ketura has shown that all aquifers in Israel and Palestine have shown significant levels of contamination, primarily by means of wastewater infiltration.

 Part III: Water Policies and Politics

1. A Review

There are many international and domestic laws which pertain to Israeli-Palestinian water and its management. B’Tselem  is an Israeli organization that focuses on the Human Rights issues in the Occupied Territories and has provided a review of international laws regarding water in Israel-Palestine. Article 43-1907 of the Hague Convention in 1907 states that an occupying state (Israel in this case) cannot alter or change pre-existing legislation. In respect  to water policy, some water within the now Occupied Territories were brought under Israeli legal systems and bureaucracy. Article 55-1907 of the Hague Convention in 1907 doesn’t allow water sources within Occupied Territory for uses other than military uses. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 does not allow for the use of discriminatory laws or regulations to be inforced with emphasis on residents living in the Occupied Territory.This is in regard to the amount of water supplied to Israelis living in the West Bank and Palestinians also living in the same region.Article 6 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses  states the following, “…states may not unilaterally utilize water located in their territory. They must take into account the other states that share the resource. All rules pertaining to shared water courses under international law apply only to natural water,”[5]. This means that any and all water that is naturally occurring, of which treated wastewater is not, must be shared by both the Palestinians and Israelis. This law enumerates seven factors by which water can be divided, the seventh states that an alternative of equal value must be available for use[6].

Although these laws are wholly relevant to international water policy, the majority were not created specifically in regard to Israel and Palestine. The Oslo Accords were created and signed in both 1993 and 1995 as a means to further political cooperation and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians during an interim period or five years The Oslo II Accords, signed in 1995 created the guidelines that are currently observed by both parties, particularly regarding water.  Annex III, Article 40: Water & Sewage is where the majority of regulatory water legislation can be found. Some of the principles mandated are: the maintenance of current water quantities and the consideration of additional water for use by Palestinians, the proper treatment and management of water resources, the prevention of harm to water sources. It also denotes the transfer of authority for all water win Area A within the West Bank to the Palestinian Water Authority. Aside from the 28.6  mcm mandated by the Israeli government to be given to the Palestinian people, an additional 70-80 mcm of water must be given to the Palestinian people living in the West Bank. It also mandates that it is Palestinian responsibility to create a pipeline that will transfer 5 mcm supplies by the Israeli water system into the Gaza Strip. This water is modelled to be derived from desalination in Israel plants in the future. The Palestinian Government is to provide between 41.4 – 51.4 mcm of water per year from the Eastern Aquifer and the additional sources located within the West Bank. [7]

The Accords also called for the creation of the Joint Water Committee, which is a bipartisan committee that oversees and coordinates all aspects of water management in both Palestine and israel. Some of the delegated responsibilities are: the drilling of new wells, increase in extraction from all sources of water, development of water systems, and changes in extraction due to major hydrologic events (such as drought). The Article also dictates which government is responsible for existing and new water systems in the West Bank. Within the JWC are various subcommittees that are the mechanisms of supervision and enforcement. It also dictates the exact amount of water to be extracted from aquifers for use.  Within the Gaza Strip, all water systems, including sewage, are to be managed by the Palestinian Council, except those which supply water to Settlements and the Military Installation area (this is managed by Mekorot).

2. Current Issues 

Issues regarding water management and water policy in Israel-Palestine are of the greatest salience. Both the Israelis and Palestinians feel that injustices are occurring, and both agree that the Joint Water Committee has not fulfilled its’ enlisted duties.  The Israeli Water Authority has determined that there have been a large number of unapproved wells drilled by Palestinians in the West Bank. Estimates that approximately 250 wells have been drilled along the Northern Basin of Jenin, Tulkarem-Qalqilya and Jericho “pirating” water from the Mountain Aquifer. They report that nearly 10 mcm of water have been extracted per year from unregulated and unapproved well (Gvirtzman 9). This unregulated extraction has forced the regulated extraction for Israelis to decrease by that amount, so as to prevent overuse of the aquifer and prevent over-salinization (increased saltiness). There have also been many reported instances of piracy occurring in the Palestinian villages of Sair and Ash-Shuyukh as these villages have connected themselves to the Mekorot system. This has extracted approximately 3 mcm of water per year (Gvirtzman 11) for use in irrigation and agriculture.

A recent report has provided a review on the status of water management for the Palestinian people. The report stated that although the JWC has mandated that 20% of the potential estimated for use in the aquifers is to be used by the Palestinians this has not been carried out. The over-extraction of water by the Israeli water supply system has lead to poor recharge in aquifers and the water table,therefore leading to a decline in the availability of water. However, it has been documented that 45% of the water supplied to the West Bank Palestinian population by Mekorot. The drilling of wells without JWC approval has been explained as being done for the sake of obtaining proper drinking water.  A reported 31%  of the West Bank Palestinian population has access to sewage and waste water treatment plants. The effluent water produced is of a rather poor quality, all citizens of the West Bank are discharging wastewater into the water table[8].

Relations between the Israeli Water Authority and the Palestinian AUthority have been under a tremendous amount of strain in regards to conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. Mekorot supplies 57 mcm/year of water per year, based on 2012 figures.[9] A World Bank reports states that due to abstractions made by the Israeli government and the the Israeli Water Authority (IWA) the amount of water available for use by Palestinians has decreased since 1995, breaching the Water AGreement dictated in the Oslo II. Accords The Israeli Water Authority reported that The Palestinian Water Authority has acted in breach, stating that the proper maintenance of waste and sewage water has not been acted upon, the allowance of sewage that leached into the water table and aquifers has been a major source of contamination. Article 40 of the Accords mandate that the Palestinian government is to develop new water sources by means of technological advancements (desalination technology or waste/sewage treatment). The development of new systems to add water into the water economy, so as to decrease the reliance on freshwater for non-consumable uses has been an area of contention. The Eastern Mountain Aquifer was transferred to the PWA by the IWA, as mandated by the Oslo II Accords, but this source has not been efficintly used by the PWA (Gvirtzman, 27).  Improper management of pre-existing systems; such as pipeline leakage, outdated equipment, lack of technological development in water resource management systems and pollution of existing sources have only exacerbated this issue.

Part IV: Future Model

A. Discussion

          Given the information presented in this report we can see that there is indeed a relationship between water policies and water management & pollution. Prevailing policies in Israel and Palestine dictate certain levels of agency regarding water usage, but do not provide adequate regulation for transboundary sources. Annex III, Article 40 of the Oslo II Accords dictates the responsibilities of the Palestinians for water used for sole Palestinian purposes, including the proper legislation needed to maintain it. However, the same Article does not do so for the Israelis, mandating that it provide a great deal of maintenance for water sources in Israel proper that are used by both peoples. This, coupled with the lack of legislation regarding transboundary water sources in Israel-Palestine has created the amalgamated conflict currently seen. The correlation can generally be described as the following: “what’s yours is your, what’s mine is mine.” Unfortunately the question of who supervises transboundary sources still remainds. Is is for these reasons that I call for amendments and revisions to be made to Article 40, Annex III of the Oslo II Accords.

B. Future Revisions

In an attempt to further coexistence efforts in the region, I call for an amendment on Annex III,Article 40 of the Oslo II Accords. This article was specified firstly as an interim agreement, meant to be in use over a period of five years total, after which revisions were to take place to alter the policies. Unfortunately this has not been done and the current guidelines are those listed in the 1995 Oslo II Accords. I am specifically calling for a reworking of the Joint Water Committee. The JWC calls for bipartisan representation via the representation of three members from each side, whose criterion need not be specified. In this case I call for three of  such revisions: (a) the addition of 5 or more committee members from each side so as to gain a better sense of the views of the people, (b) establish a third non-partisan committee to act as blind voters of all items that are brought to the agenda of the Committee and (c)  establish a mandate on academic cooperation between the two parties in regards to water management techniques, developments in technology and policy.

I believe the addition of a third-party that is unbiased will also add another measure of security and justice to this committee as social constructs of these individuals only exacerbate political fodder and conflicts. Having an “outsider” with the ability to see things objectively  and blindly will aid in the development of funding for various projects along both sides. I also believe the Joint Water Committee should mandate academic cooperation between the two parties. The sharing of information relevant to water policy, management and technology will only further strengthen each nation and lead to further advancements that will benefit not only the region but the larger world as well.


After having read this report, one may understand with greater depth the level of importance that water holds in politics. Present day politics and political strife between Israelis and Palestinians originated with a war fought over water (The War of 1967). As of late, a silent war is being fought once again over water, and that is one of political agency. Neither the Israelis or Palestinians feel that the Oslo II Accords have provided adequate justice in regards to management. The legislation provided by this set of accords has not done enough to further coexistence efforts and create lasting peace between the two parties. This lack of agency and continuous political strife between the two parties has exacerbated the ever-present issue of water scarcity in the region. I suggest that instead of using water as the means by which to find differences differentiates I call for the use of the environment as a common-denominator, just as Tzip Livni does.  (Livni). Further research is to be done on the differences in Israeli and Palestinian water management techniques and methods in regards to the Oslo II Accords.

[1]  Status Report of Water Resources in the Occupied State of Palestine – 2012, PWA

[2] By 2035, Jewish population in Israel/Palestine is projected at 46 percent, Mondoweiss

[3] The Water Economy in Israel, Kislev

[4] The Water Economy in Israel, Kislev

[5] Issues Under the Oslo Accords, B’Tselem

[6] UN Watercourses Convention – Online User’s Guide, UN

[7] Annex III, Article 40 of the Oslo Accords, 1995

[8] Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development

[9] Status Report of Water Resources in the Occupied State of Palestine – 2012


I would like to thank Professor Michael Dorsch, Rachel Appel and Silvia Cohn for providing a great deal of support and guidance in the writing of this paper. I would also like to thank Professor Mohammed Ibrahim of the Geography Department at Hunter College for continued guidance and advice on this topic and paper.

Featured Image: Copyright 2014 by Gabriella Maimon.

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