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 Published by the American Geological Institute
December 2000
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

News Notes

Water rights
Sharing water in the West Bank

 Flooding in Jerusalem on Oct. 25 quelled the violence in the region, if only for a day. After 3 inches of rain fell in six hours, the Associated Press reported acts of heroism as Arabs and Jews in the southern region of Tel Aviv awoke at 4 a.m. in ground-floor apartments that were watery death traps.

These were the “blessed rains” that arrived at the end of summer. But, in a land plagued with political strife and chronic water shortages, acts of altruism are rare. Political boundaries cross over geologic ones. To achieve peace, Palestinians and Israelis must share both the land and the water.

On Dec. 13-14, the National Ground Water Association will hold a conference in Las Vegas to address cross-border water issues in the Middle East and around the world.

“Water is used as a vehicle to demonstrate power,” says conference speaker Hans Kupfersberger of Joanneum Research in Graz, Austria. Both Israelis and Palestinians depend heavily on groundwater aquifers — specifically the Mountain Aquifer, which runs along the West Bank’s north-south central axis (see map). But common management goals of the aquifer do not exist, he says. “The problem is that until today no serious hydrological investigation has been undertaken.” Others disagree, citing investigations that go back to the 1960s.

Kupfersberger is part of a three-year-old project funded by the European Commission. Due for an April completion, the project aims to develop sustainable water management in the Jordan Valley.

Who controls the water rights? The Upper Cretaceous limestone areas, where rainwater feeds the aquifer, sit below mostly Palestinian territories in the West Bank, says Yoram Eckstein of Kent State University in Ohio, who left Israel in 1974 after 17 years in the nation’s geological survey.

Yet, Palestinians’ per capita water use is an average of 50 liters a day — “half of the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization,” says hydrologist Victor Harris of Montgomery Watson in Pasadena, Calif.

Part of a satellite image
of the Dead Sea and 
Jerusalem. The Mountain
Aquifer underlies much of
this contested region. 

To access the water, approximately 56 wells, some Palestinian and some Israeli controlled, reach depths of 800 meters or more, Harris says. But most of the discharge occurs through water wells within Israeli administration, Eckstein adds.

Click map for a larger version.
Reprinted from Water Conflict by Sharif S. Elmusa.
“Israeli agricultural settlements established within Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] use 82.5 percent of the abstracted water,” says Eckstein, who will be presenting a paper with his son, Gabriel, an environmental consultant in Washington.

So, now it is time for compromise. What happens to Israel’s water supply if additional water is provided to Palestinians? If Palestinian refugees are given the right to return to the occupied areas, demand for water will only increase.

Already Harris and geologists with the U.S. Agency for International Development are predicting a need for more widely spaced wells and sound groundwater management techniques to prevent water shortages in 10 years. They   completed a modeling study of the Mountain Aquifer in the Eastern Basin and are currently working on projects to develop wells and establish groundwater modeling in other areas around the West Bank. 

Unfortunately, as a result of current travel restrictions on Palestinians, it is unclear whether Harris’ colleagues will be able to present at the conference in Las Vegas.

“The situation here is very bad, we are under severe blockade from Israeli soldiers and no one can be transported from one city to another,” says Deeb Abdel-Ghafour of the Palestinian Water Authority in Al-Birah in the West Bank. “I must wait and see what will happen in the next few weeks.”

Others attending the conference will offer suggestions, including possible management techniques for sharing an aquifer and the geologic clues that may point to a link between the Litani River basin in Lebanon and the Jordan river basin that flows through northern Israel and defines the Jordan border.

As for establishing ownership over groundwater aquifers, “I don’t see any alternatives other than negotiations and compromise,” says Gabriel Eckstein.  “I do believe that some type of manageable and continuing solution can be found. We just need to transcend all the political and ideological problems that are inflicting this whole region.

“I do believe the water issues can be resolved not just for Palestinians and Israelis but for the Jordanians, the Syrians, the Lebanese and so on.” He agrees his view is idealistic, “but I don’t see an alternative — the alternative is conflict.”

Christina Reed

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