The Arava Institute’s Cross-Border Environmental Cooperation Conference

By Mimi Kaplan
JIIS Fellow
View from The Arava Institute at Sunrise

In September this year, professionals working on environmental planning in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza convened at Kibbutz Ketura for the Arava Institute’s first annual Cross-Border Environmental Cooperation Conference.

The conference was organized around three roundtables, which focused on transboundary planning for wastewater, energy and climate change. The wastewater group met over the two-day conference to share information about the current state of wastewater treatment and management in the West Bank and Gaza, to identify the barriers to action, and finally and to brainstorm realistic and incremental steps forward.

The presentations and conversation focused on two main motivations to increase wastewater treatment in the West Bank: to expand the amount of water available for agricultural and domestic uses, and to avoid further contamination of the Mountain Aquifer. The Mountain Aquifer is one of the main natural water resources supplying the domestic needs of the West Bank’s Palestinian population of approx. 2,785,400 (2014)[1]. In 2011, only 70.9% of households in the West Bank considered their water to be good quality[2].  The West Bank’s agricultural community, which constitutes 11.5% of the labor force and 3.5% of the West Bank’s GDP (2014)[3] also relies upon the Mountain Aquifer for its irrigation needs. The contamination of the Mountain Aquifer stems both from human and industrial waste, and results in high levels of nitrate, fecal coliform, chloride, and micro-biological pollution etc. There are also a number of locations, concentrated mainly in the north and east of the West Bank, where the total dissolved solids (a measure of palpable water contamination) exceed 1,200 mg/l. To give a contextual meaning to this number, Israel defines water with more than 1,000mg/L TDS as brackish[4]. The shortage of water fit for drinking or irrigation is compounded by 33% loss of water due to pipe leakage[5]. As of 2004, there were five Palestinian wastewater treatment plants in El-Bireh, Jenin, Tul Karem, Ramallah and Hebron[6]. The El-Bireh plant was the only one out of the five functioning, though the annual actual inflow was beyond its capacity[7].  The rest of the plants all faced a multitude of technical problems including but not limited to: rainfall intrusion, olive solids and heavy metal intrusion, and sludge accumulation[8]. Since 2004, treatment plants in West Nablus and Jericho have been added and are operational, and there is a planned plant for East Nablus [9] [10].

In comparison, the need for increased wastewater treatment in Gaza is even more pressing, as evidenced by the roundtable’s focus on securing domestic drinking water resources. The population of 1,869,055 is reliant on the Coastal Aquifer as its natural source of drinking water[11]. Gaza’s agricultural sector, making up 5.2% of its labor force and 4.7% of its GDP relies on the Coastal Aquifer for its irrigation needs[12]. As of 2011, only 5.3% of Gaza’s households consider their water to be good quality[13]. The main cause of contamination to the Coastal Aquifer is saline intrusion from the Mediterranean due to over pumping. However, permeation of untreated sewage and fertilizer run-off have also increased contamination[14], and Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer averages 2,000 mg/L of total dissolved solids, also meeting Israel’s definition of brackish water. 40% of Gaza’s developed water is lost due to leakage in the pipe system; there are five treatment plants that treat water between 50% and 70%. The inadequate treatment of sewage has also become a water security and health hazard for Israel, as Gaza’s untreated sewage is flowing into the Mediterranean Sea and moving north, causing interruptions in the operation of the Ashkelon desalination plant, and washing up on the beaches of Tel Aviv.

Before discussing rehabilitation or further building of wastewater treatment plants in the West Bank and Gaza, the participants were also eager to enumerate the barriers and possible solutions in order to move toward realistic actions. The first barrier discussed was the lack of agreement between Palestinian and Israeli published data on the total amount of wastewater in the West Bank and the volumes coming from Palestinian sources versus Israeli settlements. The second barrier discussed was the difficulty for Palestinians to acquire building permits for water infrastructure. A series of Israeli military orders and the Oslo II agreements have shifted water rights in the West Bank and Gaza to Israel since 1967[15]. The third barrier that the round table considered was how to finance such projects. If it is possible to fund the rehabilitation or building of wastewater treatment plants with taxes and fees, there are a number of options, including local betterment taxes, “polluter-pays fees,” and the creation of wastewater revolving funds, and other innovative financial tools and techniques[16]. However, if local money is not available, the projects may have to turn to foreign aid for financing. Two foreign aid organizations that have sponsored Palestinian wastewater treatment projects in the past are USAID and Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau (KFW), a German federal development-funding agency[17].

Transboundary Hebron Stream

In turning to solutions, the group concluded that it would be important to meet again in the near future to keep up the effort. To overcome the first barrier to action (discrepancies in Israeli and Palestinian wastewater data), there was a suggestion to apply for funding through Springer publishing’s NATO Science for Peace program for Israeli and Palestinian scholars to co-author a book in order to create a consensus on measurement and reporting standards. To overcome the second barrier (difficulty in obtaining building permits), there was an agreement to begin a search for the appropriate authorities to consult on the legal aspect of the expansion of wastewater treatment in the West Bank and Gaza. To overcome the third obstacle (lack of clarity on funding possibilities), representatives of the wastewater group will consult with the Milken Innovation Center, a non-profit focusing on market-based solutions to explore the different possibilities.

[1] Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Household Environmental Survey, 2011

[2] ibid

[3] CIA World Factbook, Middle East: West Bank

[4] Israel’s Water Economy, Thinking of Future Generations, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

[5] Gabriele Barbati, “World Water Wars: In the West Bank Water is Just Another Conflict Issue for Israelis and Palestinians, The International Business Times, 2011

[6] ibid, (page 7)

[7] Odai Joudeh, An Overview of Wastewater Management Practices in the West Bank, PADUCO 2015 Conference

[8] ibid


[10] Odai Joudeh

[11] CIA World Factbook, Middle East: Gaza Strip

[12] ibid

[13] Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Household Environmental Survey, 2011

[14] Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia, Coastal Aquifer Basin

[15] MO 58 and 158, 1967: a requirement for water infrastructure projects to be granted permits by the area commander who can also deny a permit with no justification;

MO 291, 1968: an order that pre-1967 land and water-related arrangements are declared invalid;

MO 291, 1968: an order that West Bank water resources are reclassified as public property

Oslo II Joint Water Committee: made up of equal numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, which must approve by consensus all water and sewage related projects in the West Bank (Julie Trottier, Hydropolitics in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, PASSIA, 1999, pages 78, 183)

[16] The Milken Innovation Center, Financing Kidron/Wadi El Nar River Revitalization A Bridge to Development

[17] Bromberg, Gidon; Keinan, Tamar; Tagar, Zecharaya; “A Seeping Time Bomb: Pollution of the Mountain Aquifer by Sewage,” Friends of the Earth Middle East, 2004 (page 14)

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