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And Not a Drop to Drink for Palestinians

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

HADERA, Israel, May 29 2010 (IPS) - A new desalination facility has come up here on Israel’s Mediterranean seashore, to soothe Israel’s chronic fresh water shortage. An elaborate network of pipes beneath the beach reaches westward far into the sea. Eastward, it links up with the national water system.

Just inaugurated, the plant, one of the largest in the world, turns seawater into drinking water.

“The new plant definitely makes our slender reserves more secure,” says Abraham Tenne, head of the Desalination Department at the Israeli National Water Authority.

The current Israeli push to turn sea to fresh water started 10 years ago during a prolonged drought. After years of continuing poor rainfall, and a boom in water consumption matching a growing population of 7.5 million, the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s only major fresh water lake, reached record dangerously low levels.

“The first benefactor will be the Sea of Galilee,” Tenne told IPS.

During the long hot summer, the Jordan River which flows out of the southern tip of the lake, slows to a trickle. A report released this month by Friends of the Earth (FoE) Middle East expressed concern for the very future of the Biblical river.

The Hadera plant provides 127 million cubic metres per year. That is enough to supply potable water for more than a million Israelis.

The facility boosts two existing plants further south down the coast, one at Ashkelon only 10 kilometres from water-thirsty Gaza.

The plant is the third of five large facilities that will soon dot the Israeli coastline. By 2014, officials predict the five plants will together provide two- thirds of the country’s drinking water. Annual household demand is currently around 750m cubic metres.

The new plant cost 425 million dollars. The money was raised from a consortium of international banks, including the European Investment Bank.

In parallel, Israel has earmarked more than 500 million dollars to connect the string of coastal plants to the national water system. That requires re-routing the National Water Carrier that has sustained Israel for 50 years with water funneled from the Sea of Galilee.

It all sounds fine. But the desalination boom is not without controversy.

Environmentalists fear Israel’s short coastline can ill afford to take the brunt of so many desalination plants.

Rivi Friedman, a FoE activist, is concerned about the impact on ocean life. “There needs be much more research into the effects of byproducts of desalination, iron and nutrients that are released into the sea. The desalination drive should be just one part of the solution, along with conservation.”

Tenne counters that the process of reverse osmosis technology which is used by the Hadera plant (the world’s largest using such technology) “does not involve heating the sea water, detrimental to the environment, as other larger plants do.”

Bigger desalination plants can be found in Saudi Arabia, but they employ a thermal-based technology.

“Reverse osmosis actually requires less energy and is thus friendlier to the environment,” stresses Avshalom Felber, the CEO of IDE Technology which built the plant. “The more desalination we do, the less we need to exhaust our natural fresh water resources. That allows them to get back to their natural state.”

Uzi Landau, Israel’s National Infrastructure Minister, says that “with the development of new desalination techniques, it’s become easier to look to the sea for solutions to our water problems.”

Such enthusiasm for desalination dilutes one of the unresolved core issues of the conflict. For decades, Israel and its Arab neighbours, especially the Palestinians, have fought over water rights. Water continues to loom large over all peace efforts. It’s known to be on the table of the recently begun Israeli-Palestinian ‘proximity’ talks.

Apart from the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s only other major water source is two aquifers, one on the coastal plain, and one beneath the ridge of eastern hills that lie primarily in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians protest that Israel’s asserting of total control over the mountain aquifer is illegal.

Israeli Environment Minister Gilad Erdan retorts, “According to international law, water which naturally flows down from the West Bank aquifer into Israel’s coastal plain belongs to us.”

The Israeli government has recently re-confirmed its intention to allocate a stretch of land in the Hadera area for a separate desalination plant that would be dedicated to the needs of the future Palestinian state. This follows the recommendation of the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian Joint Committee on Water.

But, says Dr. Shaddad Alattili, chairman of the Palestine Water Authority, “that would require us to purchase water at a high cost — whereas, in fact, the water in our soil belongs at least partially to us, but remains inaccessible.

“We will not explore alternative water sources before we’re given back our rights to the Jordan River and to the aquifer,” stressed Alattili, who was recently appointed to lead the Palestinian negotiating team on water.

Israeli experts agree that the Palestinians are being seriously shortchanged. “We would like to fulfill their needs, and we’re doing our best to promote a solution,” says Felber, “But it’s a political issue and out of our hands. Current Israeli water planning simply does not make allowance for the needs of the Palestinian territories.”

In the past, whenever peace talks reached a bitter dead end, the legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used to say, “Let the Israelis drink the sea of Gaza.”

Now, essentially that’s what they’re doing — leaving their Palestinian neighbours, however, still empty cup in hand.

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