POWER AND WATER IN THE MIDDLE EAST: THE HIDDEN POLITICS OF THE PALESTINIAN–ISRAELI WATER CONFLICT by Mark Zeitoun

Review by Professor Lawrence Susskind, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Zeitoun’s work argues that attempts to monopolize control of the water supply in the Middle East is seriously undermining hopes for peace in the region.

Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian–Israeli Water Conflict, by Mark Zeitoun, IB Tauris, 224pp

Mark Zeitoun is an experienced water engineering affiliated with the Center of Environmental Policy and Governance at the London Science of Economics and Political Science. His focus is on the ‘hidden politics’ behind the Israeli–Palestinian water conflict. As Elon Tal says in his long review of this book, “Zeitoun argues that Israel has successfully made its domination of water resources part of the subconscious paradigm that drives the decisions and menu of policy options held by Palestinian water managers and politicians. In so doing, it has turned the pragmatic Palestinian professional community into accomplices in Israel’s post-colonial larceny of its neighbors’ hydrological resources.”

I take Zeitoun’s analysis very seriously, but I also find parts of Tal’s defense compelling. Having interacted with a number of Palestinian water professionals, I don’t think Zeitoun’s charge is fair. The water professionals in Palestine know exactly what is going on at every level. And, having talked with a number of senior Israeli water policy analysts, I don’t find Tal’s defense entirely convincing. Israel is preoccupied with its long-term security (what country wouldn’t be?). It won’t agree to sort out questions of fundamental rights to water on a permanent basis until all the details of a stable two-state solution are clarified. Palestinian water professionals don’t want to wait, and who would blame them, given that the small share of the region’s water that goes to the Palestinians is unacceptable.

What if Israel offers to sell the Palestinians (and Jordanians) all the water they could possibly want? The National Water Plan for 2040 calls for Israel to provide 70% of its water from desalination. If this happens, there should be more naturally occurring water available for the Palestinians. If Israel agrees to sell unlimited amounts of water (generated through multiple use of the same water supplies, more efficient agricultural production, reductions in the loss of ‘virtual water’ by cutting back shipments of fruits and vegetables out of the region, and massive investment in desalination), at modest prices, is it further evidence of hydro-hegemony? Or, is it a step toward economic interdependence? While future attacks on Israel might be met by turning off the water spigot, Palestinian investment in independent desalination facilities—and Israel’s willingness to share new low energy desalination technology—might be jointly planned moves toward peace.


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