The University Record, September 23, 1998

Water may hold key to peace in the West Bank

By Amy Reyes
News and Information Services

They're supposed to be political foes, but Israeli and Palestinian scientists who have collaborated on a water quality study in the West Bank are far from adversaries. They are soldiers-in-arms who share a vision of a clean and adequate water supply in a part of the world torn by political strife.

"This is research under adversity. We are scientists and we are engineers, we are not politicians," says Khalil H. Mancy, professor of environmental and industrial health. "We are only concerned with how to conserve the limited fresh water resource so that it will not be destroyed. Unfortunately, the destruction of the resource has already started. We are starting to scream as loud as we can--Wake up!"

Mancy is coordinating an ongoing study that seeks to provide scientific-based policies for the protection and conservation of the Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank where the ground water source lies.

The five-year study, "Environmental Protection of the Shared Israeli-Palestinian Mountain Aquifer," began in 1994 in collaboration with the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and the Palestine Consultancy Group.

Researchers recently completed the first phase of the study and submitted their findings to Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The scientists have proposed protection and conservation efforts such as recycling and reusing wastewater for irrigation, and developing a water conservation plan, among other proposals.

"For Palestinians and Israelis alike, there is no single problem more vital to the health and welfare of both peoples than the equitable sharing and the protection of their limited fresh water resources," Mancy writes in the foreword of the study. "The study provides the framework for the joint environmental protection of the Mountain Aquifer. Without cooperative management of this fragile water resource, both Israelis and Palestinians stand to lose . . . In spite of the stringent security measures imposed on the study areas and the pathetic state of the peace process, project scientists have succeeded in the development of a modus operandi of collaboration and peaceful coexistence.''

Jewish settlements in the West Bank consume a proportionately higher amount of water than neighboring Palestinian villagers in the West Bank. In spite of the limited fresh water resources, children in the Jewish settlements enjoy the luxury of swimming pools, while Palestinian villagers are reduced to flushing their toilets once every other day.

"Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank draw water from the same source. If you withdraw too much water, the groundwater level will go down, and those who do not have the means to draw deeper water will suffer. There must be a plan to jointly manage this resource, Mancy said.

Sharing the fresh water supply is one of the main issues in the Oslo peace accords, but that has been put aside for the time being. Meanwhile, access problems continue and the water quality continues to deteriorate.

"When it comes to water resources, pollution, public health and environmental quality, there is a need for joint management that transcends political differences regardless of the perceived injustice and political conflicts," Mancy said. "These are very important issues. If they are not addressed now, the consequences can affect all parties negatively.''

Human and industrial wastewater from many Israeli settlements in the West Bank area flow untreated or partially treated into dry river beds over permeable areas of the Mountain Aquifer, often flowing into neighboring Palestinian villages, causing environmental pollution and nuisances. The largest single source of untreated wastewater pollution in the study area flows from Jerusalem, which is building a wastewater treatment plant.

But the plant will only be a drop in the bucket. Estimates show that the population in and around the West Bank area will double and reach three million by 2025, with a concurrent tripling of pollution. Massive investments in proper sewage systems, wastewater treatment and disposal, and solid waste disposal systems are needed to adequately protect the water supply," Marcy said.

"This is a very critical and certainly a deciding issue for reaching final settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But they coexist on the same land and they have to share the resources,'' he noted.

The research project is supported by the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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