Water Scarcity: A Weaponized Resource or a Tool for Peace?


The article below expressed the opinion of the author and might not represent the position of The Stork on the issue discussed. As a newspaper, we are committed to our objectivity and do not aim to side, express a specific opinion, or offend any of our readers.

By Nathan Allison

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading historian and author Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus. His introductory chapter compares humankind’s lifestyles historically and juxtaposes them with the stability and predictability of our lifestyles today. One example he illustrates is the evolution of famine; where it was once an inevitable natural catastrophe that could only be relieved through the will of the gods, famine is now, in contrast, exceptional, completely avoidable, and politically motivated.

Harari states, “There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan, or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.”

Harari wrote Homo Deus in 2015, but his claim of political famines stands true today. If you’ve been keeping up with recent news, you would have undoubtedly read articles regarding the increasing concern of a fast-approaching famine in Gaza due to interrupted food distribution, or perhaps you would have read about Israel’s use of starvation as a weapon of war. Essentially, some politician wants Gaza to starve to death.

Similarly, water scarcity threatens billions of individuals across the globe annually. Water-scarce countries, such as Israel, are consequently developing desalination technologies to escape scarcity. Like famine, water scarcity is becoming entirely avoidable with developing technologies, and it is also slowly becoming a political issue rather than a natural disaster.

Water supply is a controllable political tool; those who manage access to water truly exercise power over the fate of entire civilizations. The Bible also recognized the importance of water in Israel historically. With enough water, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:1). Like any other political tool, water can be used as a weapon of death and destruction, or, preferably, as a means for peace and cooperation.

Israel’s escape from water scarcity

This year’s edition of the United Nations’ World Water Day, held annually on March 22, focused on the theme “Water for Peace.” The World Water Development Report “calls attention to the complex and interlinked relationships between water, prosperity and peace.” It hopes that, by progressing in one dimension, the globe can positively impact all three dimensions.

In 2015, Seth M. Siegel – author of Let There be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World – declared Israel a model for the world in solving water scarcity. Not only has Israel solved its water crisis, but it has also managed to create an abundance of water in a country made up of 60% desert.

The Sea of Galilee, which has sustained life for millennia, hit record-low levels in 2017. Five years later, Israel started to pump and clean water from the Mediterranean Sea to top up the lake when needed – the first country in the world to channel desalinated water into a natural lake. It now sells upwards of $2.2 billion in excess water supply to neighboring countries annually. This control of water has consequently significantly boosted Israel’s diplomatic standing internationally, setting an example for the future of hydro-diplomacy.

The political dynamics of water management

So, if Israel is considered such a superpower in the world of water, why does the State of Palestine struggle with water insecurity at such a detrimental level? Well, put simply, Israeli water sources are designed to benefit Jewish settlements – not Palestinian cities. Israeli settlers with access to clean water and irrigation witness thriving vineyards, olive groves, farms, and plantations, while Palestinian farmers struggle to grow even wheat or lentils.

As a matter of fact, not even Palestinian water is designed to benefit Palestine; Israel controls around 80% of the West Bank’s water sources as a result of the 1990s Interim Oslo Accords. Yet Palestinian access to those sources is strained. Israeli authorities have been demolishing unauthorized Palestinian reservoirs over the past years and allocating the bare minimum for Palestinian survival, demonstrating how their continued control over water sources equates to a state-controlled weapon that prioritizes one person over another.

This “weapon” becomes particularly evident after looking at a retaliatory attack on Gaza after the October 7 attacks, which damaged and destroyed “at least six water wells, three water pumping stations, one water reservoir, and [the last functioning] desalination plant serving over 1,100,000 people.” Average water consumption in the Gaza Strip dropped from 87.3 liters a day per person in 2019 to just three liters since the start of the war in October 2023, which continues to worsen as the need to ration what little water Gaza has increased. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 50 to 100 liters.

Barriers to a peacebuilding environment

But what options do warring States have in combating water scarcity? Marwan Haddad, a professor of environmental engineering and the Director of the Water and Environmental Studies Institute (WESI) in Nablus, Palestine, argued the merits of a Palestinian-Israeli Joint Water Authority (JWA) back in 2014.

He hoped that the two would turn away from “yesterday’s ideology and politics,” develop interdependency, and allow for a system that encourages full equality and partnership rooted in international law. However, he also recognized significant barriers to peacebuilding that need addressing, namely: negative attitudes and perceptions towards one another, the inability for peace agreements to occur by high-level, respected and capable institutions, and frequent activities that negatively alter peacebuilding processes.

What Haddad suggests is a joint water institution that is wide in scope, power, and jurisdiction. It should focus its efforts on political agreements regarding water with a conflict resolution mechanism “based on the principles of accepted international laws, conventions, and charters and the pursuit of mutual well-being and benefit for all peoples in historic Palestine.” The missing gear in the works concerns a lack of mutual, interdependent, and interlinked feelings between Israelis and Palestinians; they need to feel as though cooperation is more beneficial than separation. 

That’s easier said than done. A big part of this difficulty lies in the complexity of the situation that dates back much, much earlier than October 7. Over time, a system of intergroup aggression – that is, harmful behavior directed at another person because he is part of a foreign, outside group – has emerged.

Both sides present a threat to each other, and both sides consistently use dehumanization tactics to undermine the other, whether this be through biased school textbooks or claiming that one side is fighting “human animals.” Each side’s survival depends on the destruction of the other, creating a system that actively encourages intergroup aggression.

Ultimately, the fate of human life lies in the hands of the politicians whose survival depends on depriving others of water in an already water-insecure environment. Rather than weaponizing water and perpetuating water scarcity, we can only hope that water is used for peace under a new system where cooperation is more beneficial than separation and where human dignity is more important than political currency.

Cover image courtesy Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA)

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