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How water could bring Israelis, Palestinians together

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The shortage of water is draining the lifeblood of a key sector of the Palestinian economy: agriculture. A 2009 World Bank report estimated that the sector – the third largest in the West Bank – misses out on 96,000 jobs and $410 million in yearly revenues because of the lack of irrigated agriculture.

"I don't think development of the agricultural system could happen without an increase in the amount of water [from 1995 allocations]," says Minister of Agriculture Walid Assaf.

Water usage not tracked

The exact amount of water Palestinians use each year is difficult to pinpoint: While well levels are monitored, there is not a comprehensive system in place to measure water usage.

But how much Israel provides is carefully tracked, and it amounts to more water than Israel is required to provide under the Oslo Accords. In addition, Israelis argue that Palestinians would have plenty of water if they managed it better, fixed leaky pipes, halted theft of water and illegal wells, priced water more appropriately, and implemented the many projects that have already been approved.

"The municipality is the big problem for us," says Abu Elias, a farmer in Jericho who grows fewer eggplants, cucumbers, and tomatoes on his well-tended land than he used to. But he adds that the Israeli occupation aggravates water supply issues.

Palestinians contend that Israel – which can access the three shared basins from within its own borders, and thereby outside the agreement – has lowered the overall water table in the basins, similar to the effect of siphoning off water from one end of a bathtub, says Mr. Bromberg. That has dried up wells and springs and forced Palestinians to buy more water from Israel, they say.

"Israel is stealing my water and selling it to the poorest people on earth.... That's the water story," says Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian peace negotiator.

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