Water has become a very political issue in the region. The fact that the Palestinians do not hold power over water resources in their territory makes cooperation in an equal partnership near impossible. Any project working on water is difficult to separate from questions of water rights and justice. The importance of water for the ideology of Zionism and Arab nationalism further leads to securitisation and politicisation on all sides. This puts a limit to initiatives that aim to promote cooperation at the technical level, as the decision on wastewater management, for example, is taken at the political level.
Asymmetrical power relations among the three parties determine water relationships at the political level, such as in the Joint Water Committees, which do not work effectively. Different levels of capacity in human and financial resources mean that cooperative efforts at the technical level are problematic, as they can make it difficult to choose suitable technologies, for example databases and systems to support decision-making that are appropriate for all parties. Further, unequal access to water results in diverging interests making it difficult to identify projects that can be equally beneficial for all parties. This can cause frustrations for both the weaker and the stronger party. At the level of project implementation, asymmetries are evident in the logistics, such as different obstacles for travelling to joint meetings.
Communities and experts agree that access to water cannot be solved unilaterally. Still, spill-over of cooperative behaviour on the local and technical levels towards higher political spheres is difficult to achieve in the centralised water management systems existing in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians territories. While water cooperation initiatives regularly achieve individual changes of perception of ‘the other’, as well as creating personal relationships, this does not automatically add up to societal change. For this to happen, change at the individual level needs to be sustained over time, in order to have an impact on the individuals’ behaviour and to gradually extend to other people and to promote change on the socio-political level.
The asymmetries described above, as well as the parties’ different priorities and needs, create diverging expectations and perceptions with regard to cooperation. When asked for their needs related to environmental peacebuilding efforts, interviewees in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories broadly indicated very different priorities: Jordanians focused on economic development and free movement of people and goods; Israelis concentrated on reconciliation and improved environmental management; and Palestinians stressed the importance of access to water and land rights, as well as the ending of occupation. Managing high and often different expectations poses a major challenge. The goals and possibilities of initiatives need to be transparent and clear in order to prevent frustrations on all sides. Otherwise, mounting frustrations can lead to failure of cooperative efforts.