Water as Source of Conflict and as a Vehicle for Peace

The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 2, no 1 (2019)
ISSN 2612-0496

Water as Source of Conflict and as a Vehicle for Peace

Klaas Johannes de JongIndependent researcher (Netherlands)

Klaas de Jong is a Dutch architect. After his studies in architecture at TU Delft and SCI-Arc, he graduated from TU Delft with a master thesis on the role of architecture in water-stressed conflict regions, 2018. Currently he is based in New York City at Studio Libeskind.

Submitted: 2018-11-15 – Published: 2019-12-20


Water accessibility in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is part of the politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contributes to the feeling of mistrust and misunderstanding between Israelis and Palestinians. This article explores the implications of access to water. It proposes an architectural design for a Temple of Water as a catalyst for dialogue and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians in the water-stressed region of Hebron on the southern West Bank. It aims to create a water space for social and communal practices as a vehicle for social interaction. Opportunities for peaceful coexistence are needed in conflict areas. The Temple of Water makes a statement about water’s power, meaning and influence. The research highlights the potential of spatial planning and design to promote either conflict or peaceful coexistence. Key specifications for architectural projects in water-stressed and conflict-ridden spaces have been defined with a theoretical framework concerning the value and implications of water in Israel and Palestine. The research takes a step towards understanding the power, meaning and influence that water can have through its physical embodiment in an architectural artefact.

Keywords: water management; Israeli-Palestinian conflict; water conflict; architecture of water.


Water has long been at the center of communal activities. The physical embodiment of the relationship humans have with water—including structures for gathering or distributing drinking water and spaces for washing and cleaning—has been at the center of people’s lives around the world. Architectures of water—infrastructure, buildings or monuments—are part of society. They serve as physical artifacts with spiritual associations and memories linked to important events.1 They have become part of culture, politics, and economics. Because life depends on water, water management can be the source of conflict.2 Faulty infrastructure, (territorial) management, politics, geography and climate change are important factors that can exacerbate water scarcity and its problems of unequal distribution. These factors can lead to mistrust, misunderstanding and antagonism between different groups of consumers in a region.

As a Dutch graduate student at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, I became aware of the importance of water as a dividing issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in 2016. I had no ties with Israelis or Palestinians, but as an outsider I forged my view of the conflict and water management through an investigation that included reviewing relevant literature, mapping, visiting the region and engaging in informal conversations with Israelis and Palestinians. The research taught me the importance of territorial water management—the management of water defined by territory—and importance of the physical representation of water planning and design as part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After this initial investigation, I wanted to explore the issue further through research by design, advancing a possible architectural intervention in order to explore the symbolic, cultural and political implications of a modern Water Temple, a physical structure that embodies the issues I wished to address. From an architectural perspective, I explored the possibilities for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together with water. In opposition to the architecture of conflict—consisting of segregating barriers and bypasses—I defined a positive approach towards desegregation and normalization of Israeli-Palestinian society, while providing an equal distribution and sufficient supply of water to Israelis and Palestinians.

Water is one of the issues that is hotly debated among the population groups in Israel and Palestine, as demonstrated in the award-winning book, Atlas of the Conflict: Israel-Palestine, by Israeli author and map-maker Malkit Shoshan.3 Because of biased territorial water management and substandard water infrastructure, Palestinians have limited access to water, with a daily per capita consumption at 73 liters in the West Bank, while the per capita daily consumption in Israel is 242 liters.4 Two separate authorities in Israel and the Palestinian Territories provide the Israeli and Palestinian peoples with water. The Israeli Water Authority (IWA) and the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) are responsible for providing water to their respective populations through the Israeli and Palestinian water infrastructure. A Joint Water Committee (JWC) was founded to oversee common water resources and manage the water infrastructure of the West Bank.5 The infrastructure under the responsibility of the PWA is outdated and is not connected to all Palestinian communities: only 55% of Palestinian localities are connected to piped water supply systems.6

This research draws on a theoretical framework dealing with the value and implications of water for water-stressed regions, and scholarship regarding pathways to normalization and peace in conflict areas. The social and political implications of water are recognized by UNESCO associates in the 2015 book Water and Heritage7 and in a 1994 article by American economists Berck and Lipow8. The book Water and Heritage reveals the importance of water and water systems for many aspects of people’s lives throughout history. To further explore the value of water, this paper draws on the ideas of American journalist Cooley9 and American scientist Gleick.10 Their works demonstrate why water is so often a source of conflict. Various sociologists, economists, planners, engineers and geographers—including American economist Ostrom,11 British political geographer Newman,12 Palestinian sociologist Mi’Ari,13 American geographer Curti14 and British academic Larkin15—have argued for the importance of interdependent management of water resources and the need for interaction between different stakeholders, and governance level, to achieve normalization in conflict areas. Here, the physical environment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be analyzed through the perspectives of In Statu Quo,16 a 2018 book that discusses the social and political connotations of spaces of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The first section explains the implicit value of water to society, politics and economics. The second section focuses on the implicit and explicit valuation of water and how valuation might differ across cultural contexts. The third section describes how spatial planning and the design of water and water systems may contribute to normalization and peace. The paper concludes with a proposal for an architectural intervention for water-stressed Palestinian Territories. The proposed Temple of Water restores water as a vehicle for social and communal practices for Israelis and Palestinians in the water-stressed region of Hebron on the southern West Bank.

Implications of Water in Israel and Palestine

Laws and regulations of the Ottoman Empire once controlled land ownership and water consumption in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The Ottoman laws define water use entitlements—and indirectly entitlements to land ownership.17 Land that is not actively tilled and water that is not consumed can be legally expropriated, meaning that lower water consumption can lead to loss of land ownership and any water rights associated with that land.18 Not surprisingly, the planning and design of water has deeply influenced relations between Israelis and Palestinians. In 1964 the Israeli water company Mekorot was founded during the so-called Zionist hydraulic mission era. At the time, Zionists and British Mandate authorities built the National Water Carrier (NWC) that transported water from the Sea of Galilee in the north of the country southward to the other parts of Israel, including the arid Negev Desert. As water was extracted from the Sea of Galilee—a freshwater lake and important source of the Jordan River—the water flow in the Jordan River decreased, reducing the availability of water in the West Bank. This led to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war—also known as the War over Water,19 culminating with the “Six-Day War” of 1967. The situation has changed little since. Hydrologists working with Palestinians have called the current water management system in Israel and the Palestinian Territories “Hydro-Apartheid.”20

Water can be a source of conflict, if it provides a source of economic and political strength, so that ensuring access to water justifies going to war.21 To avoid losing economic and political strength, Israel seeks resources to ward against water scarcity. The importance of agriculture for land ownership and food security drives the country to innovate in water supply. Desalination plants provide fresh water from the Mediterranean Sea. Desalination plants are economically expensive, however, in relation to standard and traditional water sources like aquifers, lakes and rivers.22 In addition, desalination plants consume a lot of energy and damage the sea’s biodiversity.23 For Palestinians, desalination plants are unaffordable without support and aid from external parties.

Economically, Palestinians do not have the ability to invest in water innovation and they depend on the agreements on water supply by the Israeli Water Authority as stated in the 1995 Oslo II Accord. Since then, the Palestinian society and its demand for water have grown and the water infrastructure further degraded. It is unclear whether Israel meets the Accord’s requirements regarding water supply or not. Palestinians believe that they are continually denied access to water and that this denial prevents them from developing their economy.24 Besides the economic aspects of denied access to water, water has become a source of mistrust and localized conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Mistrust and misunderstanding have kept Israelis and Palestinians from being able to coexist peacefully. This situation, if not controlled, may continue in the long term. Cooley writes that “long after oil runs out, water is likely to cause wars, cement peace, and make and break empires and alliances in the region, as it has for thousands of years.”25

Equality and Cooperation

To achieve stability, democracy and peaceful coexistence, it is important to take into account the planning and design of water in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. After studying the attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians about normalization, Mi’Ari concludes that a large group of both Israelis and Palestinians are supportive of normalization.26 Israelis generally support normalization with Palestinians, before or even without solving the main issues of the conflict. Initially, Palestinian academics and activists were against normalization. According to their ideas, normalization could only take place between two equal parties. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords however, their ideas have changed and they tend to support normalization with Israelis. Specifically, Palestinian merchants and farmers who work and trade with Israelis tend to support normalization more than people who stay within their own communities. Some Israelis and Palestinians meet in safe environments and gain economically from their contact. Everyday interaction between people and economic cooperation towards peace seems to encourage normalization between Israelis and Palestinians.27

Attempts to create spaces that promote neutrality and equality have been part of the post-conflict rehabilitations of many cities and societies. After decades of religious and political conflict in Beirut (Lebanon), the divided city arguably became the world’s largest laboratory for post-war reconstruction.28 Projects were built to connect locals and tourists via the creation of neutral spaces that bring together different groups of people.29 Yet, the projects failed to provide accessible and dynamic meeting places, because of their intended neutrality. In other words, the projects realized in Beirut lack the power to attract people and to engage them.30 Planners and designers should avoid neutrality in their designs as they may leave people unable to identify with their projects. Similarly, in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, invisible layers of water-related infrastructure such as underground water structures are difficult for people to identify with.

To reduce mistrust, misunderstanding and antagonism it is important to facilitate everyday interaction and economic cooperation between different social groups, rather than build physical objects that separate them. Territorial management and policies create soft borders that are as effective as walls, as they create inequality among citizens—or the impression thereof. Cooperation and inter-dependencies can reduce conflict between rivals. Inter-dependency encourages different people to keep themselves from being in conflict with their ‘partners’. Elinor Ostrom supports the idea of interdependent management of natural resources—in which different entities are considered equal, have equal access to a common-pool resource and are dependent on each other’s extractions from that resource—to avoid conflict. According to Ostrom, different parties can benefit equally from common-pool resources (CPR) following her design principles for CPR management as conflict resolution.31

Coexistence through the Architecture of Water

This section presents a possible intervention in spatial planning and design of water and water systems as physical structures to promote normalization and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The proposed architectural design aims to influence conflict situations and aims to promote peaceful coexistence, stability and democracy through the architecture of water.

My proposal is for a Temple of Water, which introduces water as social and communal practice for Israelis and Palestinians in the water-stressed region of Hebron (West Bank). The Temple of Water project focuses on the crucial nature of the relationship between water and architecture in spaces of conflict. The intervention can be generalized to other water-stressed and conflict-strained regions of the world.

Fig. 1 Temple of Water design sketch by author.
Fig. 1 Temple of Water design sketch by author.

The city of Hebron is a key site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It lies in the south of the West Bank and it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. It includes Abraham’s burial place, which is located in the Old City of Hebron, and known as Cave of Patriarchs (Me’arat ha-Makhpela) by Jews and as Ibrahimi Mosque (al-Haram al-Ibrahimi) by Muslims. It is an important site for followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the three monotheistic religions. Both Jews and Muslims use the building religiously, but in different spaces of the building.32

Fig. 2 Map of Hebron checkpoints and barriers. Dashed line: border H1/H2. Dark grey area: theoretical walled area. Map by author
Fig. 2 Map of Hebron checkpoints and barriers. Dashed line: border H1/H2. Dark grey area: theoretical walled area. Map by author

Although Hebron (or Al-Khalil in Arabic) was once a place where Jews and Muslims peacefully coexisted, the city is now divided into two areas, “Area H1”—which is under full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA)—and “Area H2”—which is under full control of the Israeli military (IDF).33 The division of Hebron into areas H1 and H2 is a consequence of politics following conflict between Muslims and Jews such as attacks and murders.34

There is no continuous wall in Hebron, but soldier-controlled checkpoints, sections of walls and other barriers work together as one continuous space, which I call the theoretical wall of Hebron. The area within this theoretical wall includes parts of the Old City and the Cave of Patriarchs in area H2. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are allowed to cross certain areas and checkpoints. Israeli soldiers patrol a deserted area with armored trucks—indicated in dark grey in figure 2. As shown on the map, the actual location of checkpoints and other barriers do not necessarily correspond with the exact location of the drawn borders.

Hebron has been described as a microcosm of the Israeli occupation.35 Some people view the situation of Hebron as the most badly impacted area of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, second only to the Gaza Strip.