Desecuritisation of Water as a Key for Water Diplomacy


Dr Christiane Fröhlich, Research Fellow, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies

Water as a Security Issue

Water is an existential resource. It is essential for socioeconomic development, healthy ecosystems and human survival in general. As the resource is closely related to all aspects of human life, humanity’s overall health, welfare and productivity depend on an adequate water supply. However, industrialisation, growing demand, over-use and degradation, as well as the consequences of global warming, are putting increasing pressure on global freshwater resources. For instance, global water use has been growing by about 1% per year since the 1980s according to UN Water, with no end in sight. Therefore, the list of regions that suffer from insufficient water supply is continually growing; over two billion people worldwide are currently living in states that are experiencing severe water stress, and four billion suffer from severe water scarcity on at least thirty days per year (UN Water, 2019).

Considering these numbers, it may seem rather logical that access to adequate water resources should increasingly, maybe even exclusively, be seen as an issue of security, especially in regions where water scarcity combines with a political atmosphere characterised by confrontation, and where water (or scarcity thereof) can be instrumentalised to acquire or sustain political power. Such dynamics are assumed to be of particular importance in international water basins, which cover approximately half of the earth’s surface and are home to 40% of the global population. Prognoses agree that these parts of the world will see increasing conflicts, since neighbouring states often have different interests with regard to water utilisation and allocation, and since in such a political climate economic independence and self-sufficiency are considered key for national security and a means to reduce the dependence on potentially hostile neighbours.

While international military disputes about water are unlikely, sub-state conflicts over scarce water resources have become quite common already. To name but a few examples: southern Iraqi farmers are being forced into over-populated urban centres because large-scale dams in Iraq, Syria and Turkey considerably reduce the flow rate of the Euphrates (Montenegro, 2009). Syrian farmers from the north of the country have suffered from an exceedingly long drought period between 2006 and 2009 without any assistance by the government led by Bashar al-Assad (Selby et al., 2017). The drought led to increased desertification and put growing pressure on the country’s already scarce water resources; it also contributed to internal migration movements (Fröhlich, 2016). In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, farmers are dependent on increasingly volatile precipitation patterns for their rain-fed agriculture, while the industrialised Israeli agriculture receives subsidised water for irrigation.

Such examples in combination with the impacts of climate change becoming more and more visible have contributed to water security becoming a key term and central paradigm in recent years (Aggestam, 2015). Consequently, patterns of securitisation and, to a lesser extent, desecuritisation have received a lot of attention (Wæver, 1995; Cook & Bakker, 2012; Fischhendler & Nathan, 2015). This chapter aims at uncovering modes of representation and imagery which are routinely implicated and drawn upon in times of conflict to generate exclusionist modes of discourse, namely the construction of (collective) identities through discursive in- and exclusion, the realms of the “sayable” or “unsayable” that develop from this, and (de-)securitisations. Drawing on critical security studies, this chapter conceptualises different interpretations of the relationship between water and security as water security discourses, separating them into national, international, human and ecological security discourses (McDonald, 2013), each associated with different levels of (de-)securitisation

The chapter focuses on the Jordan basin as a case study, in particular on the Israeli-Palestinian water conflict. This conflict is rooted in the region’s geographical, climatic, hydro(geo)logical and demographic realities; however, these factual circumstances are complemented by different social, material and symbolic attributes attached to the resource water, by the resource’s different functions and by the respective stakeholders’ interests. Remarkably, the basin has experienced both conflict and cooperation over water despite the protracted political conflict, making it a promising case for better understanding the role of (de-)securitisation for successful water diplomacy (Ide & Fröhlich, 2015). The chapter hypothesises that a better understanding of (de-)securitisation patterns is key to effectively scoping the available space, time and willingness to negotiate water issues in conflict situations, which in turn is crucial for future water diplomacy. A better understanding of the structures and dynamics underlying conflict (or cooperation) in the water sector could help identify ways to achieve more sustainable and peaceful water management in the Jordan basin. Accordingly, the chapter analyses the Israeli and Palestinian water discourses to answer the nested research questions of 1) which patterns of (de-)securitisation of water exist within these two societies, and 2) how they relate to conflictive or cooperative behaviour. The chapter applies a methodology that combines discourse theory with critical security studies to map the different water discourses in Israel and Palestine; on this basis, it draws tentative lessons for future water diplomacy in the region.

The Jordan Basin: A Brief History of Conflict and Cooperation

The area between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan is one of the water scarcest areas of the world. Climate and geography together with the political situation in the region have rendered the Jordan basin one of the most heavily cited examples for water as a security issue. Usable water stems from the River Jordan with its headwater and tributaries (Hasbani and Banyas in the Golan Heights, Dan in Israel, Yarmuk in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan), the Sea of Galilee and several ground water reservoirs. The latter consist mainly of the mountain aquifer below the West Bank, the coastal aquifer below the Gaza Strip and along the Israeli coast, as well as a number of smaller and less developed aquifers. Ever since the war of 1967 and the ensuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, the majority of the natural water resources in the Jordan basin (ca. 80%) have been under Israeli control.

Today, the stakeholders in the Jordan basin include Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians, as well as – indirectly – Lebanon. The conflict between Jordan and Israel over the water in the River Jordan has been regulated in a detailed peace agreement in 1994. The conflict between Syria and Israel over the River Jordan’s tributaries Banyas and Hasbani is mainly to be seen as part of the political dispute over the Golan Heights, and less about the actual water allocation – Syria depends much more on the water in the Euphrates-Tigris basin than on the water it lays claims to in the south, so that a “water war” remains unlikely here too.

There is, however, a long-standing water conflict between Israel and Palestine over the shared groundwater aquifers and the River Jordan and their distribution (Zeitoun, 2012), over water pollution originating in the West Bank and Israel (Fischhendler, Dinar, & Katz, 2011), and over water infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in particular the question of who receives a permit to construct and maintain such infrastructure (Selby, 2013). The current water access patterns clearly mirror the asymmetrical distribution of power between Israel and the Palestinians: while Palestinians have access to less than 100 litres per head and day for household use, Israeli citizens, including Israeli settlers, consume up to three times as much (B’Tselem, 2011). Many Palestinian families have to make do with intermittent water supply, and approximately 20% of the Palestinian population are not connected to the water supply system at all. The population therefore has to rely on water brought by tankers, which is very expensive; the Palestinians pay one of the highest water prices in the region. The aforementioned peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which includes detailed regulations concerning the allocation of water from the rivers Jordan and Yarmuk, does not mention the Palestinians, even though they are direct neighbours to the basin. Water is also one of the issues that has been postponed to the final status talks (Lautze et al., 2005). While it is true that during the Oslo peace negotiations, bilateral bodies with regard to water were created which – different from many other institutions – remained in effect even during the second Intifada and beyond, these so-called Joint Water Committees nevertheless illustrate the asymmetrical nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Selby, 2003). While, in theory, both Palestinian and Israeli committee members have equal rights and duties, including the right to veto water-related infrastructural and other projects of the respective other, de facto only Israel can effectively exercise that right. The water conflict between Israelis and Palestinians thus has to be understood as deeply embedded in the dynamics of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Moore & Guy, 2012).

Despite these long-standing conflict dynamics, there is also Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on water issues, both on the scientific and the civil society level. This is manifested in a counter-discourse that has been developing since the early 1990s (Isaac & Shuval, 1994), and that focuses on the cooperative potential of fair and mutually beneficial joint water management and its possible role for peace-making and peace-building (Coskun, 2009; Kramer, 2008; Fröhlich, 2012b). A prominent example of such cooperation is the Israeli-Palestinian Good Water Neighbours (GWN) project (Ide & Fröhlich, 2015). The goal of this chapter is to deconstruct patterns of (de-)securitisation in Israeli and Palestinian water discourses in order to better understand how they relate to conflictive or cooperative behaviour, and to draw tentative conclusions for the potential of future water diplomacy in the Jordan basin.


First of all, it is necessary to define the key terminology utilised in this analysis. Water security is here understood as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability” (UN Water, 2013). Securitisation is here understood as an utterance by which an issue is constructed and framed as a matter of security, thereby moving it outside of the realm of “normal” political action (Buzan, Wæver, & de Wilde 1998). Securitisation is achieved through a successful securitising move, i.e. the construction of a particular reference object as an existential threat for a certain audience. Given a sufficient acceptance by that audience, a securitising move legitimates emergency measures that exceed the common rules of social interaction, including violence. The likelihood of securitisation is commonly expected to be higher in situations of conflict. Desecuritisation can be seen as the reverse process, i.e. moving an issue “away from exceptional and back to normal spheres of politics” (Aggestam, 2015, p. 328). It is here understood as “a process in which a political community downgrades or ceases to treat something as an existential threat to a valued referent object and reduces or stops calling for exceptional measures to deal with the threat” (Buzan & Wæver, 2003, p. 489).

(De-)securitisation dynamics can be uncovered through discourse analysis, understanding “discourses as performative statement practices which constitute reality orders and also produce power effects in a conflict-ridden network of social actors” (Keller, 2011, p. 48). What is accepted as true by a given social group and what is claimed as wrong or not considered at all is structured by discourses. This also applies to the “subject positions” of social actors, which define the role and characteristics (that is, the identity) of individuals and social groups (Keller, 2011, p. 49). As Siegfried Jäger (2004, p. 158) put it, “discourse is the flow of social knowledge through time”; therefore, “everything we perceive, experience, sense is mediated through socially constructed and typified knowledge” (Keller, 2013, p. 61), in other words: discourse. Discourses thus execute significant power effects by structuring social actors’ perceptions and interpretations of reality as well as the ensuing actions and practices without completely determining them. A discourse can be considered dominant when its core statements are accepted as true by a large majority of a specific social group (Keller, 2011).

In order to uncover patterns of (de-)securitisation within the Israeli and Palestinian water discourses, this chapter conceptualises discourse as consisting of various concrete speech acts, texts, images and symbols, but also non-verbal practices, which in turn reproduce the very discourse they are originating from. Discourses and practices are therefore mutually constitutive, implying that discourses are reproduced by and can be changed by human action and simultaneously structure human action. Accordingly, securitisation is here conceptualised as “a specific modern speech act, an utterance by which we construct an issue as a matter of security” (Gad & Petersen, 2011, p. 317). Desecuritisation, in contrast, denotes the weakening of such conflictive viewpoints, potentially leading to a change in societal discourse so that agreement and mutual understanding become possible again, thus potentially leading to discursive conflict transformation.

Furthermore, drawing on McDonald, (2013), this chapter conceptualises different interpretations of the relationship between water and security (i.e.: (de-)securitisations) as water security discourses, dividing them into national, international, human and ecological security discourses. The key questions to ask for each securitising move are: 1) How is the referent object of security conceptualised, i.e. who or what needs to be protected?; 2) Who is perceived as the key agent of security, i.e. who can and should respond to the threat?; and 3) What is the nature of the threat, and what responses are suggested? (McDonald, 2013, p. 42). By answering these questions, the implicit conceptualisations of security are uncovered, which is a prerequisite for future water diplomacy in the region, as it illustrates how some responses to water scarcity as well as the actors involved are enabled or constrained by different discursive conceptualisations of water security. It makes a difference whether the answer to the question “who is to be secured” is a) a national territory and/or population (national security), b) the international system of states and organisations (international security), c) mankind (human security), or d) the planet with all its living beings (ecological security). Both the chosen agents of security and the dominant threat perceptions including acceptable responses are determined by those answers and differ widely.

In the following, the chapter outlines the hegemonic and counter water discourses in Palestine and Israel, drawing on both secondary literature on the issue and previous research by the author (Fröhlich, 2010; 2012a; 2012b; 2014; 2019; Ide & Fröhlich, 2015; Rodriguez Lopez et al., 2019). The author has conducted qualitative field research in Israel and Palestine in 2005/06 (Fröhlich, 2010; 2012b), in 2017/18 (Rodriguez Lopez et al., 2019) as well as in 2019, including half-open, semi-structured interviews with Israeli and Palestinian water experts, participant observation, and group discussions and informal conversations with Israeli and Palestinian stakeholders, including government officials, non-governmental organization (NGO) and international organization (IO) agents, and civil society representatives.

Deconstructing Water Discourses

In the following, the chapter outlines how discourses on both sides (de-)securitise water. As will be shown, there are different understandings of security underlying the different discourses: the referent objects of securitising moves change as much as potential agents of security and perceived threats, pointing at the changeability of discourse and the potential for discursive conflict transformation. In both societies, two interrelated but very different dominant discourses on water can be discerned. Both are characterised by the securitisation of water resources for the respective national populations.

a) Patterns of securitisation: Palestine

In the discourse that is dominant in Palestine, the existing natural water resources are believed to be sufficient at least for a major improvement of the Palestinian standard of living. Israeli control over most of the natural water sources, the very unequal access to water as well as Israel’s capacity to veto water infrastructure projects are seen as the major cause of water availability problems in the West Bank (Alatout, 2006; Waintraub, 2009), and thus as the main threat to the referent object, namely the Palestinian people and future state. In the Palestinian perception, the experienced water scarcity is thus seen as predominantly politically induced (Daoudi, 2009; Trottier, 1999). Israeli control over large parts of the regional water resources is considered an existential threat to Palestinian society and hence securitised in the dominant discourse (Fröhlich, 2012b).

This rather confrontative assessment is connected to similarly conflictive identity constructions in the dominant Palestinian discourse. Water is perceived as important primarily as an attribute of a territory that is considered rightfully Palestinian and thus crucial for a Palestinian state and identity, but has been under Israeli control since 1967. Consequentially, the Israeli out-group is at least implicitly portrayed in negative terms, since it is unwilling to grant the Palestinians the amount of water that they feel not only entitled to but also depend on to keep their standard of living and to enable at least moderate economic growth (Fröhlich, 2010; Twite, 2009). This discourse reflects a dominant mentality of siege that mirrors such Israeli mentality (see below). One manifestation thereof is the myth of the fellah, a Palestinian peasant who works and sustains his land even in the worst of circumstances – and needs water to do that, while access to water is denied by Israel (Fröhlich, 2012b). The central characteristic of the fellah is perseverance (Arabic sumud) in the face of recurring humiliation and assault; the myth is alive until today and relates not only to those who actually work with and on the land but also those who protect the land by simply maintaining their livelihoods in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and by witnessing the Israeli occupation.

There certainly are alternative positions which challenge the dominant Palestinian water discourse (Alatout, 2006). Examples include more pragmatic voices that criticise Palestinian water management and thus acknowledge the in-group’s responsibility for the water scarcity and pollution that Palestine is experiencing (Fröhlich, 2010). Here, the referent object is no longer exclusively the Palestinian state and society but nature itself needs protection from pollution and over-utilisation, thus displaying an ecological understanding of security and thereby inviting a completely different set of responses to such a threat. But the dominant discursive pattern is to construct water availability as crucial for the Palestinian identity and future state, to securitise Israeli control over the majority of the natural water resources, and to blame the Israeli out-group for being solely responsible for water shortages in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Alatout, 2006; Twite, 2009; Waintraub, 2009). The Palestinian dominant water discourse can thus be considered quite confrontative and dominated by a national understanding of (water) security.

b) Patterns of securitisation: Israel

Just like its Palestinian counterpart, the Israeli water discourse is far from homogenous (Feitelson, 2002). Nevertheless, in the dominant Israeli discourse, water is deeply interwoven with agriculture, the creation of a Jewish state/homeland and Israeli identity, thus again displaying a national understanding of (water) security. The roots of water’s ideological meaning for Israel lie in political Zionism (Lipchin, 2007). The link between Zionism’s main goal of a viable Jewish state in the biblically Promised Land and water is agriculture. On the one hand, agriculture made it possible to settle and control the Jewish homeland (Feitelson, 2013). On the other, Jewish immigrants could, by working with the land and owning it, shed their European, Western, urban image and substitute it through a new identity: that of the chalutz, the pioneer, who helps to build a Jewish state and thereby contributes to the redemption of the “chosen people”. Thus, both settlement and agriculture aided the discursive melting of water with the “Zionist […] ethos of land, pioneer heroics, and national salvation” (Rouyer, 1996, p. 30). A sufficient water supply hence became a vital part of the Jewish-Israeli identity, even if water issues (no longer) dominate public debates and media coverage (de Châtel, 2007; Feitelson, 2013). Israeli access to and control over the region’s natural water resources is thus the main referent object of securitisation in the Israeli water discourse, making the Israeli state the central agent of security (including Israeli military forces), and defining the lack of access to water for Israelis as the most important threat.

In addition, the Holocaust and the repeated existential threats by Arab neighbouring states and Iran have contributed to the development of a security discourse that conceives of the Jewish state and people as inherently threatened. The securitisation of diverse threats developed into one of the most powerful discursive structures in Israeli societal discourse (Fröhlich, 2010). Generally speaking, a mentality has emerged that cultivates a perpetual state of siege (Bar‐Tal, 1998). The water discourse has been taken over by this securitisation trend, especially in the face of intense water-related disputes between Israel and Syria in the 1950s and 1960s (Amery, 2002). The securitisation of water and its central role for the Israeli identity is complemented by a quite confrontative assessment of the water situation in the dominant Israeli discourse. The natural water resources in the Jordan basin are considered scarce and in desperate need of development and protection in order to maintain the current standard of living of the region’s population (Fröhlich, 2012b; Messerschmid, 2012). Here, the aforementioned national understanding of water security is complemented by two other security conceptualisations, as both the region’s population (not only Israeli!) and the regional water resources are identified as referent objects of securitisation, displaying both elements of a human and an ecological understanding of security.

Since the 1990s, the discourse partially shifted from water quantity to water quality issues (Fischhendler, Dinar, & Katz, 2011) and thus from national to ecological security conceptions, while large quantities of additional water became available due to increasing wastewater recycling and desalination (Aviram, Katz, & Shmueli, 2014; Spiritos & Lipchin, 2013). Peace treaties and related water agreements were also reached with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) (Zeitoun, 2012, pp. 68ff). These developments facilitated a partial desecuritisation of water issues, although this trend was negatively influenced by heavy droughts in the late 2000s and predictions of climate change-induced rainfall reductions in the future (Mason, 2013; Messerschmid, 2012). Attempts to achieve more equitable access to the available water resources, for instance by re-distributing parts of the mountain aquifer to Palestinian control, or by allowing Palestinians to unilaterally implement water infrastructure projects in the West Bank, nevertheless remain unsayable (Feitelson & Rosenthal, 2012; Selby, 2009) and are routinely subjected to what can be understood as a re-securitisation: regardless of the aforementioned desecuritisation impulses, dominant discourse structures still tie back into the much older, persistent securitising discourse structures, which can be easily re-activated (Fröhlich, 2012b; Messerschmid, 2012).

c) Patterns of desecuritisation on both sides

De-securitising dynamics in the two national discourses focus on five dimensions: the relevance of water, water problems, solutions for water problems, out- and in-group images, and governments and politics (Ide & Fröhlich 2015). The transnational Good Water Neighbours (GWN) discourse can be seen as an illustration of such desecuritisation attempts. Just like the dominant water discourses in Israel and Palestine, the GWN discourse emphasises the high importance of water but with a different referent object and, thus, different agents of security, different threat perceptions and different ideas about suitable responses. Within the dominant discourses, water is considered a national security issue, as illustrated by its connections either to Zionism or to a viable Palestinian state and the fellah myth. These viewpoints are mutually exclusive, contradictive and eventually confrontative. This stands in sharp contrast to the GWN discourse. Here, water is first and foremost framed as a means to sustain life in general and human life in particular, thus displaying a human and (partly) ecological understanding of security:

“Water is the ingredient that made possible the explosion of life on our planet, both in the sea and on land […] In the desert and semidesert regions such as the Middle East, the development of water systems was crucial for the development and advancement of human culture” (Watercare, 2004, pp. 4-6).

What is more, water is described as crucial for sustaining the concrete, often agricultural livelihoods of the people in the region within the Palestinian GWN discourse, again going beyond the national understanding of security by including other populations. It is also considered an important part of a healthy and liveable environment, displaying an ecological understanding of security. So, despite some differences, all three dimensions of the relevance of water as constructed in the GWN discourse (enabling life, securing livelihoods, raising the quality of life) are clearly non-exclusive, since they refer to benefits for all inhabitants of the region regardless of their political affiliation or nationality (human security). In this respect, the GWN discourse is considerably less confrontative than the dominant national discourses. The focus on human and/or ecological security also means that even in the case that GWN decides to strategically securitise water, it does so with nature or humanity as the referent object, not a national group, thus ultimately calling for more inclusive policies.

The inclusive understanding of the relevance of water is further strengthened by the GWN discourse’s diagnosis of strong regional water interdependence, in particular with regard to the mountain aquifer. This water interdependence is portrayed as a general fact in the whole of the Middle East. The identification of water interdependence, self-interest and mutual gains in combination with the depiction of water resources as naturally scarce and vulnerable but equally important for all inhabitants of the region represents a significant de-securitising move. Such argumentative support for water cooperation based on a human and ecological conceptualisation of security is largely absent in the dominant discourses of both sides, which portray water interaction largely as a zero-sum game, thus denying the possibility of mutual gains.

The dominant Palestinian discourse focuses overwhelmingly on problems of water quantity, while in Israel an essential concern about sufficient water availability is combined with growing attention to water quality issues. In the GWN discourse, issues of water quantity and quality are highlighted as well (although Israeli GWN activists tend to emphasise water quality while Palestinian activists focus more often on water quantity issues, see Ide & Fröhlich, 2015). There is agreement that Israelis are facing no water availability problems at the moment but are threatened by the pollution of cross-border streams and the mountain aquifer. Palestinians are portrayed by the GWN discourse as struck by the same but more severe problems of water quality and in addition by alarmingly low water availability. The inclusion of water quality concerns in the set of relevant issues broadens the range of topics available for cooperation, especially since it might be easier to frame interactions on water quality issues as a positive-sum game.

When it comes to the reasons for the existing water problems, the GWN discourse first refers to a bundle of geographical and demographic factors (e.g. arid climate, growing population), which is largely in line with the dominant discourses in both countries. The region’s water resources are also portrayed as “highly vulnerable to pollution” (Tagar & Qumsieh 2006, p. 3), with both displaying an ecological understanding of security. The lack of coordination between the different parties, which would be necessary in a situation of strong water interdependence, is described as accelerating these problems. But, in addition, Israeli and Palestinian GWN activists agree that Israeli policies are responsible for water problems. The insufficient water availability in the West Bank is largely described as a function of Israeli control over water resources, the unwillingness of the Israeli government to share the water equally, and Israeli restrictions on water projects in the West Bank. The Israeli government is also held responsible for the water quality problems originating in the West Bank.

However, there is an important difference between the Israeli and Palestinian GWN discourses. Palestinian GWN activists describe the natural scarcity of water and especially Israeli policies as the main source of water problems in the West Bank. Consequentially, and in line with the dominant Palestinian discourse, it seems to be unsayable that a Palestinian group or institution might be responsible for the scarcity or pollution of water in the West Bank. Within the Israeli GWN discourse, by contrast, Israel is described as being better off in terms of water not only because it utilises water resources from the West Bank but also because of its high administrative, organisational and technological capabilities. It can be assumed that the shared understanding of Israeli government policies as a key determinant of water problems in the region, and especially in the West Bank, facilitates cooperation within the GWN project. However, disagreement regarding the importance of technological and administrative causes of water problems has the potential to obstruct cooperation between GWN activists.

When it comes to the question as to how the water problems in the region can be solved, the GWN discourse favours a solution based on two principles. Firstly, Palestinian water rights need to be acknowledged and regional water resources should be shared more equitably. Secondly, this more national understanding of water security is complemented by ideas of strong water interdependence, water as the object of a positive-sum game, and lack of coordination as a possible source of water problems, thereby introducing a different referent object to securitisation dynamics, i.e. international and/or human security. Illustrating this, GWN promotes the transnational integration of water resource management that should be carried out by a bi- or trilateral water commission in which all parties would have the same rights and duties. In contrast to the current Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, the commission would be responsible for all, or at least for all transboundary water resources in the region. This desire to share water resources more fairly and to manage them as integratedly as possible represents another desecuritisation move and provides a positive vision supportive of cooperative behaviour. It also marks a clear contrast to the dominant water discourses on both sides, which clash over the recognition of Palestinian water rights and are more concerned with the allocation (and, in Israel, quality) rather than with the common management of water resources.

Within the Israeli GWN discourse, Palestinians are mostly described in positive and empathic terms. They are usually not referred to primarily as Palestinians but as neighbours and fellow humans, again diverting from the dominant national understanding of water security that sees the respective “other” as an out-group. Sometimes, the boundaries between both identities are even blurred symbolically. Following this logic, many of the Israeli government’s measures that complicate the lives of Palestinians from the West Bank, such as the system of checkpoints, the construction of the separation barrier, or the lack of permits to work in Israel, are criticised. But Palestine is also portrayed as insecure, as a place of corruption, clientelism and lack of work ethos in the Israeli GWN discourses. This insecurity is attributed to political extremists who resist any kind of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

In parallel, the Palestinian GWN discourse describes the Israeli people positively as neighbours who deserve to live in freedom, security and peace, thus applying a human understanding of security. Especially for the period prior to the onset of the second Intifada, relations between Israelis and Palestinians are described as tight and mutually beneficial. However, the Israeli government and settlers are portrayed as ruthless and fanatical. The fact that Israel is a democracy and that the government (and its settlement policies) is elected by the majority of the Israeli people is not reflected in the Palestinian GWN discourse.

Politics in general is described as a predominantly negative realm in both the Israeli and the Palestinian GWN discourses. Political activities are seen as often inspired by a top-down approach, which tends to be ineffective, to ignore local realities, and to be very set in its interpretations of (water) security. Related to that, politicians are described as not knowing or not even caring about the lives and thoughts of “normal” people, thus as incapable of moving away from national understandings of security. Rather, they are pursuing goals motivated by ideology or the interests of some particular groups. It is likely that the appreciation of bottom-up approaches as well as scepticism about the established political actors’ willingness and capacity to solve water problems provides a motivation for the GWN activists to engage in bottom-up cooperative problem solving.

It can be concluded that the Israeli and Palestinian GWN discourses contain a predominately (but not completely) positive image of the respective out-group, especially compared to the dominant discourses in both countries (e.g. Bar‐Tal, 1998; Kaufman, 2006). This largely empathic construction of the other as a neighbour, i.e. the application of an understanding of (water) security which focuses on mankind and/or nature as the referent object of securitising moves, supports the desecuritisation of water issues and facilitates water cooperation.

Lessons for Future Water Diplomacy

Based on the above analysis, it can be concluded that confrontative, contradictive and mutually exclusive identities and perceptions can be considered major drivers of the Israeli-Palestinian water conflict. They are indicative of an interpretation of water scarcity as an existential threat to the respective national populations, thus displaying a conceptualisation of security as national. This also means that the main agents of security can be found on the state level, including military forces. Thus, both groups’ dominant national discourses can be understood as major obstacles to cooperation and successful water diplomacy. This applies both to the inter-state level and to communities along the border between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which reject cooperation over local water resources. The GWN project, in contrast, illustrates that alternative worldviews can develop even in extremely adverse circumstances. The GWN discourse is characterised by a much wider understanding of (water) security, which includes citizens of other nations, different population groups and nature itself as referent objects. This is illustrated by the largely inclusive identities and desecuritisation moves that highlight the need for water cooperation and more equitable water sharing.

Following from this, the existence of conflict or cooperation over water resources can be understood as linked to discursively constructed understandings of (water) security. If this is indeed the case, then future water diplomacy needs to focus on such dynamics in order to produce effective, sustainable and durable results. Concentrating exclusively on technical or functional water cooperation, for instance, can only be insufficient and might even turn out to be counterproductive, if the underlying understanding of what is to be protected by whom and how remains unchanged (Aggestam & Sundell-Eklund, 2014; Bichsel, 2009).

The persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian water conflict despite cooperative measures like the Joint Water Committee and repeated efforts to solve the conflict top-down are cases in point: so far, all actors involved lack the necessary political will to implement the long-term solutions that have been on the table for decades, be it desalination, reallocation or other models, which can arguably be traced back to their implicit understanding of water security as a predominantly national issue. The overwhelmingly bi- or unilateral approach to the water issue in the Middle East also illustrates the dominantly national understanding of security underlying water policies in the region. To generate alternative and potentially peace-building ideas and practices in the water sector, and to transform confrontative attitudes and perspectives into cooperative identities and worldviews, water diplomacy needs to critically engage with predominantly national interpretations of (water) security and promote other conceptualisations of security as outlined above.


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