Water conflict on the Israeli/Palestinian border (audio)

By Patrick Torphy

(BETHLEHEM, West Bank) — Mohammed Nassarla Jabril has so many grandchildren he can’t keep track of them all.

One of Jabril's grandsons flies a kite on their roof amid the large, black plastic water tanks (seen on the left and right).
One of Jabril’s grandsons flies a kite on their roof amid the large, black plastic water tanks (seen on the left and right).

 A group of them play on his roof with a small, flimsy rainbow-colored kite, meandering through a maze of plastic and metallic tanks — 35 of them– all containing their water for the next two weeks.

“Empty, empty, empty,” the 75-year-old Palestinian man says while banging on different tanks, some of them already drained, with an improvised cane. He lives with his family in Aida, a refugee camp near Bethlehem created after Palestinians were forced to flee during the creation of Israel in 1948.

The issue of water for many is a bureaucratic nightmare, but at the core they say it is simple: People aren’t getting enough water.

Like most Palestinian villages in the West Bank, the undergroundwater infrastructure for domestic usage is very poor and unreliable. Residents must keep large water tanks on their roofs and have water delivered when the tap is shut off because of shortages.

A banner of Yasser Arafat hangs surrounded by water tanks. The former Palestinian leader promised free water to refugees, according to ARIJ.
A banner of Yasser Arafat hangs surrounded by water tanks. The former Palestinian leader promised free water to refugees, according to ARIJ.

The rate of daily water supply per capita in Aida is 100 litres, the World Health Organization minimum. But because of poor infrastructure and water leaks, daily consumption is far lower– only 66 litres per capita.

The Palestinian Authority covers the cost of water for residents in Aida—but that doesn’t mean it always comes. When water is shut off here, which has happened for more than a month at a time, residents have to load dozens of jerry cans with water from a public station. Then they place them on a cart and haul them to their home, where Jabril’s family uses a pulley system to bring the canisters to the roof and load up the tanks. Sometimes the station is out of water, and if so, the refugees must pay out of pocket to have water delivered.

It’s a grueling process and one that not every resident can do on their own.

Amal Abdalrhmah, 48, lives nearby with her brother and niece. She says she is lucky because only three people live in her home, so they use less water.

“I take care not to be out of water because I can’t go and get it. I don’t have anybody who will go to get it,” says Amal, who is sick and uses a wheelchair. “If we want to buy water it would be more than 300 shekels for one tank, and I can’t afford that.”

The same can’t be said for 12-year-old Suhaibe Abuwasfi. His family ran out of water 10 days ago. Now he has to bring water in jerry cans from the station three times a day. “We don’t take a lot of showers … when we have water we love it.”

“When we receive water, you will see everybody is fresh and they are cleaning the houses. It’s like a festival,” Amal jokes. “Israel is controlling this issue.”

Amal is wheelchair bound and conserves water so she doesn't have to get more from the station-- a difficult task in her circumstance.
Amal Abdalrhmah is wheelchair bound and conserves water so she doesn’t have to get more from the station– a difficult task in her circumstance.

Most Palestinians blame the Israeli occupation for their water issues. But Israel refutes that notion. This has become a highly politicized human rights issue pinning two conflicting narratives against each other with no real consensus. Water has become both a catalyst for the greater conflict and symptomatic of it.

A Palestinian sustainability center claims Israel is responsible for the current water situation in the West Bank.

“[There is] discriminatory usage of water between Israelis and Palestinians and a severe water crisis in Palestine compared to water-guzzling societies next door,” said Dr. Jad Isaac, the General Director of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ).

He paints a stark picture of inequality when it comes to water in the West Bank.

“Look at Palestinian villages and nearby [Jewish] settlements, and you will be shocked. Pools, gardens, lawns… Next-door Palestinian village: No water, no infrastructure, no nothing,” he said. “For domestic [usage] I think [settlers] are paying 60% of what we pay … Every Jewish settler consumes about 150 cubic meters per year. A Palestinian consumes 30,” he said.

Palestinians pay more for less, according to Dr. Isaac. But the Israel Water Authority says Palestinians are consuming more water than ever.

“[If you look at] how much water Israel consumed before 1967, and how much the Palestinians consumed before the occupation, then you will see that from then until today that the consumption of the average Israeli went down severely while the average of consumption of the average Palestinian went up,” said Spokesman for the Israel Water Authority Uri Schorr.

Meanwhile, Al-Haq, a Palestinian NGO, published a study last year greatly contradicting the Water Authority’s position. It says since the Oslo II Accords in 1995, Israeli water consumption in the occupied territories has skyrocketed proportionately compared to Palestinian consumption.

“Palestinians have seen their access to water reduced … almost 20 per cent,” according to the study. “In the same period, the number of Israeli settlers in the OPT [Occupied Territories] has risen to more than half a million, who consume more than 6 times the amount of water allocated for domestic purposes to 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank.”

Naomi Tsur, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and Founder and President of Green Pilgrim Jerusalem, says the disparity is caused by dysfunction in the Palestinian Authority.

“In the negotiations that I personally have been involved in, I have seen an unwillingness on the Palestinian side to actually declare a joint project doable. It’s the ‘joint’ that irks them because it’s the legitimacy of Israel,” said Tsur.

Dr. Isaac admits corruption in the Palestinian Authority is a problem.

“There is a lack of good governance in the water management. So yes, I blame the Israelis, but I also blame ourselves for the bureaucracy, corruption, I admit that … we have to clean our own house,” he said.

Saad Mukerker is a farmer who works near Jericho. He has to commute daily to Bethlehem to draw water, for free, from an old reservoir named Solomon’s Pool to supply his crops. The process is time consuming and still doesn’t give him enough water.

Mukerker says he would like to build a well on his farm but can’t because of Israeli policy. “We wait for permission to renew it … but to drill a new artificial well for Palestinians is forbidden.” He was forced to stop farming bananas eight years ago because they needed plenty of water. Now he grows grapes and vegetables, but even finding water for those crops is a challenge.

Saad Mukerker pumps water from Solomon's Pool into tanks in a truck, which he'll then drive back to his farm in Jericho.
Saad Mukerker pumps water from Solomon’s Pool (seen in the background to the right) into tanks in a truck, which he’ll then drive back to his farm in Jericho.

Palestinians say their wells are demolished if they don’t have Israeli permits, which they say are nearly impossible to obtain.

Schorr says the permit process for wells and demolition of them is to prevent overdrilling.

“You can’t take water from a source as much as you want even if its an underground source,” he said, citing Gaza as living proof. Scientists say overdrilling there has compromised aquifers, making access to clean water even harder than in the West Bank.

For now, Mukerker will have to rely on this reservoir, miles away from his farm, to keep his crops alive.

Tsur says Israelis’ seemingly abundance of water compared to Palestinians’ is because of adaptability.

“One of the major sources of water for the state for Israel, one of the reasons there is now sources of water in Israel, is that 85% of sewage is recycled. Our sewage is purified and used for agriculture. And this is a world record … The Palestinian Authority has refused to see recycled sewage as a valid source of water,” she said. Tsur also said that desalination has been a successful venture in growing Israel’s water resources.

“International sources have been happy to provide the money for [infrastructure] and the money goes to the Palestinian Authority. And that’s where the money should be spent now, not on tunnels and weapons,” she added.

But Dr. Isaac expressed his frustration over how he says attempts to build stronger water infrastructure is hindered by Israel. “Any project, any water infrastructure project in Palestine has to get approval from Israel. Ten percent of the projects are approved. And they put so many conditions,” he said.

As an example, ARIJ proposed building a waste treatment plant to address 10 million cubic meters of raw sewage in the Wadi Kidron heading to the Dead Sea. But Dr. Isaac says Israel would only approve the project if 70% of the treated water were allocated for settlers.

If it’s one thing both sides agree on, it’s that politics remains the largest hurdle to making progress.

“We feel that all of Israel’s policies are directed towards the ‘Depalistinization’ of Palestine,” said Dr. Isaac.

“It is clear that the Palestinian claims against Israel are not supported by the facts, and their motivation is clearly political,” said Schurr.

Tsur believes issues of peace are not just religious or political, but rooted in the resources of the region necessary to sustain prosperous life. And this is all jeopardized by two entities who refuse to see eye-to-eye.

“I’m pretty sure the Israeli authorities often get defensive and hesitate,” Tsur said. “There is a lack of trust, and lack of cooperation. I think that these are the issues that have to be put at the top of the list for negotiations and not the bottom. If we can solve these issues then we can get to the other ones easily,” Tsur said.

Both agree the politics of the region are impenetrable, but water should take priority over unsolvable conflict.

“You will not solve it by good governance. You have to get more water first,” Dr. Isaac said.

“Peace is meaningless. Peace will be a byproduct to behaving intelligently. We have to give these issues priority,” said Tsur.

People in Aida are still waiting, jerry cans in hand.

Only some of the bottles the Jabril family uses to fetch water when they run out.
Only some of the bottles the Jabril family uses to fetch water when they run out.

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