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Before a house or public building is constructed in Dura, located in the Hebron area, a cistern is dug to collect rainwater. The rain gutters that collect every drop of water from the roof run down to the cistern, whose sides are covered by concrete. Each year, larger holes are being dug in inverse proportion to the amount of water reaching the homes via the water system's pipes. In Dura, as in Hebron, Bethlehem and Jenin, summer is synonymous with dry faucets.

The Dura municipality, like other Palestinian cities in the West Bank, must carry out a regime of rotating the flow of water to its various neighborhoods, since the amount of water the city receives is not enough to supply the population's minimal demand. When water is channeled to one neighborhood, no water flows to others. During the summer, when the demand for water rises and the reservoirs of rainwater dwindle, it takes two to three months until a neighborhood gets its turn to receive water. The further away, and higher, the neighborhood, the less water it receives due to insufficient water pressure.

Dura purchases its water from the Al-Fawwar well operated by the city of Hebron. According to data from the Dura municipality, the well produces about 2,400 cubic meters of water per day. But water is pumped to Dura only two days a week, providing about 2,200 cubic meters to the city's supply. The rest of the water pumped from the well goes to the Al-Fawwar refugee camp and the adjacent Rahiya area. About 25,000 people receive 2,200,000 liters of water per week - an average of about 88 liters a week per person, while the minimum amount of water considered necessary for basic urban consumption is about 100 liters per day (including the water needs of homes, hospitals, schools, businesses, and other public institutions). An attempt by the Mekorot Water Company in 1990 to drill a new well in the Dahariya area to increase the supply of water in the region was unsuccessful - no water was found. The water is also not distributed equitably: due to the low water pressure in the pipes, areas at higher elevations or at further distances from the source receive little water during the summer; sometimes not even a single drop.

Of the small amount of water pumped to Dura, about 27 percent is lost in the pipeline along the way. The municipality's director-general, Abd al-Halim Darawish, says that the rate of water loss used to be higher, but the city replaced the old water pipes in recent years. The loss of water in the pipeline is a factor taken into consideration in every water network, but this loss becomes unbearable when the amount of water is so small to begin with.

Everyone, therefore, must now follow a severe austerity regime when it comes to water consumption: one cannot shower every day, despite the heat; laundry water is re-used to rinse the floors and flush the toilets; gardens are not watered; and everyone drinks much less than the amount recommended. In Dura, as in Hebron and Bethlehem, the only solution in the summer is to buy water from trucks that offer the precious commodity at a steep price.

Pricey water with a yellowish hue

About 25,000 villagers in the Dura area are solely dependent on water trucks during the summer, because they are not connected to the water network at all: Throughout the West Bank, there are about 150 Palestinian villages, covering a population of about 215,000, that are not connected to the water grid. Some 12 other villages in the area, along the Green Line, are connected to the grid, but their pipes are old (from 1976) and damaged. Even in more normal times, this dependence led to sanitation problems and financial difficulties.

The water trucks are operated by private individuals. It is hard to supervise their source of water: clean wells operated by the Palestinian Water Authority or Mekorot, or private wells and springs whose yellowish output indicates a lower water quality. Dura residents pay the municipality five shekels per cubic meter of water. The cost of water purchased from water trucks is 15-25 shekels per cubic meter. During the past three years of the intifada - highlighted by military attacks, hermetic curfews on villages and regions, economic deterioration, and high levels of unemployment - the water crisis has become more severe.

Some people have responded to their loss of income in Israel and in Palestinian cities by returning to small-scale farming in their backyards or in their family field, while others have bought several goats or sheep. Both solutions increase the demand for water, but these families lack the funds to purchase water from the private water trucks in the summer. Even those who allocated their remaining funds to finance water tanks for drinking water have encountered a typical problem over the past three years: due to the policy of closures, IDF roadblocks, concrete and dirt barriers erected between Palestinian settlements, long delays of Palestinian vehicles on the few roads still open to them, the water carriers have not succeeded in reaching their destinations as often as needed to meet their basic water demands. The water cisterns have dried up, the water boilers are empty, and soft drinks, if available, are expensive. The difficulties in transporting the water have led to a rise in the price of each cubic meter. Many families simply remain thirsty for days.

Two organizations have entered the picture in an attempt to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe - the Red Cross and a Palestinian NGO, the Palestinian Hydrological Group. Last summer, in response to the economic crisis and the tremendous difficulties in accessing food and water, the Red Cross initiated an emergency program to provide food and other assistance to some 50,000 needy families in West Bank villages and cities. As part of this program, the organization also supplied water in tankers to 50 Palestinian villages (in coordination with the local authorities). Some 12,000 families each receive 20 cubic meters of water from the Red Cross every two months (about 20-40 liters of water per day per person).

In addition, the organization provides water to about 50 of the most impoverished families in Dura itself. The Red Cross covers the cost of the water and its transport, and supervises the cleanliness of the water source and the tankers. This is due to concerns that the use of unclean water will lead to serious health problems as has been the case, especially among children. Adnan Nashashibi, who is responsible for the Red Cross emergency program, says that over the past two years, the most severe water crisis in the West Bank, which has known its share of water shortages, has been in the Dura region.

Concerns about military attack

There are few vehicles on the roads leading from Dura to surrounding villages. Some of the roads that serve the Jewish settlers in the region are closed to Palestinian traffic. Instead, the residents have widened and straightened some of the hilly agricultural paths to bypass the blocked road; they have even paved one of these paths. Some of the money for this work was collected from drivers who used the roads while construction was under way - a sort of toll road for a limited time. Still, these are long and windy roads, are hardly comfortable to travel on, and are used only when needed. Thus, the presence of the water trucks is all the more salient, since they travel to and from dozens of villages.

There are 12 water trucks in Dura. They fill up with water at Halhul's reservoir and bring this water to villages in the area, except on days when there is a hermetic closure, like last week when the IDF again blocked the roads with dirt barriers in response to the bus bombing in Jerusalem. About 200 families waiting for their water allotment from the Red Cross did not receive it this week due to the closure of Road 35. The Red Cross also assists in the building of cisterns in villages, and distributes water purification tablets. Even the water from the Al-Fawwar well is not clean - the sewage from the Al-Fawwar refugee camp trickles into the underground water and contaminates it.

The Palestinian Hydrological Group recently has been working to upgrade five springs in the Dura area, protecting the water quality, preventing direct access by goats, and installing faucets for the residents. The NGO is also building cisterns in about 15 villages that cost $200,000. In some of the villages, the project is being jointly conducted with the Red Cross. In addition, the NGO has acquired, with the help of a contribution from Italy, drip irrigation systems for about 300 families that have begun growing vegetables next to their homes. Water tankers provide water for these irrigation systems. The group also plans to build 10 water reservoirs in villages in the Dura region to provide water for poor families and schools. A local committee will monitor the water quality at these reservoirs.

Unlike the immediate supply of water by tankers, the construction of cisterns and reservoirs reflects medium-term planning. But these plans must fit in with long-term programs to ensure that the some 70,000 residents of the Dura area at least receive a reasonable amount of 100 liters per day per person. The main long-term plan calls for laying a pipe to pump water to Dura from the Halhul reservoir (whose water comes from one of the wells dug by the Palestinian Authority near Herodian.) A complementary plan, slated to be financed through a World Bank grant, entails enlarging the reservoir or building a new one with a capacity of 5,000 cubic meters instead of the current reservoir's 500 meters.

But the outbreak of the bloody conflict has put these long-term projects on hold. It was impossible to implement these plans both due to fears that military attacks would destroy the infrastructure (as was the case with wells and water lines in the Gaza Strip and in Salfit in the Nablus area) and due to concerns that contractors would be unable to meet deadlines because of the many days of curfew. In the weeks prior to the collapse of the hudna, the Palestinian Water Authority and the World Bank resumed talks on the reservoir project, and discussed beginning construction in November. In any case, even without further delays, the water pipeline and reservoir projects will require at least 18 months to complete. During this period, area residents can only pray for a rainy year and relaxed curfews.