Deep beneath the Israeli coastline and the West Bank mountains, groundwater flows back and forth in ancient, natural stone basins, without impediment from the borders, barriers or checkpoints that separate Israelis from Palestinians. Aboveground, transboundary water, primarily controlled by Israel, streams into Israeli faucets year-round, but into West Bank Palestinian faucets only sometimes. Water shortages in Palestinian towns and villages are expected to begin in the next weeks, as the weather warms up.
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Who owns and can benefit from the shared waters of the three sub-basins of the Mountain Aquifer system and the upper Jordan River basin? Is it the entry or exit point, or direction of the flow of the water, or is it the precedent of pre-1967 use that determines ownership? Since Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations to resolve such questions have still not taken place, the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group − a coalition of 28 international NGOs working locally on Palestinian water- and sanitation-related projects − launched several campaigns to raise awareness of West Bank water shortages. EWASH’s summer challenge, kicked off last year, wasn’t as theatrical as Hollywood actor Matt Damon’s recent call to boycott toilets until global water scarcity ends, but participants were asked to make sacrifices.
With the help of its partner organizations, particularly the Middle East Children’s Alliance in San Francisco, EWASH signed-on 130 volunteers from the United States, Canada, and seven European countries to restrict themselves to 24 liters of water during one 24-hour period. On average, West Bank Palestinians have access to about 70 liters a day per person, although in some areas availability is as low as 15 liters, depending on the season. In contrast, Israeli citizens inside the Green Line or in West Bank communities utilize around 280-300 liters per person a day year-round, according to rights organizations, water NGOs and the Palestinian Water Authority.
The Israel Water Authority did not respond to repeated requests from Haaretz to confirm the figures and comment on West Bank water shortages.
Those who volunteered to limit their water usage ranged from college students to retirees, and included Christian clerics, and Jewish, environmental and social-justice activists, recruited by the participating water organizations, via mailings, word of mouth, and social media. Semi-retired factory worker Jenefer Israel, 52, of California, said 25 liters was the bare minimum she could use, even though she gave up her shower and asked a family member to tend to her animals and vegetable garden. She used 14 liters to flush the toilet twice, nine liters to disinfect her goats’ milking equipment, and two liters for drinking, washing hands, preparing food and brushing her teeth.
Eleanor Roffman, 69, a professor of psychology and counseling at Lesley University in Massachusetts, had to give up her daily shower, laundry and dish-washing she said. Roffman and Israel said it was manageable − but only because it was for one day. Insurance company employee Franceso Penzo, 39, of Venice, Italy said the experience made him decide to limit his water usage every day and to work to help raise awareness about West Bank suffering.
“In Italy I can choose to reduce the water I use [but] the Palestinians have no choice,” Penzo told Haaretz.
Indeed, in the West Bank village of Beit Jala, situated in the Bethlehem district near Jerusalem, Juliet Bannoura, 34, a mother of 2-year-old twins, is dreading the long days when it gets hot and her tap goes dry.
“Every year it is worse than the year before. Sometimes the water goes off for 10 or 15 or 20 days, and sometimes for two months,” Bannoura said. “You never know.”
In summer, says Bannoura, there is only enough water to bathe her children twice a week, if she buys bottled drinking water and gives up watering her vegetable garden and washing her floors. She also said that her family often wakes up at 2 or 3 A.M. to check for running water, to do laundry or water the plants. But Bannnoura considers herself lucky, compared to many of her Palestinian neighbors. “My parents − in Beit Sahur, where I grew up, on the other side of Bethlehem − have a well. I take my laundry to my parents’ house and take baths there, but only once a week, so they don’t run out of water either,” she said.
Many homes in the West Bank have roof cisterns to collect water for times of shortage. When those quickly run out, they fill their empty cisterns with expensive and not necessarily safe-for-drinking water brought in by the government or private tankers. Palestinians with no water pipes or infrastructure – so no ability to connect to the water system – are dependent on collecting rainwater and purchasing supplies, if they can afford it.
A few kilometers from Bethlehem, in the Jewish settlement of Rosh Tzurim, Yael Samuels, 36, a mother of five, said that in the summer, baths and laundry are part of the family’s daily life. Disturbed to learn that her Palestinian neighbors do not also have unlimited access to water, Samuels said that families “can’t be without water in the pipes,” and added that, “the only problem we have is with pressure if more than one person bathes at a time.”
“There are often [water] shortages in the West Bank,” explained Alex Abu Ata, head of EWASH’s West Bank advocacy task force. “Israel agrees to sell some water to Palestinians but it has a quota ... and those quantities don’t alleviate the problem. Israel will also sell [Jewish] settlements treated, recycled agricultural water at a much cheaper price than drinking water; Palestinians don’t have this option.”
Since 1967, Israel has controlled the major underground West Bank water sources. The 1995 Oslo II agreement allocated specific amounts for West Bank Palestinians, based on estimated annual use and projected future use. International transboundary water consultant David Phillips, who has advised Palestinian negotiators, charges that the Oslo agreement expired in 2000, and was always inequitable.
Phillips wrote in an e-mail to Haaretz from Africa that Palestinians signed the agreement “because of the power asymmetry in the mid-1990s, coupled with the inexperience of the Palestinians in negotiations and the failure of the US ‘facilitator’ to demand a more equitable outcome.” Phillips urges Israel to “negotiate in good faith with Palestine to attain an equitable and reasonable allocation of the shared fresh water resources, taking into account any other water resources to which either party has access.”
Today, West Bank Palestinians who are connected to the water system pay the Palestinian Water Authority for water, about two-thirds of which comes from the transboundary water pumped by Israel. The rest comes from local sources, including wells, which have very limited supplies.
Palestinians, who need approval from a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee for construction or repair of water infrastructure, complain that requests for permits are denied, or delayed for years, because of the Israelis veto capability. For Palestinians living under full Israeli control in Area C, there is inadequate infrastructure, and permits for building wells or cisterns are required from both the Joint Water Committee and Israel’s Civil Administration. (See “Liquid asymmetry,” by Amira Hass, Haaretz English Edition, April 4, 2013.)
Palestinians and rights groups charge that Israel is not abiding by international humanitarian law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention, article 27, on treating people living under occupation humanely and without prejudice. The as-yet unenforced 1997 UN Watercourses Convention is also referenced as a framework for sharing transboundary water resources, based on the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization, and shared management.
Based on international law, Palestinian officials and water and human rights advocates demand sufficient quantities of water for personal and agricultural needs, shared management, freedom of travel in the West Bank for water tankers, and an end to demolition of or denial of permits for wells, cisterns and pipes. Thirty-six West Bank rainwater cisterns were demolished by Israel in 2012, according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Israel’s Civil Administration accuses Palestinians of building water infrastructure without permits and Palestinians accuse Israel of not issuing permits. In a 2012 report, the PWA acknowledges the existence of illegal West Bank wells, but says that while it tries to prevent them from being dug, it should be noted that they are shallow, and do not tap into the groundwater of the transboundary sources.
Shimon Tal, Israel’s water commissioner from 2000 to 2006, believes that the Isralis and Palestinians are at loggerheads because while Palestinians look to international law for solutions, Israel bases its water sharing arrangement on the 1995 agreement. Tal acknowledged, however, that the agreement does not provide “enough [water] for Palestinians because this agreement was meant to last for only five years and now it is almost 20 years ... Israel supplies more than it is obliged to, according to the agreement, but the situation in the West Bank is not good.”
Tal suggests that each side take steps to meet the other in the middle, explaining that “the water issue is political and unfortunately tied to the other [final status] issues.” “I urge Palestinians to concentrate on practical solutions to solve part of the problem, so no side feels it is giving up its principles. But Palestinians go back to water rights and I think water rights won’t be solved until the final agreement. In the end, Palestinians will get more, Israelis will get less, but meanwhile, water resources are not sufficient, and we need to think about additional water sources.”
One such interim solution, Tal suggests, would be for Palestinians to build a water system based on desalination in the northern West Bank near Jenin, which would be possible only with Israeli cooperation for permits and donor funds, he said.
The Israel Water Authority, which declined to speak to Haaretz for this article, said in a 2009 report that the Palestinian focus on international law and “geographical-hydrological factors” does not take into consideration that Israel used West Bank aquifers prior to 1967, in what is known in law as “the principle of maintaining existing uses of water.”
The report also argued that “the proposition of solving the problem of Palestinian water shortages by exacerbating Israel’s water scarcity is utterly unacceptable. Only realistic, fair and just solutions must be sought.”
On Friday, March 22, World Water Day, EWASH led more than 200 volunteers to visit Palestinian communities in the northern Jordan Valley that are suffering from water shortages.
In the village of Al-Hadidiya, there are “20 liters of water available per person per day, compared to its neighbor, the Jewish settlement of Ro’i, which uses 431 liters per person per day, according to B’Tselem,” said Alex Abu Ata. “Israel drilled a well on land that Al-Hadidiya claims ownership on since Ottoman times, but the water is for the exclusive use of Ro’i.”
As Palestinian families across the West Bank that have flowing water during winter get ready now for the period of tap water shortages by filling up their cisterns, Dr. Clive Lipchin, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies’ transboundary water management center, told Haaretz that despite some cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on finding technical solutions to the crisis, “this has not translated into the regional transboundary policy needed for more equitable water management.”
“Palestinian water needs should be met,” says Lipchin, “without having to wait for a final settlement.”