Sewage Without Borders

Israel used money it owes the Palestinian Authority to treat untreated solid waste flowing into Israel, while settlement sewage still pollutes the West Bank

Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat

Last week Sharon Drainage Authority officials were once again frustrated by the sewage flowing from the West Bank village of Artah into Israeli territory and threatening to pollute the Alexander River after another malfunction in the sewage pumping system on the Palestinian side.

This is a widespread problem, involving tens of millions of cubic meters of sewage originating in Palestinian cities that is severely contaminating stretches adding up to a total of 150 kilometers of seven different streams. Because the Palestinian Authority cannot or will not solve the problem, the state is deducting money from its transfer payments to the PA and using it to build sewage treatment plants on the Israeli side of the Green Line. Data on the ongoing pollution issues were included in a recently published report on the state of West Bank streams in 2008-2009, prepared by the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The figures were also presented to the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee.

According to the report, the PA has just one state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, in El Bireh, and like other PA waste treatment facilities it experiences malfunctions. Only 25 percent of the sewage from Palestinian communities goes into a sewer system, and half of that ends up in waterways. Sewage pumped out of village cesspits into tank trucks dump the contents in the environment, endangering groundwater quality.

Contaminants flow into the Kishon and Modi'in streams, among others, but the most polluted is the Hebron stream, which crosses into Israel. Sewage and waste from Hebron's stone quarries end up in it.

The state is building a storage depot near the community of Meitar, where the waste can be held until being transferred to a treatment plant. It, and emergency treatment plants along the Alexander stream, are funded by monies withheld by Israel from VAT payments to the PA.

Up until a few years ago, poorly treated sewage from Jewish settlements in the West Bank was being introduced into the environment, but the situation has improved significantly. "Until 15 years ago only 28 percent of the sewage from the Jewish communities was treated properly; today it is 90 percent," said Yitzhak Meir, head of the Samaria Municipal Environmental Association. "It is inconceivable that because of political disputes with the Palestinians, we will not deal with a pollution problem that crosses borders. We must cooperate on a policy to prevent environmental damage."

The progress in the settlements is evident in state-of-the-art facilities such as the one for Kochav Hashahar, sewage from which once contaminated a nearby stream. The advanced treatment plant produces high-quality treated wastewater that can be used for crop irrigation. But significant amounts of sewage from Jerusalem, as well as Ariel and Kiryat Arba, are still being dumped into waterways that include the Kidron stream, which flows into the Dead Sea.