Water, Water Everywhere

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

By now, Clemens Messer- schmid's friends in Ramallah and Jerusalem understand the message of his dagger-like stares when they're caught washing dishes with the tap water flowing nonstop. Even when he is not around, they close the tap, thanks to this 43-year-old hydrogeologist from Germany.

Messerschmid cheerfully confirms this. But this place, he says, is far from being an arid country with meager water resources, as is commonly thought. In Berlin and Paris, he notes, annual rainfall is less than in Jerusalem and Ramallah, respectively: 550 millimeters in Berlin compared to 564 millimeters in Jerusalem, based on a 150-year average (the Israel meteorological service puts the figure at 554 millimeters). Paris gets an average of 630 millimeters, while the yearly average in Ramallah, from 1975-2004, was 689.6 millimeters.

When Palestinians say there is not enough water in the country, this is one of four Palestinian misconceptions that Messerschmid lists. When the Israelis say the same thing, it is a myth that serves a specific purpose - preserving an unjust distribution of water resources that discriminates against the Palestinians. This is one of five Israeli "water myths" on another list.

When he first came to Israel 11 years ago, Messerschmid also took several myths and misunderstandings to be truths, but research and work in the field began to alter those ideas. For four years, he took part in drilling water wells, as an employee of GTZ (German Technical Cooperation), which runs projects with the Nablus municipality as well as the Ramallah Water Undertaking. After that, he spent another four years doing applied research on a joint British-Palestinian project called "Sustainable Management of Aquifers." Now, in tandem with his work on his doctoral dissertation (entitled "Recharge of the Yarkon-Taninim Basin" - concerning the western mountain aquifer), he is working as a consultant to European and Palestinian development organizations. Last week, for example, he went to the designated central waste disposal area for the Ramallah district to prepare a hydrogeological assessment, with the aim of preventing harm to the ground water.

"No one is saying that Israel/Palestine is rich in water. But it's also not a desert, like Jordan," explains Messerschmid. "And if there are places in the Middle East that have sufficient water, they are Lebanon, the Galilee, the West Bank and parts of Yemen. The main populated areas in Israel belong to a sub-humid climate, and that includes all the north and the central coastal area and especially the hills of the West Bank. The dry areas in the south are less populated anyway."

How much is "enough water"?

"It's not enough to talk about the amount of rainfall. You have to talk about how it is stored, too. In Israel, there is excellent water beneath our feet, thanks to three elements that contribute to the rapid filling of the mountain aquifer: rain that is concentrated in the winter season when there is little evaporation; karstic topography; and a thin layer of soil. Karst is soluble bedrock that enables the rain to percolate quickly to a subterranean level and not settle in small depressions, but in cracks and fissures and caves, beyond the range of tree and plant roots. In the summer, when you see bare, rocky slopes in the West Bank and the Galilee, it's easy to get the impression that the region is arid. But it's actually an indication of just the opposite, and is hiding the fact that, out of view, there is really a lot of water."

Gambling with water

The myth of a country without much water spawned the second Israeli myth, says Messerschmid: of frequent droughts and regular and inevitable water crises. Yes, there are fluctuations in the quantities of rainfall, there are dry winters and rainy winters, but "the periodic water crisis here, every five or ten years, is a virtual one. It's man-made. Israel allows itself to waste vast amounts of water and water resources, especially for agriculture. Israel, it's known, uses over 60 percent of its water for agriculture, which amounts to about 2 percent of GDP, which is akin to three days of strikes in the economy. Agriculture in Israel is important in terms of preserving the national ethos, and is not calculated in terms of the actual conditions of the water economy."

In the domestic sector, Israel is also very wasteful, says Messerschmid: "According to the World Health Organization, every person needs 100 liters a day of clean, safe and accessible water. In Israel, average urban consumption (in homes and public institutions) ranges from 240 to 280 liters per person (around 100 cubic meters per person per year). These figures are based on a transitional master plan of the Water Commission for 2002-2010. Urban consumption in Germany, for example, is 136 liters per day. Twenty years ago it was 145. In other words, people in Germany have learned to conserve water, out of concern for future generations. In Israel it's the opposite. The talk is always about increasing the quantities. They talk about drought, and meanwhile water the city lawns."

For years, Messerschmid accepted the Israeli myth, which was also popularly held among the "water community" abroad, as he refers to his professional colleagues. But he changed his mind when he started to notice how, after every dry winter, pumping from the wells increased in order to continue to maintain the same high wasteful levels of water for agriculture. "The Israeli management style of the water economy is a gambling style. They're always betting that the next winter will be rainy."

Moreover, Israel does not use the best methods for conserving water. To this day, you can find in the Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift Valley sprinklers that work in the summer at midday, when the evaporation rate is 90 percent; on the coastal plain, they use treated wastewater, but still with sprinklers; the low cost of water for agriculture encourages waste; large quantities of sewage and industrial waste are still allowed to flow to the sea, making Israel one of the biggest polluters of the Mediterranean. Israel takes pride in its sewage purification facilities, but it still lags behind most Western countries. In West Jerusalem, the first modern purification facility was not installed until March 2001. And there is still no plan for one in East Jersualem.

Messerschmid is not alone: He found similar conclusions about the management of the country's water resources in a report by the parliamentary water committee, headed by former MK David Magen, which was submitted to the Knesset in June 2002, and which he can almost quote by heart: "The multiplicity of authorities that deal with the issue of water, without there being any clear division of roles and authorities ... and often substantial disagreements between them ... leading to conflicts of interest; even though since the 1960s, various State Comptroller reports warned about failures and shortsightedness in water management, no lessons were applied ... This resounding failure is primarily man-made."

On the one hand, says Messerschmid, the detailed report confirms what people say about Israel being a vibrant democracy where internal criticism is made openly and courageously. But that's only until you get to the supremacy of Zionist values. Because that very same committee, in the very same breath, rejected the claim that agriculture is "wasteful":

"In the committee's view, agriculture has a political-strategic-Zionist value that goes beyond its economic contribution," said the report. And thus, complains Messerschmid, it summarily dismisses the most immediate and substantial measure needed for a solution. And it turns out that Israel, where complaints about a water crisis are continually heard, exports not only agricultural produce overseas, but water as well. With its flowers, it exports water to Switzerland and Holland.

Where is the wilderness?

From here, it's not a long way to another myth, about "making the wilderness bloom." Messerschmid agrees that this myth is no longer as prevalent as it once was in Israel. "Israel is adapting itself to the world discourse on water issues, which after all the excitement over the 'blue' hydrological revolution, of introducing resources and developing accessibility to ground water and doing away with the dependence on rainfall, has moved on to a discussion of over-pumping and pollution." Still, the myth persists and is voiced for ideological purposes. And Messerschmid says that there are some within the international water community who still subscribe to it.

And the facts? "Most of the area that is currently cultivated for agriculture in Israel was cultivated long before 1948 by Palestinians. True, the agriculture then was much less intensive, they only started drilling wells if the British granted permits. But the Palestinians used every plot of land that they could, and they preserved the ancient and environmentally friendly method of mountain-terraces, an important factor in ensuring the refilling of groundwater and the prevention of flooding. The areas where Israel expanded agricultural usage, and which were not used for agricultural purposes before 1948, are marginal: They encompass the area between Kiryat Gat and Be'er Sheva, from the 450-mm per year rainfall line to the 250-mm rainfall line.

"Delegations of students and professors from Europe come to Israel and they're taken to Sde Boker, which is presented as an example of an advanced modern farming system. They're always impressed by how Israel raises cacti and special crops in accordance with the local conditions and the limited water supply. But this is the exception: The most common style in Israel is not the progressive, conserving one, but one that is wasteful and inconsiderate of the surroundings. Later on, they're taken to see Kibbutz Yotvata and all its lush greenery, and are amazed by how the wilderness was made to bloom. This is a typical example of water waste, but considering the geographical location, it's also an exception that proves the rule: The vast majority of the Negev has remained just the way it was."

The hackneyed colonial myth of "making the wilderness bloom," which presents the land as useless to the original population until the white man comes and "redeems" it particularly raises Messerchmid's hackles, because it continues to evolve into the next myth on his list: In terms of the water economy, "the Palestinians don't exist," he says. "All of Israel's big achievements in the water economy and in agricultural development are completely cut off in the Israeli discourse from the simple fact that they are based on water and land that was taken from Palestinians in 1948, that were in use by Palestinians. And it's the same to this day: For Israel to consume all the water it does, it must keep that water away from its neighbors and from the people it is occupying - and this is evident in the Golan, Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied territories. Israel uses water from the Golan, Jordan comes out the loser in the arrangement for usage of the Yarmouk waters and Lebanon was not permitted to use fair quantities of the Hatzbani waters."

But in Germany, too, only 60 percent of the water sources come from precipitation within the country and the rest comes from outside its borders. What's the difference?

"Wherever Israel is located downriver, it uses military force to ensure that most of the water that flows in that river will reach Israel. It takes over the Golan, it threatens wars, and in the West Bank it uses military orders to prohibit the drilling of wells. What's going on here is not cooperation, but the dictation of an unequal division. Just imagine if Holland were to force Germany not to use the waters of the Rhine."

And while the common Israeli discourse may ignore the past existence of Palestinian agriculture within what is now Israel proper, when it comes to the waters of the West Bank, Israel still behaves as if "there are no Palestinians," contends Messerschmid. "The most powerful fact of all is that since 1967, the number of wells that were drilled in the western aquifer, for Palestinian needs, is zero." Israel halted the development process for access to ground water and the drilling of wells, which Jordan had begun prior to the 1967 war. Subsequently, it drummed in the mantra of "maintaining the status quo in consumption," which effectively perpetuated the unjust division of water resources between Israelis and Palestinians, and which the Oslo Agreement also preserved almost intact.

Unlike Israel, the Palestinians in the West Bank do not have other sources to turn to: "The Jordan is a river of the past, a myth of a river." Nothing remains of it since Israel has been pumping so extensively from Lake Kinneret. The Oslo Agreement recognized the Palestinians' need for more water (between 70-80 million cubic meters per year), part of which Israel would sell to it and the rest of which would be obtained by means of Palestinian development of water sources by mutual consent of the two sides. Up to now, this meant the eastern mountain aquifer. Today, 13 years after Oslo II, the development of wells in that aquifer, which is less abundant than originally thought, produces the insufficient amount of 12.3 million cubic meters. And the Palestinians are still barred from drilling wells in order to reach the water in the western mountain aquifer.

The other side of the fence

The five Israeli myths and the four Palestinian misconceptions are connected by one simple fact: While Israelis consume an average of 240-280 liters of water per person per day, the Palestinians in the West Bank consume just 60 liters, and that includes water for industrial purposes and the water that goes to waste down the pipes. There are places where consumption is higher, such as Ramallah, where it is 92 liters per person. But in the Hebron area, the supply is only sufficient for an average of 15 liters per person per day. "In Dahariya, for example," says Messerschmid, "all the people I asked in November 2007 remembered the 16th of July as the last day when water came out of their faucets." Therefore, Messerschmid is not surprised to meet Palestinians who fall into the trap of the Israeli myth about a country that doesn't have enough water.

The mistaken belief that there is not enough water also explains the second Palestinian misconception: Many people, including activists protesting the separation fence and some from the Palestinian water community, believe that the route of the separation fence was planned so as to appropriate or steal Palestinian water wells. This is not the case, he says. "The Palestinian wells to the west of the separation fence and in the security strip to the east of it produce 12 million cubic meters per year, which is more than half of the permitted amount of pumping for the Palestinians, according to the Oslo Agreement, from the western aquifer (21.9 million cubic meters in total). These wells were drilled before 1967. Some were destroyed due to the construction of the fence, and with some there's a problem of accessibility. There are villages that are currently able to reach their well and obtain water, but since everything is so arbitrary and subject to frequent change, tomorrow they may not be able to get there. But for now, most of these wells still yield water."

From this western aquifer, the richest of the three water sources common to Israelis and Palestinians, the Oslo Agreement permits Israel to pump 340 million cubic meters per year. But in fact, Israel uses 388 million cubic meters. In 2000, Israeli discharge from this aquifer amounted to 580 million cubic meters - 240 million cubic meters more than its share under the Oslo Agreement. The total amount of water that Israel consumes, from all the sources at its disposal, comes to about 2,100 million cubic meters per year. The Palestinians in the West Bank are allocated 190 million cubic meters per year, of which 42-50 million cubic meters are purchased from Mekorot.

What, then, is 12 million cubic meters? It's a lot for the Palestinians, and hardly anything for the Israelis. "What does Israel need these poor wells for?" Messerschmid asks rhetorically. "The wells that Israel drilled west of the Green Line, in order to reach the waters of the western mountain aquifer, are much better for pumping, more productive, cheaper and more efficient than the Palestinian wells in the same aquifer. There the water is under high pressure and comes almost up to the surface, or right up to it. This is why Israel did not drill more than three wells, for Israeli use, in the western West Bank."

Still, amid all the misconceptions lies a grain of truth: Israel, says Messerschmid, is acting to deprive the Palestinians of this water source. The area between the route of the separation fence and the Green Line is the only area in which there is potential for productive drilling from the western aquifer. Since 1967, military orders and an Israeli military presence made it impossible for this potential to be realized. The fence, which essentially annexes the area to Israel, and whose route is coming to be seen as a future border, subverts from the start any possibility of the Palestinians being able to make use of the key potential here for independent access to water and to a more just division of the shared aquifer waters.

So it's really more a matter of inaccurate wording on the part of the Palestinians, rather than a misconception?

"It's more than inaccurate wording. There's a difference if they say they demolished a house, or took land so that a house would not be built. Israel isn't even interested in drilling there, in that area. When they conduct negotiations, if that ever happens, it will be important to know the difference between the claim that they're stealing water now, and the analysis that Israel is preventing Palestinian development of a joint water resource, which for the Palestinians is the primary resource, but which is not the only one for the Israelis. It's rotten luck for the Palestinians that, while this resource is recharged in the West Bank, the main output and flow are in Israeli territory. Israel's political and military supremacy enables it to use the lion's share of this aquifer."

Water for settlements

Another misconception has to do with water consumption by the settlements. A common Palestinian claim is that "the settlers are stealing all the water." This, too, is incorrect, says Messerschmid. When he made this assertion to a Palestinian audience, it sparked a rumble of disapproval, but he insisted that his listeners stick to the facts: "The settler population, although it has increased significantly since Oslo, is still relatively small in terms of water consumption. And most of the settlements do not receive their water from the wells of the West Bank."

Messerschmid also thinks that the data about excessive water consumption in the settlements (taking the swimming pools into account) are exaggerated. It's possible that in some settlements, water that was allotted for domestic consumption is being diverted for agricultural use, particularly in the Jordan Rift Valley, he says. But in many other settlements, people do not have an exceptionally high standard of living, and in the more urban settlements, the consumption rate is quite normal.

The only area where the assertion that "the settlements are stealing water from the Palestinians" may be correct is in the Jordan Rift Valley. The eastern water reservoir is filled almost completely by rainwater that falls on the West Bank. Only a little water makes its way to this reservoir on the Israeli side of the Green Line, in the Ein Gedi and northern Rift Valley area. But, over the years, it has been here in the Rift Valley that Israel has drilled many wells for Israeli use - in contravention of international law. Israel pumps 44.1 million cubic meters of water in the West Bank per year. Of this, 33.9 million cubic meters are pumped in the Jordan Rift Valley, the most plentiful part of the eastern aquifer. But these amounts are still nothing in comparison to the water available in the shared aquifer, to which Israel is preventing Palestinian access.

Another Palestinian misconception has to do with the water Israel sells to them, via Mekorot. A prevalent - and also mistaken - claim is that Israel profits from the sale of water to the Palestinians. Yes, Israel does sell water to the Palestinians, but at the same price paid by Israeli municipalities and local councils: NIS 2.294 per cubic meter (1 cubic meter contains 1,000 liters). What is true is that, because of the unfair distribution of water resources between Israelis and Palestinians, and since approximately 40 percent of West Bank villages (which comprise about a fifth of the Palestinian population in the West Bank) are not connected to the water supply, Palestinians make up the difference by purchasing water from tankers. This is more expensive water to start with, and has become even more costly because of the checkpoints and the blockage of main roads to Palestinian traffic. (In the Gaza Strip, which cannot be adequately addressed in the context of this article, everyone has to consume expensive, purified water, because of chronic over-pumping and pollution of the groundwater.)

"And so you get the same thing you see in other countries," says Messerschmid. "The poor pay a lot more for water, but the payment really goes for the fuel and the driver and the wasted time, not to Israel."

Is there any solution?

"Certainly: A fair distribution of the water and a change in Israeli consumption patterns. In Israel, desalination is often touted as the only potential salvation, but this is a way of avoiding a discussion about the discrimination and waste that goes on. That's very expensive water, and it's already been proven that it only reinforces the tendency to waste water on agriculture. As a hydrogeologist, I view the desalination here, and everywhere else in the world, as a great absurdity: It's crazy to use nonrenewable resources that were created millions of years ago in order to manufacture the most mobile element in the universe - water.

"From an ecological perspective, it's crazy to use an expensive and nonrenewable resource, like coal, petroleum or gas, which was buried deep in the earth for hundreds of millions of years, in order to produce a resource that is in continual mobility: rain, percolation, groundwater, wells, evaporation, and so on and so forth - a resource that is in constant motion, a resource that is the very essence of renewal." W



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