Israel Blocking Plan to Double Water Supply to West Bank

Some government agencies are keen to increase supply to both settlers and Palestinians, but politicians are putting up obstacles. Either way, the Palestinians are ending up with much less.

Nizar Rayan with his ad-hoc collection of water for his plant nursery, in the West Bank village of Qarawat Bani Hassan.
Emil Salman

The Israeli Water Authority has crafted a master plan to double the amount of water supplied to settlements and Palestinian towns in the West Bank, not including the Jordan Valley, by 2030. But implementation is being held up in the absence of political approval to link Palestinian cities to the expanded new infrastructure.

All this has become clear in last week's meeting of the Judea and Samaria affairs subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The Water Authority has no executive power in the West Bank, leaving the Civil Administration to carry out the master plan. The committee members were told that the Civil Administration was the agency that demanded that the master plan include certain Palestinian cities. But again, government directives are needed.

The chairman of the subcommittee, MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi), has repeatedly said the delay affects Israelis and Palestinians alike, and that solutions must include both populations. Others have expressed similar sentiments, including officials of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories as well as the Civil Administration.

But Yogev’s party colleague, MK Bezalel Smotrich, said that if everyone is suffering from water shortages, Israelis’ needs should be met first, someone who attended the meeting told Haaretz.

The subcommittee was hurriedly convened last Monday in order to discuss the scarcity of water in certain settlement neighborhoods and unauthorized outposts. These communities have been suffering from cuts and supply disruptions since the end of June, according to media and social-media reports.

Some participants at the meeting said the summer shortages were happening for the second year in a row. A farmer from one settlement said that for a third season he can’t sufficiently irrigate his crops.

The committee urged government agencies to speed up implementation of the master plan and not suffice with short-term solutions such as sending water tankers to settlements, or mid-term solutions such as improved maintenance, the cutoff of illegal hookups and ad hoc solutions. Implementation of the master plan is urgent in light of the projected growth of settler numbers in Samaria to 450,000 from 250,000, said Yigal Lahav, the head of the Karnei Shomron Regional Council.

A water station at the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, June 2016.
Amira Hass

“The authorities are drying up the residents of Judea and Samaria, Jews and Arabs alike,” Yogev said in a press release after the meeting. “The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Water Authority have known for years what needs to be done, but this hasn’t happened yet. We need the authority to embark on a crash program that addresses water infrastructure and urgently implement the master plan for supplying water to the region’s population.”

Settlements have no quotas, Palestinians do

The Salfit area and other Palestinian communities near Nablus have suffered serious disruptions in water supply since early June due to cuts in the amount of water sold to them by Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. In response to a question by MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), a Mekorot official at the meeting said there had been a 15 percent cut to settlements and Palestinian communities.

But Palestinians are reporting a much higher cut. To begin with, daily per capita consumption by Palestinians is lower than by Jewish settlements due to quotas imposed by Israel. The shortfalls in Palestinian communities started several weeks before those in Jewish settlements and involved more people.

Zandberg asked why water tankers had been sent only to settlements and not Palestinian communities. The answer was that this was the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority.

The deputy coordinator of government activities in the territories, Brig. Gen. Guy Goldstein, told the committee that due to the suspension of the joint water affairs committee, the Civil Administration was promoting projects independently, having approved 15 projects over the last two to three years.

Palestinian members of the joint committee have been refusing to show up at meetings. They say they’ve been asked in recent years to sign off on projects exclusive to Jewish settlements, presumably to give them legitimacy.

In the past, outposts and settlement expansions were hooked up to the water system without the joint committee’s approval, the Palestinians argue. They say that just as Israel did not ask their permission to establish settlements and outposts, their approval isn’t needed for expanding such infrastructure.

Projects approved by the committee in the past were discriminatory, with more projects approved for settlements. Water volumes and pipeline diameters were larger in Jewish settlements than for the Palestinians, even though the Palestinian population is much larger than the Israeli one in the West Bank.

A British study found that until 2008, Palestinians were given to understand that if they didn’t approve projects in Jewish settlements, projects for repairing and expanding their own dilapidated system would not be approved.

At the meeting, Mekorot’s Danny Sofer said water supplies to Palestinians were subject to quotas, whereas settlers received water based on demand and consumption, a participant at the meeting told Haaretz.

Thus, since quotas are in place, during the summer, when demand increases, even when there is no official cut, Palestinian municipalities implement a rationing system through which every several days, only certain neighborhoods receive water through the main pipes.

Because of this, all Palestinian homes have water tanks on the roof to collect water for the days when supply in their area is halted. Mekorot says it supplies 51,000 cubic meters a day in the Samaria region to settlements and Palestinian communities, while demand is at 58,000 to 60,000.

Burgeoning agriculture

According to data presented by Alexander Kushnir, the Water Authority’s director general, the large expansion in agriculture in the settlements has led to a rise in consumption this year.

“A sharp increase in consumption [in the settlements], estimated at 20 percent to 40 percent, was registered in comparison to last year,” Kushnir says. “Such a sharp increase at the beginning of the irrigation season can only be explained by increased agricultural requirements.”

But Yogev’s press release doesn’t refer to this; it prefers to discuss illegal hookups and the so-called theft of pipelines by Palestinians. The Water Authority estimates that 5,000 cubic meters of water is stolen every day by Palestinians in the central Samaria area. The PA heavily fines people hooking up illegally to the water system, but it can’t enforce its authority in areas A and B, where Israel is in charge of security and where most of the illegal hookups occur.

The master plan relies not on further drilling in the mountain aquifer, but on additional transport from Israel, which would take place through three main lines. In talks with the Palestinians, the Israelis mention these additions, which will come mainly from desalination plants. The plan calls for an increase from 73 million cubic meters to 142 million – 48 of which would go to settlements and 93 to the Palestinians. Settler leaders took part in the steering committee meetings.

Israeli spokespeople depict the increments sold by Mekorot to Palestinians as acts of good intentions. The Palestinians view it as confirmation of the limits imposed on them in their quest to independently obtain water from the mountain aquifer.

Based on a 1995 interim agreement, the Palestinians can continue to extract 20 percent of their water from this aquifer (118 million cubic meters a year), which was the amount extracted before the agreement was signed. The other 80 percent was allocated to Israel.

This interim phase was supposed to end in 1999, when the Palestinians expected to realize their rights in controlling water sources and enjoying a more equitable division of water with Israel. The interim agreement also stipulated annual growth of up to 80 million cubic meters, which the Palestinians could extract via new independent drilling in the aquifer’s eastern basin or from “other sources” in order to meet the needs of their growing population.

It turned out that the eastern basin was less productive than expected by Israeli calculations. In the meantime, older wells activated by the Palestinians yielded less water; Palestinians produce only 103 million cubic meters a year from the aquifer.

Meanwhile, in the Jordan Valley, Mekorot is extracting 30 million cubic meters a year for only 10,000 settlers. This amount is just under one-third of the total extracted by the Palestinians from the entire mountain aquifer in the West Bank, for 2.7 million people.