While West Bank Dries Up, Villages Thirst for Secure Water Supply

Residents of one Palestinian village, who once had to walk for hours daily to fetch water, now have limited access to Israeli water supplies. But it's not enough.

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Palestinian children carry water bottles near their house on the outskirts of Yatta, West Bank, August 17, 2016.
Palestinian children carry water bottles near their house on the outskirts of Yatta, West Bank, August 17, 2016.Credit: Mussa Qawasma, Reuters

AL JAB'A, West Bank - A mountainous Palestinian community in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Al Jab'a differs in many ways from surrounding Israeli settlements but it shares one worry with its neighbors – a shortage of water.

In the last few decades the West Bank has seen rainfall decrease and groundwater levels fall with drought expected to become "more frequent (and) more intense", according to a 2012 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report.

Residents of Al Jab'a, who once had to walk for hours daily to fetch water, do have limited access to Israeli water supplies in their concrete homes due to a reservoir, pipeline and a pump built in 2013 by an Italian non-governmental organization.

But the water provided is not enough, according to families in Al Jab'a, a village of about 150 houses 12 km (7 miles) southwest of Bethlehem. They also fear their system could be demolished as it was not officially approved.

"Before, we had to walk many times a day to the nearby springs to fill our bottles and buckets," said Omar Musa, 18, who lives with his parents and five siblings near the reservoir in a house atop a hill.

"I was happy when I knew I would have water at home."

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

He estimated that his family saves about six hours a day by not having to fetch water for their use, crops and livestock.


But numerous rural and Bedouin communities in the West Bank are not connected to a network supplying water in the Israeli-occupied territory that has, since the mid-1990s Oslo peace accords, fallen under the responsibility of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC).

A statement from the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a branch of the Israeli defense ministry tasked with dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues in the disputed territories, said the failure of the JWC to meet for nearly six years had left many water projects on hold.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon earlier told Reuters that the Palestinians had refused to take part in talks over water while the Palestinian Water Authority said it stopped taking part in discussions because of Israel’s failure to freeze settlement building.

In Al Jab'a, only 10 percent of homes were part of this water distribution system until the pipes and reservoir completed in 2013 extended the network to the remaining households. Water is pumped up hill to a reservoir.

But this has not completely resolved the community's water problems. Residents say the system supplies water only intermittently and at low pressure. When supplies flow, families must hurry to store as much as they can.

Residents like Musa and his family also fear the reservoir could be demolished by the Israeli authorities because, like many of their homes, the structure was built without an official permit.Construction by Palestinians is forbidden in Area C, a designation covering about 60 percent of the West Bank, including Al Jab'a. Between 2010 and 2014 only 1.5 percent of requests for building permits in Area C were approved, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

An application for a permit for the Al Jab'a reservoir by GVC, the Italian development organization that built it in partnership with UNICEF, was turned down, GVC said.

According to Israeli authorities, issuing demolition orders for structures built without permission is a legitimate measure, a 2015 OCHA report notes.

Although only one-fifth of the 14,000 demolition orders issued in Area C since 1988 have been carried out, according to OCHA, the uncertainty leaves residents worried for the safety of their homes and their water supply.


A letter from COGAT to the international community last week said it was hard to improve water to settlements without cooperation of the Palestinian Authority.

"We would like to warn the international community that if (there is) no immediate change in the situation, we are likely to experience a water crisis this summer," COGAT's Major General Yoav Mordechai said in the letter.

"We call on the international community to support the renewal (of) cooperation and promoting water."

The dispute over water on the West Bank is a long-running issue.

After the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, Israel imposed restrictions on well drilling and constructing distribution networks, which has left a quarter of Palestinians without piped water, according to a report by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

An assessment by UNICEF in 2015 showed that 400,000 Palestinians from 2.7 million living in the West Bank were in need of improved water, sanitation and hygiene services.

The U.N. Environment Programme said in a report that Israel uses the majority of the water resources available in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel, however, points out that it provides the Palestinians with double the 30 million cubic meters of water annually that was agreed to in the 1995 Oslo accords.

Gregor von Medeazza, chief of the water, sanitation and hygiene program at UNICEF in East Jerusalem, said water remains a persistent sore point between Israel and Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

"Water should be a source of collaboration and should bring people together," he said. "At the end of the day, they all share the same water resources."

Von Medeazza said that UNICEF is concerned about ensuring measures are in place to use water carefully and help communities adapt in the face of growing scarcity.

"It means having rational use of (the) water available and making sure there is no wasting of water," he said. With climate change bringing more variable rainfall, "it is also important to emphasize that there is a question of accessibility and human right to a minimum amount of water", he said.

Apart from building reservoirs, Von Medeazza suggests rehabilitating around 300 ancient cisterns – underground storage tanks dating from Roman times that once collected water in the rainy season. These have the potential to be used today and would be a cost-effective measure, he said.

Around 80 such cisterns have been restored so far by a coalition of non-governmental organizations.

"The long-term vision is to increase the current access (to water) of people living in remote places," Von Medeazza said. "We have the technical solutions to extend services and connect communities. What we need is further support from all parties (Israelis and Palestinians) for this to happen."

For his part, Musa in Al Jab'a remains worried but resolute.

"We are really afraid of losing our reservoir," he said. But "we are not leaving our house nor our community".

This article was amended on November 15, 2016, to reflect changes made by the Reuters news agency.

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