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Thirst In The Palestinian Territories

By Alice Gray

13 July, 2008

"Who says water has no colour, flavour or smell? Water does have a colour that reveals itself in the unfolding of thirst........And water has the flavour of water, and a fragrance that is the scent of the afternoon breeze blown from a field with full ears of wheat waving in a luminous expanse strewn like the flickering spots of light left by the wings of a small sparrow fluttering low."

Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness, August, Beirut, 1982.

"Water is fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights."

United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The water crisis has started early this year in the Palestinian Territories. In scores of towns and villages throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, people listen eagerly for the gurgle of water in pipelines, and turn on their taps with trepidation, watching anxiously for the first drops to appear, waiting to see if they turn into a stream, or splutter and gurgle to nothing after a few seconds. Others watch and wait for the arrival of water tankers, transporting the life-giving liquid to them from distant sources across an obstacle course of road blocks, checkpoints and military closures put in place by the Israeli Authorities, an inherent feature of their ongoing military occupation and colonization of the Palestinian Territories.

This is a particularly hard summer for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Even in normal years, the majority of Palestinians suffer from problems with their water supply. According to the Palestinian Water Authority, over 220,000 West Bank Palestinians are not connected to a piped water network, instead relying on water tankers, harvested rainwater and untreated natural springs for their water supply. All of these sources are susceptible to contamination; according to the Palestinian Medical Relief Committee, health problems associated with poor water quality are common in Palestinian villages that rely on them[i]. In addition, cost is a huge issue for communities that are forced to rely on tankered water which often costs 4 to 7 times as much as water from the network.

Even in villages that are connected to the network, water supply is neither continuous nor reliable. According to the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Monitoring Project only 46% of West Bank communities receive full coverage from the water network. The rest suffer interruptions in supply that can last from a few hours to several weeks or even months.

In the Gaza Strip, while the vast majority of the population are connected to the water network, there is an enormous problem with water quality. A shocking 90% of water supplied to Gazans does not meet World Health Organization drinking water standards. This is due to the degradation of the Gaza Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for Gaza's population, which quite simply does not contain sufficient water to satisfy the demands of Gaza's swollen population, over 70% of whom are registered refugees. The level of the aquifer is dropping, year by year, and salt water from the adjacent Mediterranean Sea is seeping in, threatening to render the entire aquifer unusable if no measures are taken to reverse the situation. Interruptions in water supply for Gaza's residents come as a result of Israeli military operations and restrictions in the entry of goods into Gaza, that damage water infrastructure, or that interfere with the supply of electricity to power wells and pumping stations.

In normal years, as the furnace-hot Middle Eastern summer wears on, interruptions in water supply for Palestinians become more and more frequent, as natural water reserves run low and pressure in the water network drops. The Israeli authorities, who control a large proportion of key water pipelines in the West Bank, close valves to Palestinian villages in order to ensure that the supply to Israeli settlements, supplied via the same network, remains constant[ii]. Military operations in Gaza smash water infrastructure and close down power stations, halting water supply to tens of thousands of people. Rainwater, captured during the winter and stored in cisterns against just such emergencies begins to dwindle, and Palestinians wait, gasping, for the first rain since spring to fall on the parched land, restoring the level of underground aquifers, lakes, rivers and cisterns, turning the austerely barren hillsides green once more.

Palestinians wait, but on the other side of the Wall, in Israel and in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it is another story. Sprinklers play over green lawns, flowers bloom in well-kept gardens, children play in swimming pools, people are able to take two showers a day, and for the vast majority, the water crisis does not exist, or exists only in an abstract sense, as a hazy awareness that Israel is located in one of the most arid regions on earth. The reality of water scarcity that haunts the Palestinians scarcely touches most Israelis, and in addition, Israel is able to maintain a multi-billion dollar agricultural sector, that exports water intensive crops (such as avocados, citrus fruits and herbs) to Europe, an activity that essentially amounts to exporting water.

It seems strange that such different realities should exist within such a small geographic area. Stranger yet when one realizes that both the Israeli and Palestinian populations draw their water from the same three major resources, the Mountain Aquifer, the Coastal Aquifer and the Jordan River, which straddle the borders of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Surely if there is a water crisis, everyone should feel it? Yet every year, Palestinians suffer water shortage, and the majority of Israelis (with the notable exception of the Bedouin) do not.

The somewhat unpalatable truth of the matter is that every year, a water crisis is manufactured in the Palestinian Territories due to Israeli monopolization of water resources and hampering of Palestinian water development. The total yield of the Mountain Aquifer, the Coastal Aquifer and the Jordan River system (the three main water resources for Palestinians and Israelis) is approximately 1720 million cubic metres of water per year on an average year, of which Israel uses some 1444 million cubic metres, leaving a mere 275 million cubic metres for the Palestinians[iii]. Despite the aridity of the region, it is a fact that there is enough water available in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for everyone to have the minimum supply recommended by the World Health Organization to maintain a decent standard of living: 100 litres per person per day. Many Palestinians receive far below this amount. In some areas the average supply is as little as 10 litres per person per day during the hot months of the summer, even in years of relative water abundance[iv].

This year is not an average year. This year is the worst drought the area has seen this decade. This year crops and trees are wilting and dying in the fields, and shepherds are struggling to find water for their livestock. According to a UN report issued in January, the rainfall over the Palestinian Territories this past winter was a mere 26% of the inter-annual average, dipping as low as 13% in the Hebron region.[v] This year even the Israelis are worried. In May, Uri Shani, the Director of the Israeli Water Authority warned that the level of the Sea of Galilee (known as Lake Kinneret to the Israelis and Lake Tiberias to the Arabs) will drop below its 'red-line' this summer, making it unsafe to continue pumping water from this resource at the rate it is normally pumped.[vi]

The Sea of Galilee is part of the Jordan River System and normally supplies a massive 570 million cubic metres of water per year to Israelis[vii], the majority of which is pumped south via the Israeli National Water carrier to supply towns and farms in the middle and south of the country. If this supply is reduced, it is most likely that Israeli farmers will be the ones who are primarily affected, since the Israeli agricultural sector is the largest water user in the country and the Water Authority is likely to cut water quotas to farmers in order to protect domestic supply. In addition to that, the Water Authority may protect ordinary Israelis from feeling the effect of the water shortage by making up the shortfall in domestic water supply from other resources, quite possibly at the expense of already struggling Palestinians.

At present, Palestinian water rights have been acknowledged by Israel, but not quantified, leaving Palestinians vulnerable to water deprivation. In 1995, a temporary agreement was made (the Oslo Interim Agreement) stipulating that each side would maintain current utilization of the shared Mountain Aquifer until the Permanent Status Negotiations could take place – this meant that Israelis got to use 80% of the water, whilst Palestinians were guaranteed the use of just 20% of this resource. This skewed utilization was in itself a result of Israeli restriction of Palestinian water development since the occupation began in 1967, when Israel proclaimed all water resources to be Israeli State property, fixed pumping quotas on wells, and created a permitting system that stifled water development for Palestinians. According to the Oslo agreement, Palestinians should also have been allowed to develop an additional supply of up to 80 million cubic metres of water from sources inside the West Bank, to help alleviate their immediate water shortage.

Even with the additional allowance, the amount of water allotted to Palestinians was barely enough to meet their basic needs, made no allowance for development of the agricultural sector, and took no account of population growth in the medium to long term. The Final Status Negotiations should have been concluded within 5 years of the Interim Agreement. However, to this day they have not taken place, and improvements in the water situation for many needy Palestinian communities have remained elusive.

Less than half the promised 80 million cubic metres of additional water supply has been developed, despite high levels of international funding for Palestinian water development. One major reason for this is that the Oslo Agreement allows Israelis a veto over Palestinian development projects; and in addition creates a lengthy, convoluted and beaurocratic permitting system that many local and international NGOs working in the field have found impossible to negotiate. 60% of the land mass of the West Bank remains under full Israeli control, and projects in these areas require additional permits from Israeli Authorities. Nearly all of the Palestinian communities who are not connected to the water network (comprising over 220,000 people) are in Israeli controlled areas[viii].

Efforts to help these people have consistently been hampered and derailed over the course of the 13 years since the signing of the Oslo Agreement. For example, this year in April, the British charity Oxfam who had been involved in two major water projects in the water scarce Hebron governorate, closed their office in the area due to the impossibility of obtaining permits for their work[ix]. Due to the ongoing frustration of being unable to implement projects due to lack of permits and the wastage of time and money that this was causing, the charity has been forced to give up on their much needed efforts to bring water to the parched communities of south Hebron, who are among the neediest in the West Bank.

As Palestinians have been unable to gain access to sufficient resources of their own, over the years, they have increasingly come to depend on purchasing water from the Israeli water company, Mekorot. Last year, Palestinians purchased 43.9 million cubic metres of water from Mekorot, constituting over 50% of the domestic water supply for the West Bank. This water is under no guarantee (with the exception of 5 million cubic metres that are transferred to Gaza) – if Mekorot decides not to sell it to Palestinians, there is no binding agreement that can force them to do so. If this water is wanted inside Israel, for domestic use, for agriculture or for industry, it may be transferred to those uses, leaving Palestinians thirsty.

Due to the drought this year, there is great concern that this is what will happen. So far, water cut-offs that would normally start happening in July have occurred in May, and the situation looks set to deteriorate as the heat intensifies. Mekorot currently directly controls the water supply to 250 Palestinian communities in the West Bank, who are supplied via the same network that serves Israeli settlements. In past years the valves supplying Palestinian villages, many of which are located inside the settlements themselves, have been closed on multiple occasions through the summer months, in order to ensure that there is enough pressure in the water network to allow a constant supply of water to the settlements, where water sprinklers continue to play over green lawns in sharp contrast to the world of dust and thirst that nearby Palestinian communities endure as a consequence.[x]

In June, the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Monitoring Project issued a report on severe reductions in water supply to several villages in the Nablus governorate that are normally supplied by Mekorot. Currently their water supply is just 15% of the normal rate, forcing them to buy additional supplies from water tankers at a cost of 20 shekels per cubic metre (more than 5 times the price of piped water). Many families are already suffering from economic crisis, many have seen their land confiscated and lost their livelihoods in the agricultural sector as a result of the Israeli Occupation, many have been unable to find alternative employment. A lot of people can ill afford this additional expense and will instead reduce their consumption of water to unsafe levels which impact on their health and that of their children.

Violations of the right to water are not limited to the West Bank. This year the Gaza Strip is under an ongoing embargo that restricts supplies of fuel to power water pumping stations and sewage works, and the supply of spare parts to maintain the water and wastewater networks. On 21 January 2008, the Palestinian Water Authority acknowledged that 40 percent of the houses in the Gaza Strip had no running water and the following day reports emerged that sewage was flooding the streets[xi]. In March, reports on the situation from Red Cross workers in the area warned that the sanitation crisis was 'bad and getting worse'.[xii] As the summer wears on and the heat builds, the suffering caused by insufficient and contaminated water supplies and festering sewage lying close to human habitations is likely to become more acute as Israel's vicelike grip on Gaza continues.

The situation that is being created in Gaza is forcing international aid to shift more and more towards emergency assistance, and away from attempts to tackle the underlying problem of environmental degradation that may ultimately cause the destruction of the Gaza Aquifer to the extent that there is no longer any fresh water left to supply Gaza's population. The same is true of the West Bank, where due to the difficult development situation, funders are concentrating more and more on immediate assistance to water scarce communities through helping to provide tankered water at affordable prices or building cisterns, rather than addressing the issue of water insecurity and insufficient infrastructure that is creating dependency and vulnerability in the first place, and at the same time contributing to the destruction of the Palestinian environment.

The truth is that until Palestinian water rights are recognized and protected, and until restrictions on Palestinian development are lifted, every year Palestinians will learn to know the colour of water all too well, to feel the throat-cracking pinch of thirst, and to fear for the viability of their future as they thirst in the midst of plenty in a crisis that has been created for them by their occupiers. For as long as the Israeli government is allowed, by the people of Israel and by the international community, to value the welfare of Jews over that of Arabs and to value the profit from its agricultural sector over the human rights of Palestinians, this blatant injustice, this denial of water, that most fundamental of life-giving resources, the pre-requisite for realizing all other human rights, will go on.

[i] Dr Ghassan Hamdan, Palestinian Medical Relief Committee, Personal Communication, May 2008.

[ii] WaSH MP (2005) Water for Life: Continued Israeli Assault on Palestinian Water, Sanitation and Hygiene during the Intifada. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Monitoring Program.

[iii] Israeli Hydrological Service (2003), Evolution of the Exploitation and State of Israel's Water Sources until Autumn 2003; Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (2008) Annual Available Water Quantity in the Palestinian Territory by Region and Source in 2006.

[iv] PWA (2005) Water Supply in the West Bank, 2005. Directorate General of Resources and Planning, Palestinian Water Authority.

[v] FAO and OCHA (2008) Drought: the latest blow to herding livelihoods. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Jerusalem, January 23rd, 2008.

[vi] Hillel Fendel (2008) Israeli Water Authority Director: Crisis expected in July. Israel National News (, May 18th 2008.

[vii] Israeli Hydrological Service (2003), Evolution of the Exploitation and State of Israel's Water Sources until Autumn 2003

[viii] Yousef Awayes, Palestinian Water Authority, Personal Communication, May 2008.

[ix] Michael Bailey, Oxfam, Personal Communication, March 2008.

[x] WaSH MP (2004, 2005, 2006) Water for Life reports. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Monitoring Program.

[xi] COHRE (2008) Hostage to Politics: The impact of sanctions and the blockade on the human right to water and sanitation in Gaza. Centre on Housing Right and Evictions.

[xii] Ron Taylor (2008) Gaza: "Bad and getting worse". LifeSource News,

Alice Gray is a co-founder of LifeSource, an initiative to stimulate grassroots movements for water access and sustainability in the Palestinian Territories and Israel. To learn more about the water situation in the region, please visit the LifeSource website:

This article was first published in the magazine of the YMCA/YWCA Joint Advocacy Initiative, East Jerusalem.


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