Palestinians Denied Access to Water – by Stephen Lendman
According to OCHA (the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), Palestinians face a serious water crisis, being denied access to their own resources.
Cara Flowers with the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Group (EWASH – a coalition of almost 30 water and sanitation sector organizations in Occupied Palestine) said many vulnerable communities in Israeli-controlled Area C (covering 60% of the West Bank) are hardest hit, the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) having limited say over its own resources, ones Israel uses itself, an international water expert saying:
It’s “easy (making) the desert bloom by using someone else’s water (and) denying them access to their fair share….” In some areas, it’s easier denying them none except what they can obtain by other means or illegally.
In 2009, Amnesty International (AI) addressed the problem in its report titled, “Troubled Waters – Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water,” explaining that water is life, stealing it a crime, without it “we can’t live; not us, not the animals, or the plants,” said Fatima al-Nawajah, a South Hebron Hills area resident.
Throughout the Occupied Territories, the problem is longstanding, exacerbated by Israeli water policies, denying Palestinians for themselves, preventing their right to their own resources.
“The inequality in access….between Israelis and Palestinians is striking,” especially in summer when needs are greatest. Palestinians consume about 70 liters per capita a day (the lowest amount in the region), well below the WHO-recommended 100 liter minimum, and in some rural areas much less, as little as 20 liters.
In contrast, Israelis use about 300 liters, denying Palestinians an equitable share, including from the underground Mountain Aquifer and Jordan River surface water, reserved solely for Jews.
As a result, around 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water, even in towns and villages connected to the water network because taps often run dry. So rationing is common, especially in summer, with villages and neighborhoods getting piped supplies one day weekly or, in some cases, one every few weeks.
Consequently, many Palestinians must buy water at exorbitant prices, often of “dubious quality,” a severe burden for poor families consuming as much as one-fourth of their income, what most can’t afford.
In Gaza, the Coastal Aquifer’s southern end is the only supply, an inadequate resource for 1.5 million people, Israel prohibiting West Bank transfers. However, “the aquifer has been depleted and contaminated by over-extraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration,” making up to 95% of it unfit for irrigation and human consumption.
In addition, vital equipment and other supplies needed to develop and repair infrastructure are prohibited, causing further water and sanitation deterioration, now at a “crisis point,” especially in refugee camps and isolated poor communities.
Moreover, for over four decades, Israel over-exploited OPT resources, neglected its water and sanitation infrastructure, denied permit authority to alleviate it, and used the Territories as a dumping ground for its waste, damaging groundwater resources and the environment – in violation of its obligations as an occupier, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), and international donors unable to compensate enough because Israel obstructs them.
With no other choice, some Palestinians have drilled unlicensed wells. Others connected to the water network illegally, and many stopped paying their bills, further compounding the problem by undermining the PWA’s authority and economic viability, making it dependent on international donors, an unreliable source at best.
Israeli and Occupied Territory Water Resources
Israel and Palestine share the West Bank Mountain Aquifer, for West Bank Palestinians their only resource and a vital one for Israel, replenished by rain and northern snow, flowing north and west toward Israel and the Jordan River in the east.
It’s composed of three aquifers (or basins) – the Western, Northeastern, and Eastern ones – with an average yield of 679 – 734 MCM (millions of cubic meters), the higher figure from the Hydrological Service of Israel (HSI), “the most authoritative source,” the lower one used by Israeli authorities to allocate supplies to Palestinians.
Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer yields up to 450 MCM for Israel, leaving a meager 55 for Gazans requiring other ways to compensate. Doing without isn’t an option.
Israel gets additional supplies from the Western Galilee and Carmel Aquifers in the north and southern Negev-Aravah Aquifer. No reliable yields for either are available.
The Jordan River is the most important surface water source, supplying up to 650 MCM, exclusively for Jews, Palestinians denied it entirely, withholding a crucial resource, drying up from overuse, impacting the Dead Sea severely, experiencing a water drop to its lowest ever level.
Israel’s Military Order Water Grab
Relevant ones are as follows:
— No. 92 giving Israel control of all West Bank and Gaza water;
— No. 158 stipulating that Palestinians can’t construct water installations without (nearly impossible to get) permits and those built will be confiscated; and
— No. 291 annulling all land and water-related arrangements prior to the occupation.
Military orders apply only to Palestinians, not Israelis, including settlers, subject to civil law. Moreover, Israel continues developing its own water infrastructure, reducing Palestinian yields for a growing population and crippling its agricultural output.
For over four decades, Israel restricted water (and land) availability to Palestinians, granting its own and settler populations privileged access. As a result, Palestinians compensate to make due using unsafe sources, buying what they can afford, reusing water, flushing toilets less often, washing less regularly, washing clothes and floors infrequently, growing rain-fed crops in home gardens, keeping fewer animals, and drilling unlicensed shallow wells.
Oslo Accords Established Inequality
The agreement ostensibly “recognize(d) the Palestinian water rights in the West Bank. These will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations and settled in the Permanent Status Agreement (PMA) relating to the various water resources.”
However, 17 years later, a PMA was never reached, and Oslo rights were vague and undefined, preventing an equitable distribution of resources – Palestinians getting a meager 20% from the Mountain Aquifer and none from the Jordan River, Israel taking the lion’s share, one Palestinian saying:
“There is no water in the village, so we have to bring it from far away and it’s expensive. I can’t wash and clean as often as needed. We can’t afford it. It’s a daily struggle.”
Gaza’s Water Crisis
AI called it dire, the Coastal Aquifer polluted by raw sewage from cesspits and waste collection ponds and seawater, itself contaminated from daily discharges into the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, waterborne diseases are common, UNWRA reporting in February 2009 that:
“Water diarrhea as well as acute bloody diarrhea remain the major causes of morbidity among reportable infectious diseases in (Gaza’s) refugee population….”
In September 2009, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP):
“The pollution of groundwater is contributing to two main types of water contamination in the Gaza Strip. First and most importantly, it is causing the nitrate levels in the groundwater to increase. In most parts of (Gaza), especially around areas of intensive sewage infiltration, the nitrate level in groundwater is far above (accepted) guidelines….Second, because the water abstracted now is high in salt, the sewage is also very saline. (It’s well known that higher drinking water nitrate levels) can induce methemoglobinaemia (a blood disorder) in young children.”
Oslo’s Established Joint Water Committee (JWC)
AI called it a “pretense of cooperation,” composed of Israeli and Palestinian representatives, ostensibly requiring both sides to agree on water sector activities. In fact, however, Israel dominates it, an international donor saying “The interaction between the two sides during the meetings can best be described as an exercise in subjugation and humiliation,” Palestinians entirely shut out, needing Israeli permission for all water related activities, even minor ones, restricting supplies by limiting access, and destroying Palestinian facilities, including storage cisterns, agricultural pools and spring canals for harvested rainwater as well as unlawful water network connections.
Barring Water Access by the Separation Wall
A Jayyus hydrologist expressed angst saying:
“We are here and our water is there. Many farmers don’t have permits to go to cultivate their land where the water is, and on this side of the wall we suffer from lack of water.”
Tens of thousands of Palestinians are affected, separated from their land, farms and water resources and denied their means of livelihood – the Wall’s route confiscating some of the most fertile, water-rich areas, Palestinians denied permission to use it.
Prior to the Wall’s construction, Jayyus, near Qalqilya, was the region’s food basket, its land some of the most fertile because water was plentiful. No longer, agricultural output falling to a fraction of its former level, making most families dependent on humanitarian aid. Other area villages were also affected, including Ras al-Tira, Dab’a, Wadi al-Rasha, and Ramadin, cut off and trapped in the “Alfei Menashe enclave,” so-called because the Wall encompasses the Alfei Menashe settlement and much land around it. Qalqilya has been severely impacted, surrounded by the Wall on three sides, cut off from access to 80% of its agricultural land and 11 wells.
Movement Restrictions Affecting Water Access
Besides the Wall, they include hundreds of checkpoints, other barriers and various obstacles, including cement blocks, earth mounds and gates, creating a nightmarish system to negotiate, obstructing access and requiring detours, delays, and time-consuming journeys, what used to be less grueling.
According to a Susya resident:
“It takes me most of the day to go to the well, fill up the tanker and bring the water to the village….I have to rent the tractor, pay for fuel and spend a lot of money and time just to bring some water for our basic needs. At such a high cost, we cannot afford to buy water to irrigate the land….so we have no fodder for the sheep. We are being forced to sell some sheep because we cannot afford to feed them, but the sheep are our livelihood and if we are forced to sell them we will lose (it) for good.”
Other towns and villages are just as impacted, seeing their way of life destroyed with few ways to compensate.
Military Attacks Destroying Water Infrastructure
Wells, water connections, cisterns, roof water tanks, mains and sewage conduits “have been routinely (destroyed by air strikes or) crushed by tanks and armoured vehicles during Israeli military incursions” in both Gaza and the West Bank, and efforts to repair damage have been obstructed or prevented, exposing residents to long periods without water, forcing them to rely on unsafe sources and consume less.
During Cast Lead, attacks caused millions of dollars of damage to Gaza’s water supply, sewage and wastewater facilities and infrastructure. In northern Gaza, three facilities were destroyed and the emergency sewage treatment plant damaged, as well as water distribution networks. In central Gaza, the Sheikh ‘Ajlin sewage treatment plant was damaged, causing raw waste to flood over a square km of agricultural and residential land, ruining crops and contaminating neighborhoods.
In northern and eastern Gaza, Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed or damaged water mains, leaving over 800,000 people without running water. More recently, contamination is still high, and repairs not made because needed parts and materials are banned.
A September 2009 UNEP report called Gaza’s water resources in crisis before Cast Lead, its destruction and damage aggravating a bad situation, accelerating aquifer pollution and reducing the supply of available drinking water.
Settlers’ Attacks on Water Facilities
Attacks are frequent, damaging, and done with impunity, Israeli authorities doing nothing to stop them or punish those responsible. “Indeed settler attacks (are) often perpetrated in the presence or with the knowledge or tacit consent of Israeli soldiers, and in some cases with their active participation.”
Even if injuries or deaths occur, offenders aren’t prosecuted, settlers getting carte blanche to pillage, destroy, and at times kill. AI and other human rights representatives have been targeted while investigating or documenting incidents, making them as vulnerable as Palestinians.
PA/PWA Failures and Mismanagement
Evidence reveals corruption, mismanagement, a lack of transparency and accountability, an audit saying “chaos reigns in the water sector (because of) political/personal infighting….”
They’re also hamstrung by lack of control, a water and sanitation sector in duress, an insufficient water supply to meet needs, a dependence on international donors, their own self-interest prioritized, Israeli-imposed restrictions, and a population disenfranchised by decades of occupation.
As a result, both authorities face an impossible challenge, unable to provide enough water to millions of Palestinians, undermining their credibility.
Dependence on International Donors
Because of Israeli control over permission to pursue projects, international donors have borne the costs of emergency ones, including repairing damaged infrastructure and providing services to Palestinians who lost their homes and property and have no adequate access to water. Because of the siege, Gaza is especially impacted, its water sector damaged or destroyed, creating grave problems for the people dependent on it for survival.
International Law – The Right to Access Water
“Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power (has) well defined responsibilities to respect the Palestinians’ human right to water, (and) must take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps to ensure this right is fulfilled and fully realized.”
Various human rights laws are relevant, notably the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Fourth Geneva and both Hague Conventions also apply as binding international law, protecting civilian populations, Israel alone contending these obligations don’t apply to OPT Palestinians, just its own settlers, despite UN bodies and ICJ rulings stating otherwise, including the right to water, required to be adequate for human dignity, life and health under ICESCR’s Articles 11 and 12.
It must be available, sufficient, safe, accessible, and affordable on a non-discriminatory basis, including to the most vulnerable and marginalized, Israel prohibited from interfering directly or indirectly with its delivery, the obligation including:
“refraining from engaging in any practice or activity that denies or limits equal access to adequate water; arbitrarily interfering with customary or traditional arrangements for water allocation; unlawfully diminishing or polluting water….; and limiting access to, or destroying, water services and infrastructure as a punitive measure,” including during armed conflicts.
Systematically, Israel has been grievously in breach, spurning its well-defined obligations, harming millions of Palestinians, including their right to food, clean water, and life, inviolable ones under international law, obligating it supply what no one can live without, requiring that member states assure it, and hold Israel accountable otherwise, assuring no one is above the law – not Israel or its Washington paymaster/partner.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.