This week UN celebrated World Water Day – a day to remember the billion people who are unable to meet their needs for safe, clean water due to drought, poverty and official neglect.
But it’s also a day to remember, and fight for, 2.1 million Palestinians who suffer something different – an artificial water scarcity deliberately created and sustained by Israel’s military occupation, and the private Israeli water company Mekorot.
Increased international pressure brings hope that the tide may be finally turning for Palestinians striving for water justice in the West Bank and Gaza – in particular, recent investment and partnership decisons against Mekarot, which runs Israel’s discriminatory water policy in the West Bank.
Waterless in Gaza and East Jerusalem
The situation in Gaza is especially dire. The tiny, densely populated territory relies entirely on its depleted, saltwater-contaminated and sewage-polluted aquifer, and the water it produces is unfit for consumption. Water has to be bought, expensively, in bottles or from mobile tanks.
Moreover restrictions on fuel imports mean that Gaza’s single power station spends most of its time idle – and so long as it’s not running water and sewage cannot be pumped. So the taps are dry, toilets are blocked, and sewage pollution gets worse.
Not that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have it a lot better. As reported on 17th March, the city suffered a long water cut beginning on 4th March leaving Ras Shehada, Ras Khamis, Dahyat A’salam and the Shuafat refugee camp – cut off from the rest of the city by the separation wall – with no running water.
The reason is simple – old and inadequate water infrastructure, which there are no plans to improve or renew.
Oslo II Accords – the Palestinians were shafted
For West Bank as a whole the facts speak for themselves. The Oslo II Accords dealt Palestinians a singularly poor hand – limiting the volume of water it could produce, as well as imposing severe restrictions on the development and maintenance of Palestinian water infrastructure.
The Accords allow Palestinans to abstract only 118 million cubic meters (mcm) per year from boreholes, wells, springs and precipitation in the West Bank. But Israel is allowed to take four times as much – 483 mcm per year – from the same Palestinian resources.
So not only does Israel now occupy 80% of the area of historic Palestine, but it – via the water company Mekarot – also takes 80% of the water resources from the 20% of the land that is left to the Palestinians.
Sold down the river
But it gets worse. Oslo II’s draconian restrictions on water development imposed by Israel mean that Palestinians can only actually abstract 87 mcm in the West Bank, of the 118 mcm they are allowed.
The acute water deficit is made up by the supply of piped water from Israel. Mekarot currently sells the Palestinian Water Authority some 60 mcm per year – at full price.
As reported by Amira Hass in Ha’aretz, “in that agreement Israel imposed a scandalously uneven, humiliating and infuriating division of the water resources”.
While Palestinian water is piped into Israel at no cost, a fraction of it is then piped back again, and paid for. In this way Israel is extracting from Palestinians both their water, and their money.
In some cases Palestinians are forced to pay ten times more for their water than the price in Tel Aviv – as in the village of Sussia on South Mount Hebron, where they have to drive to the nearby town to buy over-priced water (see photo), even though a water main passes directly through the village on its way to an Israeli settlement.
Water plenty, and water famine
According to the UN Human Rights Council, this all translates into a wide disparity between water use by Palestinians and by settlers in the West Bank. Settlers enjoy 400 litres per capita per day (l/c/d) while some Palestinians surive on a little as 10 l/c/d.
All Palestinian populations receive water volumes far below the level recommended by the World Health Organization of 100 – 250 l/c/d. According to the UNHRC:
“Settlements benefit from enough water to run farms and orchards, and for swimming pools and spas, while Palestinians often struggle to access the minimum water requirements.
“Some settlements consume around 400 l/c/d, whereas Palestinian consumption is 73 l/c/d, and as little as 10-20 l/c/d for Bedouin communities which depend on expensive and low quality tanker water.”
These very low levels of water provision fail to meet the water needs of many Palestinian communities – leaving them with often contaminated water, and not enough of it.
While Palestinian water use may just exceed 70 l/c/d in the relatively well served urban centers of the West Bank, it drops much lower in rural areas that have no access to piped water and depend on wells and rainwater collection.
An estimated 113,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have no piped water supply, while hundreds of thousands more have only intermittent supply, especially in the summer.
The restrictions and limitations imposed on Palestinians to access their own resources and develop them have exacerbated the already severe water shortages among Palestinian communities.
Among the restrictions are limits on the size of supply pipe, intended to limit flows as a form of rationing. Typically 30% of the water leaks from Palestinian supply pipes – because Israel refuses to allow their renewal
In ‘Area C’, which covers 60% of the area of the West Bank, Palestinian farmers and communities are not allowed to connect to the water network that serves the growing settlements – and are forbidden even to dig out cisterns.
The international community considers the establishment of Israeli settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories illegal under international law, as set out in the report of the fact finding mission of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Yet the construction of new illegal Israeli settlements and ‘outposts’, and the expansion of existing ones, is proceeding apace – and further reducing the quantity of water allocated to Palestinians.
Your water or your life
As reported by the UN in March 2012, another threat arises from settlers seizing springs by force: “Palestinians have increasingly lost access to water sources in the West Bank as a result of the takeover of springs by Israeli settlers, who have used threats, intimidation and fences to ensure control of water points close to the settlements.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) examined 60 springs on Palestinian land close to Israeli settlements. They found that:
“In 22 of the water sources, Palestinians have been deterred from accessing the springs by acts of intimidation, threats and violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers, while in the eight springs under full settler control, Palestinian access has been prevented by physical obstacles, including the fencing of the spring area, and its ‘de facto annexation’ to the settlement.”
Violence and destruction may also come directly from the occupation authorities. “Destruction of water infrastructure, including rainwater cisterns, by Israeli authorities has increased since the beginning of 2010; double in 2012 compared to 2011.
“The denial of water is used to trigger displacement, particularly in areas slated for settlement expansion, especially since these communities are mostly farmers and herders who depend on water for their livelihoods.
“A number of testimonies highlighted that the cutting off from water resources often precedes dispossession of lands for new settlement projects.”
Mekorot – at the heart of Israel’s water apartheid
All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are connected to piped water supplied by Israeli water company Mekorot, which took over responsibility for the water resources of the West Bank from the occupying forces in 1982.
Thus it Mekarot which is both the on-the-ground enforcer, and the economic beneficiary, of the West Bank’s ‘water apartheid’.
As the UN Human Rights Council reports: “In the Jordan Valley, deep water drillings by the Israeli national water company Mekorot and the agro-industrial company Mehadrin have caused Palestinian wells and springs to dry up. Eighty per cent of the total water resources drilled in the area is consumed by Israel and the settlements.”
“The lack of availability of Palestinian water resources has led to chronic shortages among Palestinian communities in Area C and a dependence on Mekorot … Mekorot supplies almost half the water consumed by Palestinian communities.
The UNHRC also reported that Palestinians do not have access to the cheaper ‘recycled water’ available to Israeli settlements, and have to buy more expensive drinking water even for irrigation purposes.
This injustice and inequity of access to water supply has always been a source of tension, especially when Palestinian villagers see water pipes leading to Israeli colonies passing through their land without supplying their village with water – as reported above at Sussia.
“The Mission heard of situations where villagers must travel several kilometres to get water when closer water resources serve neighbouring settlements”, reported UNHRC.
And even when they do get water, they receive second class treatment. “In the event of a water shortage, valves supplying Palestinian communities are turned off; this does not happen for settlements.
‘Week of Action Against Mekorot’
Mekorot violates international law and colludes in resource grabbing -including pillaging water resources in Palestine. It supplies this pillaged water to illegal Israeli settlements, and engages in systematic discrimination and denial of water to the Palestinian population.
For this reason Palestinian organizations including PENGON / Friends of the Earth Palestine have co-organised a ‘Stop Mekorot‘ week of action starting today, on World Water Day.
The campaign aims to intensify pressure on governments and companies to boycott Mekorot and hold the company accountable for its discriminatory water policies and practices in Palestine.
On March 20, the environmental federation Friends of the Earth International announced its support for the campaign against the discriminatory practices of Mekorot – joining the global call on governments, public and private utility companies and investors worldwide to avoid or terminate all contracts and cooperation agreements with Mekorot.
In December 2013 the largest drinking water supplier in the Netherlands, Vitens, set a precedent when it decided that its commitment to international law meant it had to withdraw from a cooperation agreement with Mekorot. According to the company:
“Vitens attaches great importance to integrity and adhering to international laws and regulations. Following consultation with stakeholders, the company came to the realization that it is extremely difficult to continue joint work on projects, as they cannot be separated from the political environment.”
Mekorot suffered another blow this week when authorities in Buenos Aires, Argentina, suspended a proposed $170m water treatment plant deal.
The decision followed a campaign by local trade unions and human rights groups which highlighted Mekorot’s role in Israel’s theft of Palestinian water resources – and raised the prospect that Mekorot might export its discriminatory water policies to Argentina.
Palestinians must have their rightful share of available resources and be granted full authority to manage them properly. Equitable and wise use of available resources among all people is the only basis for lasting peace in the region.
And until then the deliberate, systematic, purposeful water discrimination and resource theft carried out in Occupied Palestine by the Occupation and Mekorot must be recognised for what they are – crimes against humanity. The perpetrators must be punished accordingly.
Ayman Rabi represents Friends of the Earth Palestine / PENGON, the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network – established in 1996 to serve the Palestinian environment by coordinating the scattered efforts of the different Palestinian NGOs working in the field of environment.
This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.