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Drought and Israeli Policy Threaten West Bank Water Security

by Stephen Lendman Friday, Jul. 18, 2008 at 5:34 AM

Inadequate West Bank water.

Drought and Israeli Policy Threaten West Bank Water Security - by Stephen Lendman

Fresh water is precious everywhere but especially in one of the driest, hottest places on earth - the Middle East. It's why it's a strategic resource and the reason countries like Israel do everything possible to secure a reliable supply. In the words of former prime minister Moshe Sharett: "Water to us is life itself." It shapes Israeli policy going back to the early Mandate period.

A Brief History

Post-WW I, Zionists wanted Sykes-Picot borders altered to include the Jordan River, Lower Litani, east coast of the Sea of Galilee and Lower Yarmouk headwaters and tributaries. These affect Palestine, southern Lebanon, Syria and the Jordan Valley. Efforts to secure them fell short because French opposition blocked them. But it didn't prevent further regional hydrological studies. They were needed because by WW II's end accommodating a growing Palestinian and Jewish population grew acute.

Israel's "War of Independence" followed in 1947-48. It assured water sovereignty as well. Israel was free to act unilaterally - to tap and develop all available resources plus whatever it could seize later on. They'd be needed after Israel's 1950 Law of Return was passed. It granted Jews worldwide special rights - to emigrate freely and become citizens of the land of Israel. It brought in waves of new immigrants requiring considerable water resources for them, but Israel's supply was inadequate. At the time, four states shared the Jordan-Yarmouk watershed. Developing it was essential. Each had growing needs so securing a dependable supply was vital.

Several regional water-sharing proposals failed in part because Israel linked them to recognizing the Jewish state. It also rejected solutions not in its strategic interest and acted unilaterally instead. Take its National Water Carrier project. Construction began in the late 1950s and early 1960s and became the country's largest water project - to transfer Sea of Galilee northern water to highly populated areas in the center and south and to facilitate efficient water use. To neighboring Arab states, however, it was a hostile act, and they responded with their own diversion plans. Israel viewed them as a national security threat.

Confrontation followed. The National Water Carrier was targeted. Israel retaliated against Syrian construction sites. Skirmishes broke out, and the 1967 war resulted. Officially it began on June 5, 1967. Others, including Ariel Sharon, said it started two and a half years earlier when Israel acted against diverting the Jordan River. Earlier, Ben-Gurion warned that Jews and Arabs would battle over strategic water resources and determine Palestine's fate. Its people as well. Aside from other strategic aims for land and regional control, Israel secured water rich lands in southern Lebanon, Jordan, the Golan, and West Bank.

It fully exploited them and is a key reason why the Golan was never returned. West Bank water is another issue. It has three principle aquifers supplying about one-quarter of Israel's needs, including for its settlements and nearly all of what West Bank Palestinians get. They are:

-- the Yarkon-Tanninim Aquifer supplying Israel with about 340 million cubic meters (mcm) of water annually - to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv mainly; Palestinians get far less - about 20 mcm a year;

-- the Nablus-Gilboa Aquifer supplying about 115 mcm annually, largely for agricultural irrigation in Galilee-based kibbutzim and moshavim cooperative settlements;

-- the Eastern Aquifer supplying about 40 mcm a year to Jordan Valley-based settlements; another 60 mcm go to Palestinians.

Water also comes from the upper Jordan River and its tributaries - the Sea of Galilee, the Yarmouth, and lower Jordan River. Palestinians are denied most of it. As their population grows, shortages have become more acute because of Israel's restrictive policies.

Israel's Water Policy in the Territories

The policy works this way - to preserve an unequal division of western, eastern, and northern West Bank aquifer supply. It was the same for Gaza's aquifer prior to disengagement. The result is a hugely disproportionate distribution policy causing growing shortages for Palestinians. Israel does little to alleviate it. It invests little in infrastructure leaving 20% of West Bank Palestinians unconnected to a running-water system:

-- around 227,000 in 220 West Bank towns and villages;

-- another 190,000 only partially connected; and

-- even in towns and villages with a water network, most often supply is irregular - only on some hours of the day and sometimes rotationally; in distant areas, supply may be disconnected for days or weeks; it's part of Mekorot's (Israel's National Water Company) discriminatory policy to assure settlers are adequately supplied.

In addition, Israeli maintenance (for Palestinians) is shoddy. Water pipes are old and leak, and in some cases more than 50% of fresh water is lost. Qalqiliya and Tulkarm have been especially affected.

Consider the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian supply. For Palestinians, per capita West Bank consumption is 60 liters a day - for domestic, urban, rural, and industrial use. It's far below the minimum 100 daily liters required according to the World Health Organization. In contrast, look how much Israelis get - 280 liters a day per capita for domestic, urban and rural use or about four and a half times more than Palestinians. Including industrial use, and it's 330 liters or five a half times Palestinian consumption.

Israeli Violations of International Law on Water in the Occupied Territories

By integrating Occupied Territory water resources into its legal and bureaucratic system and denying Palestinians the right to develop them for their own use, Israel violates international law under Articles 43 and 55 of the 1907 Hague Regulations. Also Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to treating "all protected persons....with the same consideration by the Party to the conflict in whose power they are...."

Then there's Article 6 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. It requires water division between states to be reasonable and equitable. Not according to a specific formula but with regard to seven factors:

-- the watercourse's shared natural features - its geography, climate, hydrology, and so forth;

-- each state's social and economic needs;

-- its population;

-- how watercourse use in one state affects another;

-- watercourse existing and potential uses;

-- watercourse resources conservation, protection and development and the cost of measures to assure them; and

-- planned or existing use alternatives.

Taking international law and all the above factors into account, Palestinian rights are severely compromised.

Water security is crucial for Israel. Securing and preserving supply essential. In the occupied West Bank, Arabs are prohibited from drilling new wells without special permission, but it's practically impossible to get and won't likely change. Many existing wells were also sealed to restrict Palestinians to a very low quota, far below Israelis. Most West Bank water goes to Israel and the expanding settlement population. Jordan River water is also diverted - from 50 to 75%. As its population grows, so does its water needs. It was one among other factors behind the 1982 Lebanon invasion - to control the Litani River in the country's south. It remains out of reach today, but a richer resource would be to secure access to major rivers like the Nile, Euphrates or Seyhan and Ceyhan in Turkey.

Since the 1990s, water and other environmental issues were among the most important in Israeli bilateral relations. Its October 1994 peace treaty with Jordan included five annexes. Two addressed water and environmental concerns.

The water rich Golan has been a stumbling block toward a similar deal with Syria. It's much the same in bilateral Palestinian talks. The Territories' water resources have been over-exploited for years, but precious little of it for Palestinian use. It's a major destabilizing factor and obstacle to real peace and security. So many issues are at stake. One rarely discussed is the inequitable distribution of scarce and valued water resources.

Summer 2008 Drought Compounds the Problem

Israelis nearly always have enough water for their needs - agricultural, drinking, bathing, watering lawns, washing cars, and filling swimming pools for those who have them. In contrast, Palestinians have precious little. In summer it's always worse, but this year the most severe draught in a decade made it grave. In the northern West Bank, consumption is at about one-third the minimum required. It's because rainfall this year has been less than two-thirds normal. In southern areas, it's barely over half. Cities like Tubas, Jenin, Nablus and the Southern Hebron hills have been especially impacted.

According to Palestinian Water Authority estimates, the West Bank's water shortfall is from 42 to 69 mcm. Its consumption is 79 mcm making emergency supplies needed. Throughout the West Bank, per capita consumption is about 66 liters (for domestic, urban, rural and industrial use), far below the World Health Organization's 100 liter minimum for personal needs.

Making matters worse is the price of privately purchased water that constitutes 50% of West Bank supply - from 15 to 30 shekels or three to six times higher that Israelis pay. Because of this year's shortfall, it's heading higher and putting an impossible burden on impoverished Palestinians to buy enough of it. The alternative is drinking from questionable sources after amounts collected in cisterns run dry - stagnant water or from dirty springs that may expose users to frequent and serious illnesses.

Oslo II's Broken Promise

The 1995 Oslo II agreement assured "the equitable utilization of joint water resources for implementation in and beyond the interim period." It never happened because Israel's Palestinian dealings are nearly always duplicitous. It sets traps and uses devious language to assure interpretations go its way.

Post-Oslo II, a Joint Water Committee (JWC) was established to approve new West Bank water and sewage projects. It's composed of an equal number of Israeli and Palestinian representatives, but that's where equality ends. All decisions are by consensus, but no procedure is in place to settle disputes when agreement can't be reached. As a result, Israel can veto Palestinian requests for new wells - even though Oslo II assured it.

Desalinization Plans

The publication New Scientist has covered "the latest science and technology news, reports, developments and research" for over 50 years. In May 2004, it reported that Israel had a "secret plan for a giant desalination plant to supply (privatized) drinking water to (Palestinians in) the West Bank." It was to preserve fresh water supplies for Israelis, but here's the catch. Israel won't fund it nor can Palestinians. It means the world community or possibly the US would have to do it. Just as bad, if it's ever completed, is the cost as leading hydrologists point out: "desalinating seawater and pumping it to the West Bank....would cost around per cubic meter," an impossible amount for Palestinians to pay at an exchange rate of 3.3 shekels to the dollar. Many if not most Israelis as well.

Nonetheless, Alvin Newman, USAID's Tel Aviv head of water resources, supported the project, and with good reason. If funding is secured, it would mean lucrative business contracts for favored USAID contractors. Palestinians, on the other hand, are fearful. They object to desalinization plans dependent on their abandoning claims to West Bank water - resources beneath their own land. Ihad Barghothi, Palestinian Water Authority's head of water projects said at the time: "We cannot do that (nor do we) have the money or expertise for desalination."

Gaza is another issue. It depends almost exclusively on small wells tapping the coastal aquifer. But as the water table falls, it's being increasingly polluted by salt sea water. UN scientists conclude that within 15 years (from 2004) Gaza will have no drinkable water and will have to import its needs. But even now the World Health Organization reports that Gaza's water quality falls below its acceptable standards due to the aquifer's degradation. Besides that, 40% of Gaza homes lack running water, according to the Palestinian Water Authority.

Another possible solution is an approved and apparently funded so-called ocean depth reverse osmosis plant to provide the Territory's supply. It's another method of desalinating sea water, but here again there's the cost.

New Scientist points out that if these two projects become reality they'll make "Palestine more dependent on desalination than almost any other nation in the world." And given the cost of desalinated water, it will be out of reach for the great majority of impoverished Palestinians.

Palestinian Resilience and Nonviolent Resistance

Palestinian resilience is impressive despite overwhelming obstacles. Take Nahhalin village, 20 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem where the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ) is active. For the past 17 years, it's represented Palestinian interests - economic, social, natural resources management, sustainable agriculture, politics, and water management.

In 2007, it began a waste water treatment project it will replicate in other rural areas to provide new sources of water for irrigation. In Nahhalin, ARIJ's water and environment research unit will install on-site waste water treatment systems for about 180 homes accommodating 1800 people. The project is scheduled for completion in 2010. Wherever else it's used, it'll manage waste water and improve access to fresh supplies. ARIJ believes its plan is one of the most feasible and economical ways to provide a sanitary use for household waste water. When in place, it'll increase agricultural productivity and food security, a vital Palestinian concern.

ARIJ sees other benefits as well. Treatment units will be manufactured locally to provide much needed jobs. In addition, these type projects further peace and are powerful nonviolent resistance acts.

The Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG) complements ARIJ's efforts with its own projects. It's an NGO "promot(ing) the role of women in civil societies in managing local water and its related environmental resources to ensure transparency, good water governance and just and equal provision of water and sanitation services to the rural and marginal communities in the West Bank and Gaza."

One of its projects is in the northern West Bank villages of Jayyus and Karr Jammal near Qalqilya where Israel's Separation Wall cuts off off farmers from their lands. PHG is helping them maintain pumps and irrigation systems so they have greater control of their natural resources despite overwhelming Israeli restrictions. It's another expression of their nonviolent resistance and it's spreading.

International law is supportive. It recognizes non-discriminatory access to adequate fresh water as a fundamental human right and requires occupying powers to assure it. The UN General Assembly also affirmed Palestinians' right to self-determination and control of their natural resources - in Resolutions 1803 (1962), 2672C, (1970), 2787 (1971) and 3098D (1980).

In December 1966, it adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 1(1) affirms self-determination, and Article 1(2) states: "All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic cooperation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence." It's now up to the international body to enforce its own rulings.

Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at

Also visit his blog site at and listen to The Global Research News Hour on Mondays from 11AM - 1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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