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"We are running out of time" — Water in the West Bank is scarce for Palestinians

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“We are running out of time” — Water in the West Bank is scarce for Palestinians

Summer means water shortages for Palestinians. With global warming and a population increase in the West Bank and Gaza, water scarcity becomes even more critical. Experts—both Palestinians and Israelis—address the water problem as urgent, but few can see solutions ahead.

In Nabi Salih, a Palestinian village just north of Ramallah, the time between May and November is a challenge. Villagers rely on Israeli-controlled pipelines and only have access to water once a week. Abdul Karim Tamimi, who has been living in Nabi Salih for 25 years, says that he is used to the water shortage. It’s been like this for the last six seasons.

“Because of the warm weather, we have a special need for water during the summer months. The water shortage makes everything difficult,” says Tamimi.

This year, midway through July, Israel cut off water supplies for 40 days. Nabi Salih families relied on water from local tankers and springs. Water cuts like this are not unusual, meaning villagers are frequently unable to purchase water.

Neighboring villages are also affected by the problem. Palestinian Hydrology Group PHG, a Palestinian NGO based in Ramallah, has found the situation has only gotten worse in recent years. Dr. Abed al-Rahman, Director at PHG, notes that there have been an increasing number of complaints from private households and farmers all over the occupied territories. Water cuts are hazardous to Palestinians’ health and livelihoods, he notes.

“We are running out of time,” al-Rahman says, “People have to drink water.”

Climate change

Internal demographic growth and external climate change make the already limited resource of water even scarcer.

According to United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Gaza Strip and the West Bank experienced a growth in population from 2.9 million in 1997 to 4.3 million in 2011. The rapid demographic change compounded by the expected increase in temperatures due to global warming is likely to further aggravate water scarcity.

Al-Rahman worries about the consequences of this development.

“Demographics and warmer temperatures will have a crucial societal impact, also affecting the overall food situation. There will be less water for agriculture,” says al-Rahman.

Since 1967, Israel has maintained—in violation of international law—control over water resources in the occupied territories.

To adapt to the situation, many Palestinians use alternative methods to reduce water consumption. The reuse of “grey water,” from the kitchen and bath, is popular in Nabi Saleh and other villages in the occupied territories. Bath water can be used again on farmers’ crops, helping villagers to get the most out of what little water they have.

During summer months, when Israel closes the valves or the settlers manipulate the water pressure, Palestinians get frustrated. “In the critical months I spend 30% of my salary [on] water from tanks. [This] is very expensive and frustrating,” Tamimi says. “The only thing we can do is be patient.”

“Unequal water distribution” ?

While the Israeli Water Authority controls access the resources, the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) is only in charge of the its distribution in the occupied territories. According to the Oslo Accords, Israel recognized the Palestinians’ water rights in the West Bank, but these rights were never clearly defined and Israel maintains effective control.

Israel prevents the Palestinians from accessing water resources legally, technically and physically. Legally, the main consequence of the classification of water as Israeli public property requires that Palestinians apply for a permit in order to drill new wells or fix existing ones.

In many cases, Palestinians are deprived of access to water resources by being deprived of access to their land in general. De facto expropriations are frequently carried out by establishing military areas on natural reserves, especially in the Jordan Valley.

Technically, Israel makes no effort to maintain the water system, nor do the Palestinian municipalities have the financial means to intervene. The price of water supplied by private tankers has increased in recent years.

Yousef Awayes, the General Director of the International Coordination Unit at the PWA, is eager to resume negotiations with Israel to resolve the “grossly unequal water distribution.”

“Palestinians are consumers”

“How can we negotiate water, when we do not know the borders?” asks Shimon Tal, the Executive Director of Water Authority in Israel and President of the Israeli Water Association.

Tal encourages Palestinian and Israeli authorities to find a solution to the dwindling water supply by using processed seawater.

According to Tal, the PWA and the Water Authority in Israel can build and share regional water supply systems together with national resources. In three to four years, he says, they could double the potential of water resources, many of them from desert plants. This solution is expensive, but Tal sees it as the only possibility to resolve the situation.

For al-Rahman and Awayes, the problem still comes down to the fact that Israel has ultimate control over the water resources.

“Palestinians are consumers and Israel controls the water resources,” says Awayes.

Professor Hillel Shuval, one of Israel’s foremost experts in environmental science and policy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, finds the water situation disturbing. He also describes the political climate in Palestine and Israel as problematic.

“If both sides gave up principles, it might be possible to find temporary solutions until a final peace agreement can take place,” says Shuval. Israel, Shuval believes, can gain a lot by relinquishing its full control of water.

Israel should reallocate a portion of its shared water resources with the Palestinian Authority. Sharing water with Palestinians, Shuval believes, will ultimately benefit Israel by “stabilizing the region.” After all, Shuval considers, water is a “vital human need.”

Back in Nabi Salih, Tamimi waits for the situation to improve, sure of one thing. The way life is now, he says, is not sustainable.