Alleviating water scarcity in the Eastern desert of Bethlehem

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The lack of water in the Eastern desert of Bethlehem makes living conditions harsh for local Bedouin Muhammed Ali Hussein and his family. Yet, he is not interested in moving to the village.

An early Monday morning, we set out to visit the Bedouins in the desert, east of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The way to the desert is long, but beautiful. We pass several olive fields and also Jewish settlements. After a one hour drive, we pass the last Jewish settlement and the road changes very abruptly.

Suddenly, it becomes smaller and filled with holes and after a while it turns into a gravel road. The landscape is rough and as far as you can see there is only rocks and sand.

The Eastern desert of Bethlehem is a difficult place to live, especially due to water scarcity. There are no water systems or networks and the Bedouin residents living in this area are forced to rely on expensive tankered water during the summer time for both animal and human consumption.

The Bedouins live off their livestock so they are very much dependent on providing water for their animals.

The Water Scarcity Response Plan

To increase access to water, DCA and EJ YMCA have commenced a project where ancient cisterns are rehabilitated and new household cisterns are built. This project is funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection (ECHO).

During the raining season, the water is collected in these cisterns, but in 2010-2011 the raining season has been extremely short and the water in the cisterns ran out in early May. The next raining season starts in November-December.

To help mitigate the scarce water situation, DCA and EJ YMCA have launched a Water Scarcity Response Plan where the Bedouins living in the affected areas east of Bethlehem can buy water for a reduced amount of money.

Before this intervention, the Bedouins paid between 100-300 NIS (26 – 78 USD) for a tank of water (3.7 cubic meters), and now they are able to buy one cubic meter for only 10 NIS (2.65 USD).

Increased income for local tractor driver

After a one kilometer drive through the desert, we arrive at a filling point where a local tractor driver is about to fill up his tank. He hands over a coupon to the manager at the filling point, the manager puts a stamp on the coupon and the driver starts filling the water tank.

The coupon system is designed to make sure that the beneficiary pays only 10 NIS per cubic meter, and it also helps secure that the right beneficiary gets the water that he or she paid for.

When asked about the project the local driver says that he is very satisfied with it as it helps the people in the area and personally it has given him more work and an increased income. “For every tank of water, I transport I get around 40 NIS in profit” he says.

A tent out of nowhere

When the tank is full, we follow the driver deeper into the desert where he delivers the water to the beneficiary. There is no actual road, but the tractor driver knows his way through this rough and stony landscape.

All of a sudden, a tent comes out of nowhere and we have reached our destination. We follow the local driver to the cistern where a man with a grey beard and a weather-beaten face wearing traditional clothing is waiting for his water.

Muhammed Ali Hussein is 55 years old. He is married and his household counts 18 members; 3 daughters and 10 sons of whom the eldest one is married and has two children. Muhammed earns his income from his 170 livestock. The family produces milk, cheese and yoghurt for sale.

In the winter time, until May – June, he has enough water to support his family and livestock because of the rain fall that fills nearby water cisterns, but the rest of the year he is dependent on buying water.

Improved life conditions for Muhammed and his family

“The project has improved my life significantly because I save a lot of money. Before I paid 120 NIS for one tank and now I only pay 37 NIS (which is the total cost for a 3.7 cubic meter tank of water).

I am now able to give my livestock enough water during the summer. In addition, the production of milk, cheese and yoghurt has increased and I earn more money.

I am always one year behind with my payments so this makes a big difference as I am now able to pay some of my existing debt” Muhammed says. “It is really very good. It supports me” he says.

“Even though life in the desert is hard I do not want to move to the village. This is my life and I like it. But if there is no water, I have to move”, he continues.

As Muhammed is waiting for the winter and the rain fall, his hope for the future is that the project will continue and help him improve the life conditions for him and his family.

By Joan Nørgaard Madsen