By Pierre Klochendler
BIR EL-BASHA, Occupied West Bank, Jan 31, 2012 (IPS) - Only days ago, turning on the tap was cause for concern. Would there be running water? Now, it’s reason for celebration.
"Thank God, the installation works!" rejoices Muhammad Dakka, the village Imam. "For the first time in our lives there’s running water!" his mother Rasmiyeh, 71, revels, serving sage tea and nut-filled dates to a party of Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegates.
In association with both organisations, the villagers recently inaugurated a unique water project. ICRC engineer Abed Al-Jalil Rimawi explains: "The village wasn’t connected to any network. Our objective was to build an integrated system by installing connections to each household, thus making water available to everyone."
A painted jar adorns the Dakkas’ door. Symbols are often a measure of what’s lacking and most in need. As far as daily life is concerned, for the people of Bir El-Basha, there’s ‘before’ the arrival of running water and ‘after’. And, with it, saving money.
Until now, trucks supplied water to the villagers. The essential utility was pumped electrically at a cost into private wells up into rooftop reservoirs. "You’d order a tanker two-to-three days in advance. It was expensive," recalls Abdullah Qawadri.
"Before, water cost 4.20 dollars per cubic metre. With the network, the fee is cut by four," notes Hosni Al- Qadri, the village council head.
Water is a precious commodity here. The rainy season lasts three months, if there’s no drought. In a nearby field, boys puncture lines of plastic sheets covering zucchini buds that evoke water-filled trenches glistening under the sun.
"From rains only!" exclaims a farmer watching his sons. The villagers don’t own the land they work on. Fields are leased from wealthier landowners.
Here, water isn’t only the water of life. Use of it, access to it, is source of pressure. A French parliamentary committee recently reported that Israel's water policies in the Palestinian territories are like "apartheid" for they discriminate Palestinians from Israeli settlers.
Brothers Kifah and Hussein Ghawadri would have bitter arguments over water consumption and how much their respective households should pay. "We’d suffer from family tensions," recalls Kifah. "It’s over. Now each household has its water meter," adds Hussein.
Bir El-Basha was founded by Bedouin Palestinians. Refugees of the 1948 war belonging to the same extended family, they settled here, living in tents for over a decade.
The now dried Hafira well was their only available source of water. According to tradition, it’s the pit into which the sons of Jacob, the Biblical patriarch, threw their brother Joseph. "Life was tough," Jihad Ghawadri reminisces. "We’d walk two kilometres to the village with water carried on donkeys."
Though the villagers are modest, it isn’t poverty per se which has hindered them from having direct right to water, but who rules the land, and who controls its resources, its sources. In the early 1960s, the Qawadris built their dwellings with neither master plan nor permits. Temporary to this day, the village exudes a sense of everlasting.
During the 1990s, territorial agreements divided the West Bank into three zones: "Area A" (under Palestinian Authority); "Area B" (under Israeli security control and Palestinian municipal authority); and "Area C" (under full Israeli rule).
Dug by Israel in the 1970s deep into the aquifer, connected to the regional transmission pipeline, the Arrabeh well is monitored by the PWA. It feeds over 20,000 people living in three neighbouring villages in "Area A".
Eleven kilometres away from the well, adjacent to the water pipeline, the 1,700 Bir El-Basha residents were left without running water, enclosed in limbo in "Area C".
Seven years ago, the village applied to the Israeli authorities for authorisation to be connected to the network. Then, it contacted the PWA, presented the project to Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad. "Everyone helped," says Al-Qadri.
"The PWA investigated the village’s needs, created a filling point operated by the council. Afterwards, it contacted the ICRC," explains PWA project manager Ziad Drameh.
"Giving services in general – water, electricity, waste collection – is a way for the Palestinian Authority of asserting responsibility for their people’s lives," notes ICRC geologist Jean-Marc Burri.
But the project lingered. "We had to obtain Israeli permits to proceed with laying the network lines inside the village," says Drameh.
"Our role was to understand why the project wasn’t implemented. There was an authorisation. We realised politics didn’t interfere. Yet, nobody really pushed, we still needed to bring everybody together," Burri stresses. "We acted as catalyst," chimes in the head of the ICRC Water and Habitat, Ikhtiyar Aslanov.
Partnership and cooperation were keys for success. The PWA contributed with expertise and design. The ICRC donated 400,000 dollars. The beneficiaries themselves demonstrated rare ownership.
"Usually, we explain to people what to do to implement a project. Here, the village council told us what their needs were. If the population’s involved, it works; if not, you’re blocked by a judicial process. Here, all decisions were taken at village level."
Each resident was required to contribute 130 dollars to the PWA. Everyone paid. More than 25,000 dollars was collected. "When you pay for a service, you expect quality to meet your requirements," says Aslanov.
Once Israel gave its final approval, connecting people with water took less than four months. "People, authorities, can get together to respond to the needs of the people," concludes Aslanov. The local filling point connects the 257 homes with 11 kilometres of pipes. Bir El-Basha enjoys three cubic metres of running water per hour for 12 hours three days a week – no miracle. Still, it dramatically improves the villagers’ lives. "This model could be applied to other villages," confidently foresees PWA engineer Ala El-Masri.
In 2011, PWA water infrastructure projects funded by the ICRC benefited 775,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the West Bank only, 72,000 people benefited from such projects, including the people of Bir El-Basha.