West Bank water struggles

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With high unemployment and poverty, water for bathing and cleaning is a luxury in the occupied Palestinian territories, reports Willow Heske.

Most of us don't think about water, even if we know how precious it is. Water is always with us - from our morning shower to the laundry and dishes we do before we go to bed, a constant supply of clean, fresh water brings ease and comfort to our everyday life. But what if the water were not there? How would this impact the things we do, how would it change the way we live?

I recently spent the day visiting three communities in the West Bank living with inadequate water supplies. Each community had its own circumstances and response, but when speaking to people I found a central theme emerged. The lack of water or water networks in these locations was greatly compromising their quality of life.

As part of a water, sanitation and hygiene project funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), Oxfam has been working closely with these communities to help them to meet and manage their water needs. The project has integrated public health education with practical water and sanitation solutions designed to improve people's lives.

Most agreed that the project addressed their immediate water concerns, though some weren't sure about just how long relief would last.

There is good reason to worry. In the occupied Palestinian territories there is more than enough water to go around, but water is not being distributed fairly. As a result there are disproportionate rates of water use between Israelis and Palestinians, with shortages and inequalities heavily felt on the Palestinian side.

In Ma'asha, a village in the district of Salfit, residents say the demands of the industrial Israeli settlements of Burkan, Ariel and Itmar have heavily affected water supplies. Residents of Ma'asha receive their water from Mekorot, an Israeli water provider, who they claim prioritises water distribution to the settlers. Over 400 households in Ma'asha are hooked up to Mekorot's system, but the families find that their water supply is irregular. This is because when the need for water is at a peak, Mekorot often cuts off water supplies to Ma'asha. So people are forced to save the water for their livestock and farming, while drinking and bathing is kept to a minimum.

Oxfam responded by building a reservoir in Ma'asha. The reservoir is hooked up to the existing network and has the capacity to store excess water in order to meet the needs of the whole community for up to four days during water cuts. Oxfam also provided households with rooftop water tanks, which gives families the extra water they need to meet their personal hygiene needs.

Women in Ma'asha are the project's biggest supporters. They claim the project has made a real difference and that the extra water has eased their household chores and helped them keep themselves and their children clean. The women also believe that the project has brought the community closer, because there is no more fighting about the water.

Extra water in Jiftlik is stored in open buckets, which are easily contaminated. [Photo credit: Willow Heske]

At least Ma'asha had some water to fight about in the first place. Deep in the Jordan Valley, residents of Jiftlik are living without any running water. The Israeli civil administration has complete authority over the village and has maintained a total freeze on building permits - including permits for water or electrical networks. Water is purchased and hauled in on trucks. This is expensive, as it adds fuel and transport costs. With high unemployment and poverty, water for bathing and cleaning is a luxury - people are struggling to afford enough water to survive.

For over two years Oxfam has been applying and waiting for Israeli administrative permission to build a reservoir in Jiftlik similar to the one in Ma'asha. In the meantime, the water situation in Jiftlik has created irreparable community divisions.

Abu Ashraf, the head of the Village Council in Jiftlik says that residents can no longer wait for water.

"For more than two years we have the same problem with the water," he told me, "In another two years someone will kill their neighbour for their water."

Without permission to build, there is little for Oxfam to do. The project has offered rooftop water tanks, which can offer excess storage. Abu Ashraf claims this is just a solution for the short term. He says it doesn't compare to what residents want most: a water network, so that they can live with water running from a tap.

The new waste water storage system on the right is concrete lined to prevent ground water contamination. [Photo credit: Willow Heske]

In Zbeidat, where Oxfam just installed 18 modern wastewater storage systems, residents are also worried about the long term. Before the project, households disposed of their sewage in cesspits wherever they could dig a ditch. The cesspits were unlined and contaminated the farmland and groundwater. The village stank, and was infested with flies, rats, and snakes. Families could not afford to have the cesspits emptied on a regular basis, so the open pits would overflow, especially when the rains came. Children were affected with diarrhoea, parasites and amoebae, as well as hepatitis A and C as a result of playing in the sewage contaminated fields.

Abu Rattab has 26 children living in his house. He believes his new cesspit, which is lined with concrete and has a metal trap to avoid overflowing, is really great.

"I'm very happy," he told me. "The house is cleaner, the kids are cleaner, we're all healthier."

Abu Rattab and Oxfam's water engineer read over the demolition notice for his new waste water system. [Photo credit: Willow Heske]

However, he is not sure how long this will last. The day before my visit the Israeli civil authority issued a demolition order for Abu Rattab's new cesspit. Six of Oxfam's 18 waste water systems received the same notice.

As we read over the notice Abu Rattab told me in the end, it didn't matter what we do.

"Look at the Israeli settlement next door," he gestured, "They have all the services they need. They want us to stay this way. They want us to live in the sewage forever."