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Why Israel’s deliberate withholding of water from the Palestinian people has gone far beyond crisis point.

Amnesty International Report “Troubled Waters – Palestinians denied fair access to water – Israel-Occupied Territories.”

Review by Dr. Hanan Chehata,
Middle East Monitor, (MEMO), London

 

Introduction

It is a universally known fact that water is an essential of ingredient of life. Without water there is no life and yet it is this natural, God given resource that Israel is deliberately and callously withholding from the Palestinian people.

This week, (27th October 2009) Amnesty International published a report entitled “Troubled Waters – Palestinians denied fair access to water” which describes in shocking detail the extent of the humanitarian crisis that has been caused by Israel’s deliberate, prolonged and spiteful withholding of water from Palestinian men, women and children.


The Israeli authorities have full control over almost every aspect of the water supply in the region and they are wielding that control in the most inhumane manner possible as an economic and political tool of oppression. They are controlling the access to water supplies, as well as the amount of water that Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) have, and they are doing this in many deliberate and calculated ways, including:

  • The destruction of existing water storage facilities.
  • Blocking resources for reconstruction of water facilities.
  • Denying access to water sources altogether
  • Forcing rationing of water supplies
  • Encouraging water pollution, contamination and the resultant water born diseases.
  • The destruction of existing water storage facilities.

These are just a few of the Israeli tactics used to withhold vital water from the Palestinian people, each of which will be discussed briefly below.

But first, here are just a few brief facts highlighted by the 104 page Amnesty report showing just how dire the water situation is for the Palestinian people right now.

Facts:

  • The only source of water in Gaza comes from the Coastal Aquifer and yet “90-95 per cent of its water is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.”
  • Some 180,000-200,000 Palestinians in rural communities in the West Bank have no access to running water.”
  • The 450,000 Israeli settlers, who live in the West Bank in violation of international law, use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3 million.”
  • Average daily water consumption:

WHO1 recommends minimum of: 100 litres per person / day
Some Palestinians get: 70 litres per person / day

Other Palestinians (mainly rural) get: 20 litres per person / day
Israelis get: 300 litres per person / day

The pristine swimming pools where the children of the illegal Israeli settlers swim are only a stone’s throw away from where the parched Palestinian soil has stopped harvesting crops and can no longer sustain life. The lush lawns and irrigated farms of the Israeli settlers contrast sharply with the cracked, arid Palestinian landscape.

A water pump destroyedThe destruction of existing water facilities

In terms of water storage, Israel has blocked every possible means by which the Palestinians can collect and store water. When the drought, which has lasted for several consecutive years now, temporarily breaks and it finally rains, many Palestinian families, especially in rural areas, use cisterns, some of which are centuries old, to gather and store the precious water. However, there are many reports of the Israeli army bulldozing rain harvesting cisterns and then filling the remains with gravel and cement to ensure that the cisterns cannot be rebuilt or fixed. Israeli soldiers have also reportedly used water tanks for target practice and have confiscated others altogether.

During the 22 day Gaza conflict, Israel caused more than six million dollars worth of damage to infrastructure in Gaza for water and wastewater, including the damage of pumping stations, sewage networks, 11 wells, 4 reservoirs and 20,000 meters of water mains. Sewage treatment plants were also damaged which has led to flooding, contamination and multiple health hazards.

Palestinian fetching waterBlocking resources for reconstruction of water facilities

Not only has Israel destroyed many water storage and treatment facilities but it also blocks the access of materials to fix or rebuild those facilities. The blockade of Gaza has made the situation even more intolerable.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), expressed concern in September 2009, that the “equipment and supplies needed for the construction, maintenance and operation of water and sanitation facilities have been denied entry to Gaza, leading to the gradual deterioration of these essential services. Destruction caused during the Israeli military offensive in 2008/2009 exacerbated an already critical situation, leaving some services and facilities on the brink of collapse.” OCHA has called on Israel “to take immediate steps to ensure the entry into Gaza of construction and repair materials necessary to respond to the water and sanitation crisis that exists in the Gaza Strip”. This is a call that has thus far gone unsurprisingly unheeded.

Israel has also blocked aid offered by international donors and NGOs and have even reportedly smashed heating pads provided by NGO’s.

Denying access to water altogether

Major sources of water, such as the River Jordan have been denied to the Palestinians ever since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. Even its tributaries have been blocked.

The Mountain Aquifer, the only other source of water in the West Bank has also been severely restricted with Palestinians allowed no more than 20% of the water, while Israel uses up the remaining 80%.

The Israeli construction of the Wall has also been another major source of difficulty for Palestinians trying to access water. An impenetrable line of fences, walls, boulders, trenches and gates cut off many Palestinians from wells, springs, rivers and fertile farming land, which the Israeli’s have strategically placed on their side of the walls.

As Abdellatif Khaled, a hydrologist and Jayyus resident, told Amnesty International: “Before the wall, villagers could easily carry the water from the wells to the village whenever necessary, but since Israel built the wall this is no longer possible as the water tankers cannot pass since the wells are on the other side of the wall. Many farmers don’t have permits to go to cultivate their land there, where the water is, and on this side of the wall we suffer for lack of water. I have land on the other side of the wall and I also need to cross the wall to carry out my work as a hydrologist, but I have been waiting for a permit for two months now. This is not exceptional. Refusals of permits are so frequent that we have got to the point that getting a permit is the exception. We are here and our water is there.”

Even when there is water available to transport, as large water tankers cannot cross the Israeli barriers and access the villages, smaller water carrying tanks have to make multiple journeys down smaller roads at a much greater cost than if large tankers were just allowed through.

Even when a village is connected to a water network, all too often taps simply run dry. Many houses receive no water if they are on top of a hill, because there is no water pressure and no facilities to pump the water up an incline.

Palestinian Girl - with empty water containers.Forcing rationing of water supplies

Many rural communities have no access to running water whatsoever, and those that do are given only intermittent, meager supplies. Amnesty reports how there are, “Residents of different neighborhoods and villages receiving piped water only one day every week or every few weeks. Consequently, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water at a much higher price and of often dubious quality. As unemployment and poverty have increased in recent years and disposable income has fallen, Palestinian families in the OPT must spend an increasingly high percentage of their income – as much as a quarter or more in some cases – on water.”

In the village of Jayus, for instance, where 3,000 Palestinians live, they have rationed the water to two hours a day and very often the villagers get no water at all for days on end.

The Israeli encouragement of water Pollution, contamination and the resultant water born diseasesWater Contamination

According to Amnesty International, “During more than four decades of occupation of the Palestinian territories Israel has overexploited Palestinian water resources, neglected the water and sanitation infrastructure in the OPT, and used the OPT as a dumping ground for its waste – causing damage to the groundwater resources and the environment.”

Furthermore, “Currently over 90 per cent of tap water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption because it is contaminated by seawater and sewage.” There is only one single source of fresh water for the people of Gaza and that is the Coastal Aquifer. However, the Aquifer “is polluted by the infiltration of raw sewage from cesspits and sewage collection ponds and by the infiltration of seawater (itself also contaminated by raw sewage discharged daily into the sea near the coast) and has been degraded by over-extraction.” It is now estimated that “90-95 per cent of its water is contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Waterborne diseases are common.”

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): “The state of the environment in the Gaza Strip is bleak from any perspective… The aquifer is severely damaged and collapsing quickly. Unless the trend is reversed now, damage could take centuries to reverse…”

One natural consequence of this contamination is the increasing risk and spread of waterborne diseases. The Department of Health of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported in its February 2009 Epidemiological Bulletin for Gaza Strip that: “Watery diarrhoea as well as acute bloody diarrhoea remain the major causes of morbidity among reportable infectious diseases in the refugee population of the Gaza Strip.”

A large number of children are at risk of illnesses and blood disorders such as methemoglobinaemia as a result of the worryingly high amounts of nitrate in the water.

In addition to this, there is also a risk of the spread of illness and infection as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene. The less water there is the less sanitary things are. Amnesty reports how, as a result of the water shortage people are washing their clothes less, buying unsafe water, reusing water for more than one job, not flushing the toilet as much as they should, cooking in unclean water and so on. All of which lead to increased risk of illness and disease.

Aisha Hereni, a mother of five young children who lives in Tuwani, told Amnesty International: “I have five children; we need water for drinking, forWater Contamination cooking, for our personal hygiene, to wash the clothes, to clean the house, and for the goats. We save every drop but it’s never enough. It is a daily struggle. And in addition, with the little water we have, we are constantly worried about Israeli settlers soiling the cisterns; it has happened many times. They have thrown soiled diapers, dead chickens and all sorts of garbage into our water cisterns. Also, many times we cannot get water from our cisterns because when we go to them to get water the settlers or the soldiers come and make problems for us.”

Another mother recounts how, “I have to buy water from private tankers, who charge 170 or 180 NIS. It is hard on us financially, but we have no choice. I save lots of water. I always warn the children not to waste water, and tell them to pay attention to every drop of water they use. The children already know they have to conserve water. Every two children are given one bucket of water to shower with. We have rugs on the floor all year round, so I don’t wash the floor. That saves water. For more than two years, I haven’t washed the carpets or blankets.


Water Permits RequiredPermits

As with everything in Israel, Palestinians need a permit to carry out all water-related projects in the OPTs. Permits add cost, delay and sometimes an insurmountable object to launch any water related programmes in the OPTs.

The army has literally gone onto farms to destroy rubber hoses which bring water from a natural spring onto the farm, claiming that the spring is the “property” of the Israeli state and that the hoses are unlicensed.

Ever since the “new Israeli military regime imposed in the OPT, Palestinians could no longer drill new wells or rehabilitate or even just repair existing ones, or carry out other any water-related projects (from pipes, networks, and reservoirs to wells and springs and even rainwater cisterns), without first obtaining a permit from the Israeli army. In theory, such permits for drilling or rehabilitating wells could be obtained after a lengthy and complicated bureaucratic process; in practice, most applications for such permits were rejected. Only 13 permits were granted in the 29 years from 1967 to 1996 (when the PWA was established), but all of these were for projects for domestic use only and they were not sufficient to make up even for the replacement of wells that had dried up or fallen into disrepair since 1967.”

The Israeli authorities threaten to demolish anything built without a permit and there are hefty prison sentences held over those who disobey.

Conclusion

As the Occupying Power, Israel has certain duties under international humanitarian and human rights laws which they have clearly breached, including The Hague Convention, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Geneva Convention and many others. They are even breaching UN Resolution 181 which divided the territory back in 1948 which set out requirements to, “Access for both states and for the City of Jerusalem on a non-discriminatory basis to water and power facilities.”

There are many reasons why Israel would block water from the Palestinian people, among which are the following:

First, it is a tactic to economically cripple the Palestinian people. Palestinians who have to pay taxes to Israel are not receiving water related services in return. Palestinians who can no longer afford to sustain their crops or keep livestock are suffering financially and many Palestinians who are traditionally farmers by trade are having to resort to being unskilled laborers in Israel, thus reinforcing the cycle of economic dependence on Israel as well as on international humanitarian aid.

Second, it is a source of economic gain for Israelis who sell water to Palestinians (who should by rights have access to it for free) for extortionate prices.

Third, it forces the Palestinians to move off the land and make room for settlements. If there is no water, there are no crops, if no crops then no livestock, no food and drink for children and family, no choice but to move, result: land for settlements. 

The Israeli water policies clearly discriminate against the Palestinian people and have led to a massive decrease in their living standards. Water is clearly being used as a tool of economic and political pressure, which is unacceptable by any standards.

The Middle East Monitor joins in the Amnesty call that: ‘Israel must end its discriminatory policies, immediately lift all the restrictions it imposes on Palestinians’ access to water, and take responsibility for addressing the problems it created by allowing Palestinians a fair share of the shared water resources.’

1The World Health Organisation.

 

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