Palestine’s Water Shortages: Short-Term Solutions, Long-Term Disaster



Residents of dozens of West Bank Palestinian villages, which are parched and dry under a punishing summer sun and the effects of a three-year-long drought, say they followed the Camp David peace talks closely but remain frustrated about the lack of attention paid to their most precious resource: water.

“Why are we having to negotiate over our own natural resources? There shouldn’t be any debate over the water basins lying underneath our land,” says Sabri Hamdia, who lives in a village outside Bethlehem. “I hope we’re not obliged to provide the [Jewish] settlements with water from our own aquifer anymore…we need it desperately ourselves.”

Mr. Hamdia does not exaggerate. From the beginning of the 1967 occupation until today, Palestinian demand for water has increased significantly, while access to it has dropped exponentially. For more than 30 years, Israel has exercised strict control over water in the occupied territories. In order to guarantee its access to water, explained Ayman Rabi, executive director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG), Israel has systematically prevented Palestinians from developing the three underground aquifers that lie in the West Bank.

Two of the aquifers straddle the Green Line and are nearly fully exploited, according to Israeli sources. The third, or eastern aquifer, which lies entirely under the West Bank, is Palestine’s only exclusive water resource. Rabi warns, however, that it is in danger of over-exploitation and contamination.

As with most aquifers, there is an upper and lower level. While water in the upper level is renewable through rainfall and snowmelts, the lower level contains irreplaceable fossil water, the contamination or exhaustion of which can have catastrophic results.

During the past seven years of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Palestine’s right to use and protect its own natural resources, sanctioned under international law as an occupied territory, has undergone much shuffling back and forth across negotiating tables. The jury is still out on how much control Palestine ultimately will wield over the precious resource that lies beneath its arid land. Even more important, perhaps, is the condition of that resource-threatened, some water analysts fear, by the post-Oslo proliferation of unsustainable development projects.

The Oslo Accords and Water

Article 40 of the September 1995 Oslo accords, also known as the Interim Agreement, was an attempt to define ways in which Palestinians could increase their water consumption without decreasing Israeli water demands. It provides the foundation for all water projects, management and exploitation in the West Bank. At the time of its signing, Palestinian negotiators were so convinced that Article 40 was rife with incorrect assumptions that they all resigned from the talks in protest, leaving President Yasser Arafat alone to sign the controversial agreement.

Article 40 does indeed contain some mistaken assumptions. Despite their reservations, however, Palestinian negotiators were unaware of just how serious the situation was, as they had limited access to water data, controlled exclusively by Israel.

One thing the Palestinians did know was that, in 1995, Israel was using 85 percent of the available Palestinian groundwater, and that there was a serious water shortage in Palestinian towns and villages. According to a recent water report issued by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 150 villages with a total of 215,000 inhabitants currently are not connected to a water pipeline. Many West Bank cities also do not have sufficient running water. In Hebron, several hospitals and nursing homes have running water only one day per week. B’Tselem reports that Israeli water consumption, the highest in the region, is five times that of Palestinians’.

Meanwhile, Article 40 was found to have far underestimated-by nearly four times-the amount of water available to the Palestinians. Experts agreed that only 32 million cubic meters could be reasonably extracted from the eastern aquifer, and that any more would overexploit and permanently endanger it. Overexploitation occurs when more water is being extracted than is being replaced by rain. Article 40 also did not deal with a reduction of Israeli water consumption, the removal of settlements, or with the effects of drought.

International Aid Flows In

Nevertheless, yet another agreement was signed, and money for water development projects began to flow into Palestine like, well, like water. Hundreds of millions of dollars are going into water projects funded by such agencies as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank and the European Investment

Bank (EIB). Some of these projects, however, may only be adding to the problem.

“Many of the internationally-funded water development projects underway in the West Bank and Gaza are unsustainable and most everyone involved knows it,” Jennifer Moorehead, a water researcher who recently completed a hydrology report for the PHG, told the Washington Report. “There is serious over-exploitation of the aquifer, unchecked contamination as a result of inadequate sewage disposal systems and no sanitation treatment plants in the southern West Bank, which includes the Bethlehem/Hebron areas,” she explained.

PHG’s Rabi adds that part of the problem has been the lack of monitoring wells during the past 34 years of Israeli occupation. Eleven monitoring wells currently are being built but, Rabi said, that is not nearly enough.

The dearth of monitoring wells means engineers and hydrologists can only speculate what might be going on underground. What the experts have learned, said Rabi, is that there is far less available water in the eastern aquifer than previously thought and that there is evidence of some contamination.

“In some areas, nitrates and bacteriological contamination has set in. There has been an accumulation of pollutants that have moved into the aquifer�people must be aware of it,” said Rabi. He added that the aquifer in Beit Sahour-a village contiguous with Bethlehem-is totally contaminated, and wells there have had to be abandoned.

Moorehead, whose PHG report, commissioned by a European NGO, assesses investment strategies for water development in the West Bank, believes USAID’s concern about Palestinian acceptance of a final agreement affects its water development policies. “They [USAID] are trying to make sure that no serious water crisis comes up,” she observed.

A USAID report that accompanied a pledge of $211 million for water development projects is clear: “The absence of adequate services has been identified as a source of growing frustration among Palestinians which could jeopardize popular support for peace.”

Rabi agrees that USAID’s intention may be to satisfy immediate Palestinian water needs by “showing people the fruits of Oslo. The Palestinian people are impressed by the short-term alleviation and funding�they may even see it as a rehabilitation to amend the deteriorated situation. But,” he said, “that does not necessarily guarantee [Palestinian] acceptance of a final status agreement which is not fair and is based on concessions.”

A USAID-commissioned study carried out by CDM Morganti essentially provides the foundation for nearly all water exploitation projects in the West Bank and Gaza. Rabi believes that many of the report’s assumptions are accepted by virtually all international funding agencies, political as well as technical. “Which means,” he said, “that USAID, as the major donor, dominates water policy in Palestine.”

Inadequate Sewage Disposal

The increased water supply resulting from the proliferation of development projects has resulted in an increase in both domestic and industrial waste water. Most communities in the southern part of the West Bank do not have a sewage system; only Bethlehem, Hebron and a few outlying villages are linked to one. Even then, a sewage system in Palestine basically consists of pipes that take sewage away from the community and into the nearby valleys.

The lack of sanitation treatment plants in the southern West Bank area has meant unchecked dumping throughout the West Bank and, most significantly, in the unprotected aquifer recharge areas. There the aquifer meets the surface water, which then feeds into the upper aquifer. Experts are certain that the sludge sewage water that normally made its way to the Dead Sea is seeping into the eastern aquifer, where bacteria are now present. There also is evidence of industrial pollutants and heavy metals from increased water use at industrial sites.

“This is dangerous. We need more monitoring and testing, in addition to sanitation and treatment systems,” Rabie said.

“Whether it is the upper or lower aqui-fer becoming contaminated,” he warned, “we could have a very disastrous situation here.”

Maureen Meehan is a free-lance journalist who covers the West Bank and Jerusalem.