The Palestinian water problem

February 18, 2014
Richard Kuper

Web Arab News Digest

Palestine: water and propaganda

Plus: B’tselem’s  report on the undeniable discrimination in the amount of water allocated to Israelis and Palestinians

Shortage of water is an increasingly acute problem throughout the Middle East, with population growth and rapidly increasing per capita use of water, and is inevitably on the Israel/Palestine agenda. Its emotional content combined with technical complexity make it a prime topic for propaganda exchanges. It is however striking that the analysis below draws almost exclusively on Israeli and Jewish sources, some of which explain the Arab/Palestinian point of view.

The President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz speaking in the Knesset on 12 February spoke of meeting Palestinians in Ramallah: “One of the questions these young people asked me which I found most moving – although I could not check the exact figures – was this: how can it be that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 litres of water per day, but a Palestinian only 17?” Jewish Home members walked out, and the Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett demanded a retraction and apology: “I will not accept a false moralising narrative against Israel in our parliament, in our Knesset. Certainly not in German.”

The New York Jewish Daily Forward reports that:
‘Netanyahu entered the fray minutes later, in a separate parliamentary debate after Schulz’s speech. He said that according to Israel’s own statistics and data it received from the Palestinian Authority, the water disparity cited by Schulz was incorrect and significantly smaller, although the Israeli leader did not give any precise numbers. “Now, the European parliament president said honestly, ‘I haven’t checked it’ – but that didn’t stop him from repeating (the figures) and making an accusation,” Netanyahu said. Such behaviour, he said, reflected a general trend to “tarnish Israel” over its policies without checking the facts.
Israel’s B’Tselem group, which monitors human rights in the West Bank, said last month per capita water use in Israel is three and a half times higher than in the West Bank, a ratio close to the one mentioned by Schulz. A United Nations report released in December 2012 said Israelis living in settlements in the occupied West Bank consumed approximately six times the water used by Palestinians living in the same territory.’

The New York Times and Ha’aretz both published articles on 16 February on the Palestine water problem. The New York Times presented the Israeli position: “Rather than seeing Israel as a problem, Israel’s antagonists would be wise to see it as a solution.” Ha’aretz took the opposite point of view under the headline “The Israeli ‘watergate’ scandal: The facts about Palestinian water”.

We thank John Whitbeck for the article below from the pro-Palestinian thejerusalemfund blog which compares the two articles (and at the end gives links to both). The propaganda war does not end there: another pro-Palestinian website points out that the New York Times failed to mention that the author of their article is reportedly a board member of AIPAC, and another pro-Israeli website Camera (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) publishes a long rebuttal of the Ha’aretz article describing it as “dead wrong” and a distortion.

A Tale of Two Articles: Wonderwater vs Watergate
By Yousef

In the daily universe of what is opinion writing and reporting on Israel/Palestine in the English language press, today offered an interesting juxtaposition. Both the New York Times and an Israeli daily ran stories about water and its availability in the region.

One piece lauded Israel for its ingenuity, mentioned nothing about occupation and the theft of Palestinian water resources and depicted Israel as the generous benefactor of Palestinian water. Here is an excerpt:
Because of geography and hydrology, the Palestinians’ water future is closely tied to Israel’s. In just the few years of Hamas control of Gaza, the water supply there has been polluted, and though no solution to its coming water crisis is likely without an Israeli role, Hamas has refused to cooperate with Israel.
The Palestinians in the West Bank already receive much of their water from Israel’s national water utility and, sovereignty and symbolism aside, neither a two-state solution nor a continuation of the status quo will change that. Given their proximity to Israel, the Palestinians are likely to be among the few Arab winners in the water race.

The other piece was far more critical of Israel and accurately described the way in which Israel exploits Palestinian water resources properly contextualizing the situation in Occupation. The author writes:
So here are the facts:
* Israel doesn’t give water to the Palestinians. Rather, it sells it to them at full price.
* The Palestinians would not have been forced to buy water from Israel if it were not an occupying power which controls their natural resource, and if it were not for the Oslo II Accords, which limit the volume of water they can produce, as well as the development and maintenance of their water infrastructure.
* This 1995 interim agreement was supposed to lead to a permanent arrangement after five years. The Palestinian negotiators deluded themselves that they would gain sovereignty and thus control over their water resources. The Palestinians were the weak, desperate, easily tempted side and sloppy when it came to details. Therefore, in that agreement Israel imposed a scandalously uneven, humiliating and infuriating division of the water resources of the West Bank.
* The division is based on the volume of water Palestinians produced and consumed on the eve of the deal. The Palestinians were allotted 118 million cubic meters (mcm) per year from three aquifers via drilling, agricultural wells, springs and precipitation. Pay attention, Rino Tzror: the same deal allotted Israel 483 mcm annually from the same resources (and it has also exceeded this limit in some years). In other words, some 20 percent goes to the Palestinians living in the West Bank, and about 80 percent goes to Israelis – on both sides of the Green Line – who also enjoy resources from the rest of the country.
Why should Palestinians agree to pay for desalinated water from Israel, which constantly robs them of the water flowing under their feet?

Now, can you guess which appeared in the New York Times and which in the Israeli daily?

Undeniable discrimination in the amount of water allocated to Israelis and Palestinians

B’tselem, 12 February 2014

Following the Knesset debate today, B’Tselem publishes a short FAQ about inequality in the distribution of water between Palestinians and Israelis.

1. Is there discrimination in terms of the quantity of water available to Israelis and Palestinians?

Yes, there is discrimination in water allocation and Israeli citizens receive much more water than Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Government of Israel is largely responsible for this discrimination due its water policy: First, minimal amounts of water are supplied to Palestinians and water from shared resources is unequally divided; Second, existing infrastructure with high levels of water loss is not upgraded, no infrastructure is developed for communities that are not connected to the water grid and water infrastructure projects in areas located inside the Palestinian Authority are not approved. It is important to note that the water allocation for Palestinians was determined in the Oslo Accord, but the agreement included a plan to increase the supply. This plan never materialized. In addition, demand for water has increased due to population growth over the twenty years since the Oslo Accord was signed.

2. Are there gaps in water consumption between Israelis and Palestinians? Absolutely.

According to the Israeli national water company, Mekorot, the average household water consumption in Israel is between 100 and 230 liters per person per day. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 100 liters per person per day. This figure relates to urban consumption which includes drinking, food preparation and hygiene, and takes into consideration urban services such as hospitals and public institutions. Israelis living in the settlements, as well as inside Israel, generally have access to as much running water as they please.

This is not the case for Palestinians.

Palestinians living in the OPT can be divided into three groups according to the amount of water available to them, which is less than the Israeli average in all three cases:

  • Palestinians in the West Bank who are connected to the water infrastructure: The average daily consumption among Palestinians connected to a running-water network is about 73 liters. There are significant gaps between the various cities (169 liters per person per day in Jericho compared to 38 in Jenin). However, even those who are connected do not necessarily have access to running water throughout the day or the year, and water is supplied intermittently, following a rotation program. In many places in the West Bank, including city centers, residents must fill tanks with water, when it is available through the network and use it when running water is not available. Communities located at the edges of the water supply network and in high areas experience the water shortage more acutely and residents must buy water from private dealers at a much higher cost than the water supplied through the grid.
  • Palestinians in the West Bank who are not connected to the water supply network: About 113,000 people living in 70 communities, 50,000 of them in Area C. These residents are not included in the calculations of the public water authority. They rely on rainwater which they store in cisterns and on water sold in tanker trucks by private dealers. In the southern West Bank, about 42 communities consume less than sixty litres per person per day and shepherding communities in the northern Jordan Valley consume only twenty. Private dealers charge between 25 and 40 NIS per cubic meter, depending on the distance between the village and the water source. The price is up to three times that of the highest tariff Israelis pay for water for household consumption. In the summer months, the monthly household expenditure on water in communities that buy water from tankers is between 1,250 and 2,000 NIS, about half of the entire monthly household expenditure.
  • Palestinians in the Gaza Strip: Average consumption in the Gaza Strip is 70-90 liters per person per day, but the quality of the water is extremely poor. Ninety percent of the water pumped in Gaza is considered un-potable according to the standards set by the World Health Organization. For full and updated information on this issue.

3. Causes for gaps in water supply to Palestinians in the West Bank compared to Israelis:

  • The amount of water supplied to the entire West Bank: According to 2011 figures, the West Bank water supply was comprised of 87 million cubic meters pumped from official Palestinian water sources and 53 million cubic meters sold to the Palestinian Authority by Mekorot. About 51 million cubic meters of the water in the public water network was used for agriculture. According to the Israeli water authority (2009), an additional 10 million cubic meters of water are pumped from unauthorized wells, but this water is used for agriculture as well as drinking. According to Palestinian water authority figures, more than 2.3 Palestinians live in the West Bank. This means that under optimal conditions, the water supply (excluding the unauthorized wells) could have allowed domestic and urban consumption of 100 liters per person per day, but this is where the second factor affecting water consumption comes into play.
  • Water loss: There is extensive water loss on the public water grid in the West Bank – about 30%, and more in some locations. Water theft is also a widespread problem. The water infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority needs upgrading, but this is not possible without significant work in Area C, where every action requires Israeli approval at the joint water committee. Such approvals are rare. Even committee-approved projects may be delayed or stopped, due to restrictions imposed by the Civil Administration.
  • The Palestinian water network is managed by dozens of local water authorities without a coordinating mechanism. The inability to develop a nationally controlled water network, with reservoirs that could supply the needs of all residents is inextricably tied to the fact that every action in Area C requires Israeli approval.
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