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Editorial Note: The following news reports are summaries from original sources. They may also include corrections of Arabic names and political terminology. Comments are in parentheses.

40 years on, Israelis continue to deny Palestinians fair share of their water resources

40 years on, Israel maintaining unequal distribution of water

Date: 23 / 03 / 2008  Time:  12:02
Bethlehem Ma'an

Over the course of more than 40 years of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Israeli occupation government has maintained a drastically unequal distribution of vital water resources between Israelis and Palestinians, who draw on the same finite water sources in the arid Middle East.

While more spectacular forms of violence grab the headlines, water has emerged as a paradigmatic example of those effects of occupation that take place over the slow course of bureaucratic time, denying, each day, the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation. On the occasion of United Nations World Water Day, Ma'an compiled this report about the water situation in the occupied territories.

According to Ayman Rabbi, the head of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, the water issue boils down to a basic question of justice. "We are calling for equality, at least in terms of water allocation," he said. "[Water] is essential for everyone regardless of race and religion."

The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem estimates that Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip use just 22 cubic meters a year, or 60 liters per person per day. By contrast, Israelis (both settlers and residents of Israel "proper") use up to 120 cubic meters per capita per day, or about 330 liters per person a day, or about five and a half times what Palestinians use.

The reason, experts say, is discriminatory allocation of resources, an overall situation of inequality that has not improved with the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in the early 1990s.

Palestinians and Israelis both draw on the vast Mountain Aquifer, 85% of which lies under the West Bank. Israel has managed to drill wells, both within Israel and in settlements in the West Bank, that tap the productive sections of the aquifer. Israel has also limited Palestinians' access to this source by allowing the construction of virtually no new wells in Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

An organizer with the water advocacy organization Life Source said that 12 new wells have been drilled in the Eastern Aquifer since the beginning of the Oslo peace process. Ayman Rabbi estimates that another 26 wells have been lost behind Israel's West Bank separation barrier.

In order to drill a new well, Palestinians must first apply to the Joint Water Committee (JWC) a body set up by the Interim Agreement, also known as Olso II, signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1995. While there are an equal number of Palestinians and Israelis on the Committee, Israel maintains veto power.

If Palestinians want to drill a new well in Area C, the zones where Israel, under the Oslo accords, maintains full civil and military control, the Civil Administration, a branch of occupation authority, must also approve the construction.

By the estimation of B'Tselem and other organizations, Area C is home to some 215,000 Palestinians who are still not connected to any running water system, and therefore must rely on water that is imported on trucks at four times the ordinary cost.

In addition, the Palestinian Hydrology group estimates, Palestinians buy water from Israeli sources, especially the Mekorot, the Israeli national water company. Because the water comes from Israel, Israel could, as a tactic of war, curtail or potentially shut off the supply of water.

Asked if Israel could shut off water to the West Bank, similar to the way in which the Israel military has blockaded the Gaza Strip, Ayman Rabbi says, "what we are facing now is somewhat similar [to Gaza]."

While Israel may not completely turn off the spigot to the West Bank, Rabbi says that "intermittent supply [of water in the West Bank] is getting reduced rapidly."

Gaza

If the water situation in the West Bank is bad, the Gaza Strip is facing what Rabbi calls "a disastrous situation."

As a result of the 1995 Interim Agreement, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip do have a degree of sovereignty over the Strip's water resources. Yet, experts, say, these resources are inadequate. "Other than the small quantity that Israel undertook to sell," B'Tselem says, "residents of the Gaza Strip will have to meet their needs solely from resources located within its borders, i.e., they are not allowed to obtain water from the West Bank."

"The failure of the Interim Agreement to re-distribute the water resources shared by the West Bank and Israel prevented any 'surplus' of water in the West Bank that could increase the supply of water to the Gaza Strip. As a result, the severance of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank continued, further damaging the Gaza Aquifer because of the necessity to continue the over-extraction," B'Tselem reports.

The result is that the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million residents have to choice but to over-extract from the coastal aquifer, rendering most of the supply salty, brackish, or contaminated. Before the beginning of the blockade, the Life Source organizer says, less than 10% of Gaza's water supply met international standards for drinking water.

Now, virtually none of the supply meets those standards.

"Alan Johnston, the BBC corresponded kidnapped in Gaza, related in an interview that at a relatively early stage, he started suffering from all kinds of aches because of the water he drank," wrote Amira Hass in Haaretz. "This was the same water that the kidnappers drank, but Johnston's unaccustomed body sent warning signals: This is not water that is fit for drinking."

Israel imposed a total lockdown on the Gaza Strip last June that is still in effect today. Among the many goods that are no longer allowed into the Strip are construction materials needed to repair the crumbling water infrastructure. Because of Israel's cuts in vital fuel supplies, and the resulting cuts in electricity, the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility is forced to pump 60,000 cubic meters of raw sewage into the ocean, compared to just 20,000 before the imposition of the Israeli blockade.

Last March, a massive sewage cesspit used for storing waste that Gaza did not have the infrastructure to treat, overflowed, killing two children and three women in the village of Umm Nasser. Because of the blockade, no improvements have been made to the sewage treatment system. The United Nations fears that another sewage flood could result.


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