Running Out Of Water, Running Out Of Time
New Internationalist 354 March 2003
Water / CONFLICT
It is midwinter in Bethlehem. Sturdy sprouts of new grass carpet the earth. In a clearing past a grove of olive trees, a snowy white lamb stands skittishly behind its grazing mother. The eldest member of the Darwish family leads her on a rope.
The scene is deceptively idyllic. To get here, my guide and I have trudged deep into a ditch and over jagged rounds of barbed wire, then through a rocky field. En route, we were stopped by an Israeli army patrol asking our destination. Once we arrived, this elderly man decided he did not want to talk.
The reason for his hesitation is because he and the other 14 members of his family are near prisoners in their homes. The ditch and barbed wire are only a precursor to the towering wall slated for construction that will slice the Darwish farm in half and separate it from nearby Bethlehem - as well as a nearby Israeli settlement. There is just one route out of the farm; but the Darwishes are compelled to request written permission from the Israeli army to use it.
Israel says that it is building this wall to separate Palestinians from Israel and provide vital security. But the wall is doing other things too: eating up agricultural land, biting into Palestinian communities and cutting farmers off from necessary resources. In the northern West Bank, the barrier has been constructed squarely on top of a major aquifer.
Two years into this bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the region's competing actors are jockeying to maintain control of the available water. The combination of a naturally arid environment, years of drought and poor planning is proving to be dry tinder in a combustible atmosphere.
Take Israel's far Right infrastructure minister Effie Eitam's order halting all Palestinian well drilling in the West Bank in October 2002, alleging that Palestinians were running a 'water Intifada' against Israel through unauthorized tapping. Besides endangering the crippled Palestinian farming sector, the move threatened the tens of millions of dollars of foreign aid money spent on unfinished water infrastructure.
The next day Fadl Qawash, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority, was irate. 'Year by year, we have less and less water. No more water in the springs, no more water from the weather and at the same time the Israeli side has applied a policy to reduce the water that they supply us,' he said. 'Now they are blaming us for stealing water. This is not stealing water. This is our water.'
There lies the crux of the problem. Israel has access to both high-tech solutions and water from the occupied West Bank. Palestinians, on the other hand, have far less water to work with and remain caught in the terms of agreements signed with Israel years ago. Palestinian long-term planning remains tentative as long as the issue of their regional water rights is unresolved.
Four aquifers were under discussion: the western, northeastern and eastern aquifers in the West Bank, and the groundwater that lay under Gaza. Of these, only the eastern aquifer was not tapped to its full capacity according to Israeli engineers. It was determined that 78 million cubic metres might be pumped from that aquifer to fill immediate Palestinian needs.
But this was not the boon that Palestinians were looking for. They argued that as part of the process of decolonization of the occupied territories, Israel must also relinquish its hold on the water resources. Some 85 per cent of this water was already being used in Israel proper and by Israeli settlements dotting the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There was no solving the conclusive issue of water rights and so the dispute was set aside for final talks (the talks that eventually collapsed at Camp David in the summer of 2000). Instead, a joint water committee was established for Palestinians to submit plans to develop the annual 78 million cubic metres of eastern-aquifer water that they had been allotted from the only underground water source entirely in the West Bank. A three-stage project was developed to dig new, deeper wells, with the United States Government pledging $211 million to move the project forward.
But by 1999, the US-hired contractors had finished their initial tests and determined that the eastern aquifer could not yield even half the promised amount. Worse, testing showed that the wells already drilled were coming up saline. The new pumping was using the precious resource faster than it could be renewed by annual rains.
'In the Toubas area, for example,' says Qawash, speaking of a northern West Bank district, 'there is only one well for 50,000 people, which produces not more than five litres per capita [daily].'
Ongoing military operations have damaged essential water and sewage connections. Beit Djan, a village 6 kilometres east of Nablus, was kept under a hermetic military siege for 25 consecutive days during February and March 2002. The result was a shortage in drinking water for both the people and their livestock; the village is not connected to a water pipeline and gets most of its drinking water trucked in from outlying wells.
Given these dire straits, there are some in the Palestinian Water Authority who have given up on Palestinian water rights. 'When I first started this job,' said one bureaucrat, 'I attended a discussion between the Palestinian and Israeli sides. The Palestinians started in saying: "We want to work this out. We know we have to live together," and so on. The Israelis listened to that for a while and then one of them stood up. "Look, we are here to work things out, but right now, you use 120 million cubic metres from the West Bank and we are using 480 million cubic metres. You should not think for even one second that you are going to solve your problem by getting each of us to use 300 million cubic metres. Forget about it."'
Israel wants Palestinians to invest in desalination plants instead. Palestinians have embarked on one such project in Gaza that could provide water at $.55 a cubic metre. But this is a prohibitive rate as, right now, water in Gaza sells for $.23 a cubic metre. 'Israel itself should guard against waste,' says Palestinian Water Authority spokesperson Ihab Barghoti. 'Maybe they can afford desalination - they have the sea - but Palestinians can't afford this and so we are going to protect our rights.'
The longer it takes to sort out those rights, the more the facts shift in Israel's favour. Israel has already poured the cement for the massive wall in the northern West Bank that sits right on the western aquifer. In November, the department of agriculture in the Palestinian town of Qalqilya reported the military confiscation of 14 artesian wells for the construction of the wall; those wells produce 2.5 million cubic metres of water a year.
Barring technological advances, the delicacy of water appropriation was showcased last year when Lebanon began to divert what it reports as seven million cubic metres a year from the Wazzani Springs, which flow into the Jordan River and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the diversion a casus belli [cause of war] and American monitors were hurriedly brought in to assess the situation. There are those who remain cynical about Israel's ire. According to Micky Simhai, director of Israel's northern water authority, 'Israelis waste many times more water than the quantity Lebanon seeks to use for drinking for its local population.' But the rattling of sabres is a strong deterrent if Lebanon has any thoughts of diverting more water; in the mounting crisis, the Wazzani could mean the next war.
Even in the worst of times, the Palestinian-Israeli experience demonstrates water's ability to unite bitter foes. For even now, when Palestinian and Israeli officials do not talk, their water bureaucrats meet regularly. Despite public bombast (the threat to stop all Palestinian drilling turned out to be a bluff), Palestinian-Israeli co-operation over shared water resources goes on. It is not hard to see, however, how the management of those resources is linked to a much larger balance of power.
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