Water shortages are not new for Palestinians. Whether in the occupied Gaza Strip or the West Bank including East Jerusalem, the supply of water flowing into Palestinian homes is strictly capped or obstructed by Israel.
As temperatures climb during the summer, taps run dry. Clemens Messerschmid, a German hydrologist who has worked with Palestinians on their water supply for two decades, calls the situation “hydro-apartheid.”
This year, Israeli journalist Amira Hass published data proving that the Israeli Water Authority had reduced the amount of water delivered to West Bank villages.
In some places, the supply was slashed by half. Her records contradict official denials that water supplies to Palestinian cities and villages are cut during the summer, even though that too is not new.
Cities and small villages have gone as long as 40 days without running water this summer, forcing those who can afford it to haul in water tanks.
When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 it also seized control over the West Bank Mountain Aquifer, the territory’s principal natural water reserve.
The Oslo accords of the early 1990s gave Israel 80 percent of the aquifer’s reserves. Palestinians were supposed to get the remaining 20 percent, but in recent years they have been able to access only 14 percent as a result of Israeli restrictions on their drilling.
To fulfill the population’s minimum needs, the Palestinian Authority is forced to buy the rest of the water from Israel. But even then, it’s not enough.
Israel is only willing to sell a limited amount of water to Palestinians. As a consequence, Palestinians use far less water than Israelis, and a full third less than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 100 liters per person per day for domestic use, hospitals, schools and other institutions.
The Electronic Intifada spoke with Clemens Messerschmid, who has been working in the water sector throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1997, about the engineered water scarcity for Palestinians in the West Bank.
Charlotte Silver: Is scarcity of water in the area driving the water crisis in the West Bank? Or is the scarcity engineered?
Clemens Messerschmid: Of course there is no water scarcity in the West Bank. What we suffer from is induced scarcity – it’s called the occupation. This is the regime imposed on Palestinians immediately after the war in June 1967.
Israel rules through military orders, which have the direct and intended result of keeping Palestinians short on water. It is not an ongoing gradual dispossession as with land and settlements, but was done in one sweep by Military Order No. 92, in August 1967.
The West Bank possesses ample groundwater. There is high rainfall in Salfit, in the northern West Bank, now known for especially hard water cuts.
The West Bank is blessed with a treasure of groundwater. But this is also its curse, because Israel targeted this immediately after taking control.
What we need is simple: groundwater wells to access this treasure. But Israel’s Military Order No. 158 strictly forbids drilling or any other water works, including springs, pipes, networks, pumping stations, irrigation pools, water reservoirs, simple rainwater harvesting cisterns, which collect the rain falling on one’s roof.
Everything is forbidden or rather not “permitted” by the Civil Administration, Israel’s occupation regime. Even repair and maintenance of wells requires military permits. And we simply don’t get them.
It is a simple case of hydro-apartheid – far beyond any regime in history that I am aware of.
CS: Israel has increased the amount of water it sells Palestinians, but it is still not enough to prevent villages from running dry. Putting aside the fact that Israel’s control over the aquifer’s resources is very problematic, why won’t Israel sell the Palestinians enough water?
CM: Israel first of all has drastically reduced the amount of water available to Palestinians. It has prevented all access to the Jordan River, which is now literally pumped dry at Lake Tiberias.
Then, Israel imposes a quota on the number of wells and routinely denies permits for much-needed repair of old wells from the Jordanian days – Jordan administered the West Bank from 1948 until the Israeli occupation – especially agricultural wells. That means the number of wells is constantly shrinking. We have fewer than in 1967.
Now, the only thing that has increased is the dependency on buying water from the expropriators, Israel and Mekorot, Israel’s national water company.
This is reported over and over in the western press, because it is the point Israel stresses: ‘See how benevolent we are?’
So, yes, since Oslo, purchases from Mekorot have grown steadily. Ramallah now receives 100 percent of its water from Mekorot. Not a drop comes from a single well field we have.
The supply of villages by Israel was not done as a favor. It was initiated in 1980 by Ariel Sharon, then agriculture minister, when rapid settlement growth was starting. The water supply was “integrated,” in order to make the occupation irreversible.
What is important here is the structural apartheid, cemented and cast in iron in these pipes. A small settlement is supplied via large transmission pipes from which smaller pipes split off to go towards Palestinian areas.
Israel is very happy with Oslo, because now Palestinians are “responsible” for supply. Responsible but without a shred of sovereignty over resources.
The current so-called water crisis is not a crisis at all. A crisis is a sudden change, a new turn or a turning point in development. The undersupply of Palestinians is desired, planned and carefully executed. The “summer water crisis” is the most reliable feature of the Palestinian water calendar. And the amount of annual rain, or drought, has no bearing whatsoever on the occurrence and scale of that “crisis.”
I should stress that however routinely this occurs, in each and every single case, it is a conscious decision by some bureaucrat or office in Israel or the Civil Administration. Someone has to go to the field and turn down the valve at the split off to the Palestinian village. This, like every summer, was done in early June. Hence – water crisis in the West Bank.
CS: What factors may be contributing to the worsening water cuts this year?
CM: It seems settler demand rose drastically since last year. The Israeli Water Authority found 20 to 40 percent higher demand, which is quite remarkable.
Alexander Kushnir, the Water Authority’s director general, attributes this to expansion of settler irrigation in the mountains of the northern West Bank settlements, around Salfit and Nablus.
CS: How is it that people in present-day Israel are reportedly enjoying a surplus of water since the country has started using desalination, while the people under occupation in the West Bank are left with so little? Even Israeli settlers have reportedly experienced water cuts.
CM: It’s true that Israel declared for the first time a few years ago that it had a surplus water economy and is keen to sell more water to its neighbors, from whom it expropriated water in the first place.
Palestinians are already buying water Israel stole, but as noted, not reliably or at sufficient rates.
Frankly, I don’t know. Why this special, elevated and aggravated desire of Israel not even to sell enough water to the West Bank?
In some areas, water is actively used as a weapon for ethnic cleansing, like in the Jordan Valley. Agriculture was always targeted from day one of the occupation.
But this logic does not apply to the densely populated Palestinian towns and cities in so-called Area A of the West Bank, that are still struggling. After 20 years, this still leaves me puzzled.
Another element is important to understand: Israel needs to constantly teach Palestinians a lesson. Any water procurement, any drop delivered should be understood as a generous favor, as an act of mercy, not as a right.
Israel has augmented water sales to the West Bank from 25 million cubic meters per year in 1995 to around 60 mcm/year now. Why does it not sell much more? It certainly could afford it waterwise – it has a gigantic surplus.
One of the material issues I can detect is the issue of price, and therefore meaning of water.
Israel wants to eventually get the highest price for desalinated water it sells to Palestinians. While we are only speaking about a few hundred million shekels a year [a few tens of millions of dollars] – which is not a lot for Israel – Israel wants to end the debate once and for all over Palestinian water rights.
Israel demands nothing short of a full surrender: Palestinians should agree that the water under their feet does not belong to them, but forever to the occupier.
By demanding full prices for desalinated water, Palestinians would admit and agree to a new formula.
A word on the Gaza Strip – unlike the West Bank, Gaza has no physical possibility of access to water. The confined and densely populated Strip can never supply itself. Yet, Gaza does not get such water deliveries from Israel. Only recently did Israel start selling to Gaza the five million cubic meters per year agreed in Oslo. A tiny cosmetic increase has been enacted.
In a way you could interpret this differential treatment between Gaza and the West Bank as an Israeli admission of a certain degree of hydrological dependence.
Israel receives the bulk of its water from the territories conquered in 1967, including Syria’s Golan Heights, but not a drop from Gaza.
Waterwise, Gaza has no resource to offer Israel. This is the same as with the main resource: land. Hence a very different approach to Gaza right from the start in 1967. Israel does not depend on Gaza in any material form. Ever since Oslo, Israel has demanded Gaza supply itself by its own means, such as through seawater desalination.
CS: How have donor countries acted in all this? Have they defended global minimal water standards or have they affirmed and bolstered Israel’s control over the water resources in the occupied West Bank?
CM: Unfortunately the latter. When Oslo started, we all were under the illusion that a phase of development would start. Wells that were forbidden to be drilled for 28 years would finally be put in place.
Soon, we learned that Israel in fact was never willing to give “permits … for expanding agriculture or industry, which may compete with the State of Israel,” as then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin said in 1986.
What was needed then and now – and everybody knew it – was political pressure to extract the minimum well-drilling permits guaranteed under Palestinian-Israeli accords. This pressure never came. Never did the EU or my German government issue even a public statement in which it “deplores” or “regrets” the obstructions in the water sector. This is a true scandal.
But even worse, what was our Western answer to this? All donor-funded projects actually abandoned the vital branch of well drilling. The last German funded well was drilled in 1999.
As for the current so-called water crisis, we as donors are now busy generously funding anachronistic water tankering in the cut-off Palestinian towns and cities – adapting to and stabilizing the status quo of occupation and water apartheid.