PA pressure censors criticism of Gaza water management

Water rights advocates and hydrology experts say PA’s plan for large-scale desalination in Gaza may only make Palestinians more vulnerable.   Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

A paper arguing that Israel’s theft of Palestinian resources would be “legitimized” by the construction of a seawater desalination project in Gaza has been removed from the website of an alliance of anti-poverty and environmental groups because of pressure from the Palestinian Authority and the international children’s fund UNICEF.

On 9 March, Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (EWASH) — a coalition of organizations working across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip — issued a note to say the paper had been “prematurely released.”

Strong pressure

A source close to EWASH has informed The Electronic Intifada that the coalition’s steering committee unilaterally removed the paper due to strong pressure from the Palestinian Authority and UNICEF.

The Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) is an “observing member” of EWASH, while UNICEF is represented on its steering committee, alongside Oxfam, the Palestinian Hydrology Group and another Palestinian organization, the Ma’an Development Center.

According to a well-placed source, the PWA, UNICEF, and officials from the Union for the Mediterranean — all of whom are in the process of collecting funding for desalination projects in Gaza — brought immense pressure on the steering committee to remove the paper.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said that “the steering committee only really noticed it after it was published and saw that it could cause a major problem for them.”

Threat to funding

The source noted the paper was seen as a threat to obtaining funding for UNICEF’s desalination projects.

UNICEF and the European Union recently held a launch ceremony for a desalination plant for southern Gaza. The EU has allocated 10 million euros ($14 million) to the project.

A protest gathered outside the ceremony, with some people holding signs that read “Water has to be free to cross borders.”

EWASH was founded in 2002 to help promote Palestinian water rights. According to my sources, in 2013 some of its member organizations concluded that the Palestinian Water Authority was no longer a reliable advocate for Palestinians’ water rights that are, in fact, based on international law.

The position paper on seawater desalination was the first expression of this opposition to the PWA’s strategy.

The paper listed a number of problems with building large-scale seawater desalination plants — the course of action the Palestinian Water Authority has pursued to address the insufficiency of water available to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

It emphasized that such projects signal an accommodation to Israel’s ongoing control of Palestinian water resources and continual denial of Palestinian water rights — denying Palestinians in Gaza equitable access to the Mountain Aquifer under the West Bank and a larger share of the Coastal Aquifer along Gaza’s coast.

Dangerously dependent

The paper also argued that desalination increases the isolation of Gaza from the West Bank, and makes people in Gaza dangerously dependent on a facility that is difficult to repair and vulnerable to demolition in the case of Israeli bombings.

The paper had been endorsed by 12 EWASH member groups and 11 other organizations, including the Ma’an Development Center, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

Josie Shields-Stromsness works for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), an EWASH member which was a signatory to the position paper. Shields-Stromsness, who is based in Bethlehem, told The Electronic Intifada that she received no notification that the paper was going to be withdrawn, and did not receive any explanation as to why it was taken down until 24 March, after several EWASH members requested an explanation. (MECA has also funded a desalination plant in Gaza but has contended that desalination is “not a substitute for demanding Palestinian water rights.”)

Shields-Stromsness — like other members of EWASH — had been left to speculate why the position paper was removed.

On 24 March, Ayman Rabi of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, sent an email to EWASH members, seen by The Electronic Intifada.

In it, he acknowledged the “heated discussion” regarding the position paper, but insisted that it was withdrawn because “the statement was signed by 12 organizations out of 27 which is not even 50 percent and the steering committee didn’t endorse the publication of the paper.”

Rabi added: “We acknowledge that we should have sent this message earlier in order not to create further confusion among the members, but under the stress of other commitments especially on my side since I had to leave abroad, this came late.”


But Shields-Stromsness doesn’t find this explanation satisfying. “This is the first time I’ve heard of the steering committee being able to remove a paper,” she said.

“I find it really upsetting that there has been no communication that it was removed. That is a lack of transparency that is unacceptable in coalition work.”

UNICEF has already installed thirteen small water desalination units in Gaza, according to its spokesperson Catherine Weibel.

In email correspondence with The Electronic Intifada, Weibel stated: “UNICEF believes that children and their families should not go thirsty in Gaza, where more than 90 percent of the aquifer is contaminated with high levels of chlorides and nitrates.”

She added, “UNICEF’s approach is aimed at a sustainable humanitarian approach and is in line with the strategy of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).”

“A desalination facility is currently the only feasible long-term alternative with large impact that can supply Gazans with an adequate supply of drinking water, which is why this strategy was adopted by the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).”

When asked about UNICEF’s opinion on the removal of the paper from the website, Weibel declined to comment.

A second source who wished to remain anonymous, a former EWASH member, said: “Desalination is another victory of the Israeli policy that threatens future negotiation on water rights. Desalination itself makes us more vulnerable, dependent and socially and environmentally fragile than before. Additionally, water must take its right position as a major political and public concern, for which all sectors of society should be involved in the decision-making process.”

The PWA did not respond to requests for comment.

In the early 1990s three pilot desalination plants were built in Gaza: one in Deir El-Balah and two in Khan Younis. However, the PA’s enthusiastic embrace of desalination would only come more than twenty years later.

The PA’s drift toward desalination — and other technical solutions to a largely politically manufactured water crisis in Gaza — can be traced in the Palestine Papers, a large collection of leaked PA documents dating from 1999 to 2010.

Israel’s “Trojan horse”

In 2007, for example, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations support unit drew up a document on “core issues.”

It stated: “The Palestinians will not be drawn into a further round of minimal concessions by Israel, of small additional shared water volumes or in particular the provision of water from desalination, the Israeli Trojan horse.”

The following year, Saeb Erekat, the PA’s lead negotiator, got into a quarrel with Israeli officials who argued that “pragmatic solutions” were required for the provision of water to Palestinians, rather than full respect for international law.

Erekat replied: “The pragmatic solution is that it is the day after and I am a state. You want to limit my arms, navy, air force — I accept that. But you are not going to limit my dignity under any circumstances. You are not going to limit my sovereign rights on water, territory, whatever.”

But in 2011, the PA published a paper on “emergency technical assistance” for Gaza’s water supply. It recommended that “short-term low-volume desalination should be introduced without delay.”

And in 2012, a joint paper from the PWA and the European Investment Bank — a European Union insitution — suggested there was a “need” for seawater desalination in Gaza.

Although the question of providing clean and safe water to Palestinians should be guided by human rights, the PA appears to have accepted that it can be addressed by technical fixes that leave Israel’s control of Palestinian water resources unchallenged.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.