Water apartheid leaves Palestinian children ill

Israeli forces destroy a Palestinian-owned water tank in Dura village near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, 16 April 2012.

Mamoun Wazwaz APA images

Faqua is one of many Palestinian villages not connected to a water network. A few kilometers east of Jenin, it is located right on the edge of the massive wall that Israel continues to build in the West Bank.

Unlike most of the other villages in the area, however, Faqua is allocated a certain amount of water from the Mekorot (Israel’s national water company) pipe that serves Jenin and is used to serve the Israeli settlements of Kadin and Ganim, which were evacuated in 2005. Following talks with Israel in 2005, the Palestinian Water Authority managed to obtain a quota of 300,000 liters of water per day for the village. Before 2005, the water from Faqua came from an “illegal” connection in Jenin, but the water was contaminated.

Yet for Faqua’s roughly 4,000 inhabitants, 300,000 liters amounts to a mere 75 liters of water per person per day — well under the minimum of 100 liters recommended by the World Health Organization.

Moreover, the filling point from which the PWA water tanker brings the water is located halfway between Jenin and Faqua, about 6 kilometers outside the village. The filling point is the only source of water available to the village — since Israel controls all sources of freshwater in the West Bank, and forbids Palestinians from drilling wells and extracting water from the rich aquifers lying under their feet.

Under the Olso accords, Palestinians are allocated 118 million cubic meters of water from the West Bank aquifers per year (compared to 483 million cubic meters for Israel), which isn’t enough for the growing Palestinian population.

Higher prices

Due to the difficulty in bringing water from the filling point, the price of the water is much higher than in cities connected to the water network: a 10 cubic meter tanker from the PWA costs 110 shekels ($29) in Faqua, compared to 40 shekels ($10) for those lucky enough to be connected to a Mekorot pipe. A private tanker bringing water from privately-owned wells in Jenin costs 140 shekels ($36) for the same amount of water, but the water is unregulated and of dubious quality.

Just on the northern edge of the village, Israel’s wall zigzags through the land, a stone’s throw away from the village’s houses. In this area, the concrete wall has been replaced with an electronic fence and a double row of barbed wire on both sides of a road used exclusively by patrolling Israeli military vehicles. The barbed wire allows the residents of the village to gaze into present-day Israel, but the view is only a sad reminder of the water abundance that Israeli citizens enjoy. Green and yellow fields of crops and cereals stretch across the plain, interspersed by a few hills.

“In the summer, the fields behind the wall are always green,” said Tahane Abu Khamis, a mother of three living just by the rows of barbed wire that mark the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. “You can see the sprinklers watering their crops and vegetables: cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants,” she added, in a flat tone. In Faqua, the fertile land remains mostly uncultivated due to the lack of water; crops are grown sporadically during the few winter months that bring occasional rain.

Children ill from dirty water

In order to cope with the lack of water, many households in the village build their own cistern in order to collect rainwater. Abu Khamis’s cistern is underground, a few meters away from her home; a small concrete canal runs down a slope, channeling the rainwater to the cistern below. Her family used to boil the rainwater and use it for cooking and drinking, but when her children started to get sick, she decided to buy bottled water instead.

Abu Khamis’ unemployed brother, who lives in same house as her, with his own wife and children, still drinks water from the cistern in winter, unable to afford bottled water for his family. His youngest son is sick with diarrhea, and Abu Khamis suspects the water to be the cause.

Yet even during particularly rainy winters, water from the cistern runs out quickly — by the end of April this year, the cistern was already empty.

“We just bought our first tanker this year, but even the water from the private tankers isn’t clean, you can see insects inside,” Abu Khamis explained. Rather than buying water from the PWA tanker, which is not only cheaper but much cleaner, the village’s poorest families are forced to purchase tankers from private sellers, who let them pay late or in several installments.

Abu Khamis’s family belongs to this category; her husband, who works as a street cleaner, spends most of his salary on water, electricity and food. Abu Khamis predicts that the water from the tanker will run out in a few weeks and the two households will need to purchase a new one. For the 13 people living in her house, this amounts to a mere 35 liters of unclean water per day per person, at more than three times the rate consumers pay for tap water.

A small victory

And yet Faqua is the only village in the area that has access to Mekorot’s clean water — a small victory, and partial at best, according to Dr. Amin Abu Farha, who used to head the village council and struggled to obtain a water connection for the village. “After three years of pressure, we succeeded,” he recalled.

“But even after the Joint Water Committee’s positive decision, the Israeli authorities did nothing and said there was no water connection. We took them to a location on the green line [the boundary between Israel and the West Bank], and showed them a [Mekorot] pipe, and they said, ‘you will have water in a few days,’ which made us very hopeful. The Israeli bulldozers were there for three days, but nothing happened. Then they [the Israeli authorities] said that the water from this pipe was for agricultural use only and not for consumption, and that we should get water from another point. Of course, we had no way to verify what they were saying.”

A year later, the Palestinian Water Authority agreed to let Faqua use the current filling point outside the village.

Since 1999, the village has been asking for permission from the Israeli authorities to drill a well, but the request is still pending, according to Abu Farha. “This would solve all our problems,” he said. The well would have provided water for the ten surrounding villages, and the US Agency for International Development had already agreed to fund the project. But Israel never agreed to the project, instead pledging to provide a certain amount of water from its Mekorot pipe.

Faced with limited amounts of water sold at an expensive rate, the residents of Faqua have become experts at saving water, according to Mohammed Abu Salame, a teacher at the local school. “We are always thinking about how to save water and how to use it efficiently,” he said. “For example, I put a bottle of water in the toilet [tank] to reduce the amount of water used. I also put a stopper on the water pipes to reduce the flow.”

Abu Salame’s family and the two other families living under the same roof as him also rely on private water tankers and rainwater in winter. A rudimentary sand filter in the kitchen tap removes the largest impurities in the water. “People here have a strong immune system,” Abu Salame joked.

“If we had a water connection, it would be a different world for us,” he said. “It would solve a lot of problems, especially financially.”

When asked if he knows how much water Israelis consume, he shook his head. “All I know is one Israeli woman in Bet Shean can consume as much water as the whole village in one day,” he replied bitterly.

Alex Abu Ata is a French-Palestinian living working in his hometown of Jerusalem since 2011. He is an advocacy officer for EWASH, a coalition of 30 organizations working in the field of water and sanitation in the West Bank and Gaza.