Where water leaves a bitter taste

Palestinians from Kfar Qaddum village near the West Bank city of Qalqilya fill up water from a reservoir, August 2006. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

BARCELONA (IPS/Terraviva) - Palestinian villagers drink unsafe agricultural water rather than trusting water provided by an Israeli company, says Buthaina Mizyed, who has worked in Arraneh village near the conflict-laden West Bank city of Jenin.

The reason the Palestinians avoid the water from a station in the nearby village of al-Jalameh is that it smells of chlorine. So deep is the mistrust of Israelis that they fear it might have been contaminated, and would damage their children’s health.

“We assured them that water from the al-Jalameh station is being constantly tested and that its quality is definitely better than that of the water from the agricultural wells,” says Mizyed. “But they would not believe us. They said the water could be contaminated in the time gaps between one quality test and another. They would ask us to guarantee water provided by the Israeli company was safe. But of course we could not guarantee.”

Mizyed related this at a daylong event on “the inequality of groundwater allocation: the Palestinian-Israeli case” organized at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona on Tuesday.

But the Palestinians’ mistrust is not unfounded, says a report presented at the event by Ayman Rabi, director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, a non-governmental organization based in Jerusalem.

“Israeli colonies discharge their untreated wastewater into Palestinian land, causing serious pollution threat to water resources,” says Rabi. An engineer by profession, Rabi has worked on several projects funded by the European Commission and NGOs in Europe.

The report found that industrial Israeli colonies in the West Bank are causing serious damage to groundwater sources and polluting land. It underlines the inequalities of water allocation that plague the region.

“The inequalities are so obvious, but unfortunately the media hardly ever take note of these,” Rabi told IPS. “The unequal allocation of a rightful share for Palestinians from their groundwater resources has kept them underdeveloped over the past 60 years.

“In arid environments such as the Middle East, water is considered a major factor for stability and prosperity for all people. For this stability to happen people who live under similar climate and hydrologic conditions must be treated equally in terms of their rights and needs for water.”

Palestinians are allocated no more than 8.2 percent of the total available water resources in the region, while Israel is using 57.1 percent and Jordan 34.7 percent. The amount allocated to Palestinians does not reflect needs, says Rabi.

The study says 44 percent of domestic water Palestinians need is supplied from local sources, while 56 percent is purchased from Israel.

Rabi points out that Israel has over the decades maintained full control over water resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and refused to allocate the rightful share for Palestinians.

“Israel drilled hundreds of wells next to the Green Line to capture all the water coming from the Western Aquifer Basin,” the study says.

The “Green Line” refers to the 1949 armistice lines established between Israel and its neighbors Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The Green Line separates Israel not only from these countries but from territories Israel later occupied in 1967, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula (which has since been returned to Egypt). The term “Green Line” is derived from the green ink used to draw the line on the map during the talks.

According to the study, “Israel continued to confiscate more land for building settlements to control recharge areas.”

The number of settlers increased from 20,000 in the 1970s to more than 450,000 today.  And with this, their water needs.

Rabi warns that while the demand for water continues to increase, driven by population growth and economic development, the Middle East could be the first region to cope with a dramatically reduced amount of water.

The situation is already alarming. Salinity is rising in major water courses such as the Euphrates, and half the population of the region’s large cities lacks adequate drinking water supply.

But what if the countries in the Middle East had no choice but to get along in order to share the region’s meagre water resources?

This is the starting premise of Jon Martin Trondalen’s book Water and Peace for the People launched last month at the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris.

The book suggests concrete ways to resolve these crises. Analyzing what is at stake in each situation while making public new information, the author examines the conflicts over the Upper Jordan River between Israel and Syria around the Golan Heights, between Israel and Lebanon over the Wazzani Spring, and the longstanding water dispute between Palestinians and Israelis. Challenges confronting Turkey, Syria and Iraq in sharing water of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are also assessed.

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