Summer 2016 - Israel cut back on the already inadequate water supply to Palestinians

Published: 
27 Sep 2016

In early June 2016, during the fast of Ramadan, Mekorot – Israel’s national water company – scaled down the amount of water it supplies to several Palestinian communities in the northern West Bank. These communities suffered an acute water shortage throughout the summer, and the shortage has not yet abated. Every summer Israel implements a policy of water cuts, to varying extents, forcing tens of thousands of people to make do with a supply of water that fails to meet their basic needs. Even without the cutbacks, like most Palestinian residents of the West Bank, the amount of water supplied to these communities is much smaller than the water available to Israeli citizens and falls short of the amount recommended by the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO).

Mekorot’s annual summer cutbacks to Palestinian communities is just one of the many reasons for the permanent water crisis in the West Bank. Other factors include the transfer of control over joint water resources to Israel, the inequitable distribution of usage rights in these joint resources, obstacles Israel places in the way of developing Palestinian water infrastructure, demolition and confiscation of existing infrastructure, restrictions on or denial of access to local natural water sources such as springs, wells and rainwater cisterns, and a consistent preference given to settlers when water is supplied.

Israel seized control of the area’s water resources when it took over the West Bank in 1967, and has been managing them as it sees fit ever since. Under the Oslo 2 agreement, planned to remain in force for only five years, but still in effect today, Israel retained control of water resources. The agreement provides for an unequal allocation of water sources, allowing Israel to use 80% and leaving the remaining 20% for Palestinians. The agreement also stipulates that Israel sell the Palestinians 31 million cubic meters (mcm) [1 cubic meter = 1,000 liters] of water every year, as a supplement to meet residents’ needs. The agreement also provides for the development of new, independent water drilling projects by the Palestinians, but despite international aid, the plan failed partly due to obstacles placed by Israel in the shape of long delays and withholding approval for projects and partly due to technical difficulties.

Though the Palestinian population of the West Bank has nearly doubled since Oslo 2 was signed, Palestinians are only able to use 14% of the shared water resources (103 mcm per year). This is due, in part, to an overestimation of the amount of water available in the areas designated for Palestinians, limited output from old drills, obstacles Israel places in the way of development, and lack of investment. Israel, for its part, uses 86% of the water resources, 6% more than what it was allocated in the agreements. Consequently, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is forced to purchase from Mekorot an amount two and half times greater than that set out in the accords. According to the Palestinian Water Authority and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the PA buys 63 mcm per year, of which 60 mcm is supplied to the West Bank, accounting for 36.6% of the consumption there and the additional 3 mcm is supplied to the Gaza Strip. The water is supplied to Palestinian communities in the West Bank via secondary hookups to Mekorot’s regional water reservoirs, located inside settlements, and from there to local reservoirs. Due to the poor state of the water conduction network between communities in the West Bank and inside Palestinian towns and villages, about a third of the water supplied leaks out and is lost on the way, partly because of Israel’s refusal to approve repairs.

The water quotas supplied to Palestinian communities are predetermined and do not increase in keeping with demand. In the settlements, water is supplied according to demand and consumption. In addition, as stated, during the summer months Mekorot meets the increased demand for water in settlements partly by reducing supply to Palestinian communities, as described in a story in Israeli daily Haaretz in June. The cutback on the water supply in these communities seriously reduces the pressure in the pipes, forcing Palestinian local authorities to rotate the supply between the neighborhoods, with each getting running water one day, while the rest remain cut off. The violation of Palestinians’ right to water, sanitation and an adequate standard of living is clearly reflected in a comparison of water consumption by Palestinians and Israelis. According to Palestinian Water Authority figures for 2014, the average water consumption in the West Bank for domestic, commercial and industrial use (excluding farming and discounting loss) was 79 liters per person, per day. This falls far short of the WHO’s recommended 100 liters per person per day, for personal and domestic use alone. The figure for the West Bank does include industrial use, making personal consumption per capita even lower. According to Israeli Water Authority figures, average consumption for domestic, commercial and industrial use in Israel in 2014 was almost four times the Palestinian consumption – about 287 liters per person per day.

Infographics: Water consumption in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip

Overall figures on average water consumption in the West Bank obviously do not fully reflect the water crisis there. Supply varies greatly between different areas and communities in the West Bank. At the high end of the scale are cities and developed communities where the water infrastructure provides households with running water, at least some of the day. These communities also feature paved roads that allow transporting water in tanks from alternative water sources such as springs and Palestinian water drills, when Israel cuts back on the supply. Other communities may have water infrastructure, but the cost of transportation and difficult road conditions make the supply of water from alternative sources difficult and expensive. At the bottom of the scale are dozens of communities that Israel keeps from hooking up to the water infrastructure. Access roads to these communities are often poor, so that the increased cost of delivery results in correspondingly higher water prices. In addition, in many of these communities, Israel also denies access to natural water sources and routinely destroys and confiscates tanks in which rain water is collected, or water from other sources is stored.

A survey conducted by UN-OCHA in 2013 indicated that at the time, 180 Palestinian communities - which are located in full or in part in Area C of the West Bank and with a total population of about 30,000 - were not connected to the water grid. As stated, not only are these communities impeded from developing water infrastructure, but the natural water resources on which they had relied for years, such as water cisterns and spring-water reservoirs, have been seized or demolished. These actions are carried out as part of Israel’s efforts to expel residents of these communities from their homes. Thousands of these residents consume only an average of 20 liters of water per person per day, and the water that gets delivered to them in tankers costs up to 400% more than the water gotten via the water grid. In many cases, poor sanitation in the water tankers means the water they deliver is not potable.

This state of affairs illustrates the extent of Israel’s control over the entire West Bank, running the gamut from land designated Area C, where Israel imposes substandard living conditions by citing a variety of administrative pretexts to keep residents from developing infrastructure, through to large cities which are ostensibly under full PA security and civilian control, but where Israel still dictates daily routines by denying sufficient access to water for domestic, commercial and industrial use.

The town of Salfit, south of Nablus: 60% cutback to water supply in the summer

The town of Salfit is home to 15,000 residents. Approximately 60% of Salfit’s land, including most of its built-up area, was designated as Areas A and B under the Oslo Accords, whereas the town’s open spaces and farmland were designated Area C. About 35% of the workforce in Salfit is employed in agriculture and industry. Mekorot routinely supplies Salfit’s municipal water reservoirs with 2,500 cm of water per day, and the water is delivered through the local water network to about 3,200 households and businesses in the town.

On 4 June 2016, the Palestinian Water Authority informed the Salfit Municipality that Mekorot had announced cutbacks to the water it supplies to Palestinians due to increased demand in the settlements over the summer. That same day, Mekorot cut off all water supply to the town and this led to the town reservoirs being drained dry. Water supply was renewed the next day, at 40% of what it had been. The Salfit Municipality was therefore forced to divide the town into three areas, rotating the water supply between them, with each area receiving running water for 24 hours at a time, while the other two remain without running water for two days.

The cutback is still in effect today. Over the past few months, residents have had to come to terms with the reduced supply, reducing their consumption considerably. This allowed the municipality to stop the rotating supply recently. When B’Tselem field researcher Abdulkarim Sadi spoke to Salfit residents on 23 June 2016, they told him about the what it’s like to live in the situation imposed on them:

Halimah Shtiyeh, 45, lives in Salfit with her husband and their four sons:

We have been suffering from a water shortage since the beginning of June. We weren’t prepared for it at first, and we only had a 500-liter tank for storing water on the roof of the house. We had to change our consumption habits. This included dishwashing, laundry and house cleaning. My husband started buying bottled water and we switched to throwaway cups and plates to reduce the amount of water used for washing dishes. My children, the oldest of whom goes to high school and the youngest of whom is six, used to take a shower every day. But in the summer of all seasons, despite the oppressive heat, we have to time our showers according to the water supply, which we get only once every two days. Water is a basic commodity in life. Any shortage or cutoff completely disrupts the life of the entire family.

Jamal Shahin, 47, cattle and dairy farmer says:

On 4 June 2016, the workers at the farm suddenly told me there was no water. I called the municipal water department and they told me Mekorot had cut off the supply to the town. My cattle need 20 to 25 cubic meters of water every day. We started buying water in tankers from water sources outside the town. The municipality has divided the town into areas, and the area my farm is in gets water once every two days, and so I constantly have to buy waters in tankers. Cutting the farm off from the water supply has reduced the amount of milk the cows produce and compromised the health of the cattle, especially in the hot summer weather.

The village of Salem, east of Nablus: Water supplied once every 12 days

The village of Salem lies to the east of Nablus and has a population of 5,000. All homes in the village are connected to a water grid which is supplied by Mekorot at an extremely low pressure, forcing the village council to implement rotating service. To handle the intermittent service, most village residents keep water tanks on the roofs of their homes. Until May 2016, each household received running water once a week. In May, even before supply was cut down in Salfit and other communities, Mekorot scaled down the supply to Salem even further. Ever since, each household has had running water only once every ten to twelve days. People living in areas of the village that are at higher elevations receive no running water at all since the pressure is too low to reach them.

B’Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb’i spoke to Salem residents on 30 June 2016 and they told her about what it’s like to live with the water shortage.

Sahar Jabur, 44, lives in the village with her husband and their 13 children:

Ever since May, we’ve had water in the house about once every two weeks. It’s not enough and we have to buy water from tankers for the high price of about 70 shekels [approx. USD 18.5] for about 3 cubic meters. It’s a financial burden, and it’s also physically hard. Every time we get running water, I spend the whole night filling up containers, to store as much water as possible. We have a tank next to the house that we fill up and then run the water from it to the tanks on the roof using a pump, because the pressure in the pipes is too low and doesn’t reach the roof. When the water in the tanks on the roof runs out, we have to use bottles and small containers to take a shower and flush the toilets. I’m constantly carrying water containers and it causes pain in my back and arms.

I don’t know how long this will last. We’re a big family and we need a lot of water. We got to a point where we can’t shower because of the water shortage. Each of just barely has a shower once a week. Can you imagine a person showering once a week in this terrible heat? You have to shower twice a day, not once a week.

My husband is a laborer, and he’s worked only four days since the beginning of the month, for 400 shekels [approx. USD 105]. Now we have to decide whether to buy water with this money, or pay the electric bill, or buy food… the Israeli authorities make our lives harder and more complicated.

Rand ‘Awwad, 43, lives in the village with her husband and their three children:

The problem isn’t just when we don’t have water. There’s a bigger problem – the low pressure. The water doesn’t reach the big tanks on the roof, so we have to fill up buckets or containers and use pumps to get it up there. We had to buy a pump for 350 shekels [approx. USD 92]. Most of the time, we get running water at night, after 9:00 P.M., and we stay up all night to get it up to the roof and fill up the tanks. I don’t do anything until the water comes. Everything waits – laundry, house cleaning, we even try to put off showers. When the water comes, everyone pushes and shoves because everyone wants to take a shower first. The children fight, and I have to time them so the water doesn’t run out. Each of them gets only ten minutes, once every three days.

During Ramadan we need more water. We host a lot of people, because it’s customary to invite family for the iftar, the meal that breaks the fast. Last week we had guests, and right during the iftar, the water ran out, so I couldn’t wash the dishes, or clean the bathroom and the rest of the house. It stayed like that for three days, until the water started running again. The smell of the dishes and the house was disgusting. We didn’t even have water for cooking. We couldn’t stay at home. Every day, relatives who live outside the village would invite us for the fast breaking meal. Every day, the conversations with friends and family revolved around water, whether there was water, when there’d be water, and how to get by with the tiny amount that gets to the houses.

We had to start buying water from tankers, but they don’t come right away when you order. Sometimes it takes more than 24 hours, because there’s a great demand. After all, all residents of the village are suffering from the water shortage. Once, I had no choice but to get water from relatives who have a well. We put the tank in the car and went over to their house, pumped the water from their well with a pump, and went back home. At home we pumped the water again from the tank, and got it up to the tank on the roof. The whole thing took us three hours.

The high cost of water makes our suffering even worse. We pay 5 shekels [approx. USD 1.3] per cubic meter for the water we get from the network. The water we buy from the tankers costs about 22 shekels [approx. USD 5.8] per cubic meter. To top it all, we use more electricity, because we have to use an electric pump. Sometimes I feel like we’re working just to cover the cost of water and electricity.

Khirbet Humsah, the Jordan Valley: Water grid hookups not allowed

Khirbet Humsah is a small community of about 20 families, located northeast of the Hamra checkpoint, relatively far from other Palestinian communities. Khirbet Humsah children go to school in the village of ‘Ein Shibli, located about 12 kilometers away. Access to the community is particularly tough, a seven kilometer journey on rough dirt roads. This is one of dozens of small shepherding and farming communities scattered throughout the Jordan Valley.

Like other communities in the Jordan Valley and the rest of Area C, Khirbet Humsah is not recognized by the Israeli authorities, which actively seek the expulsion of its residents. The tents and tin shacks the residents lives in are under the constant threat of demolition by the Civil Administration. The Israeli authorities have designated the area where the community lives as a military zone, so that not only are they not allowed to build there, their very presence is not allowed. Every year, the military and the Civil Administration temporarily displace residents dozens of times ostensibly for military training near their homes. As part of the refusal to recognize the community and the efforts to expel its residents, Israeli authorities prevent Khirbet Humsah and other similar communities from connecting to the water grid.

Community residents must subsist in the extreme heat of the Jordan Valley, making a meager living off farming and shepherding, while facing a constant water shortage. There are no springs in the area, but residents have dug several cisterns to collect rainwater. The Civil Administration has issued demolition orders for these cisterns, and they are still pending. Community residents are forced to transport water in tanker trailers that are hauled along the rough roads leading to their homes. The vehicles, and tanker trailers themselves face the threat of confiscation by the Civil Administration. The Civil Administration’s policy of demolishing water cisterns and confiscating water tanks is implemented throughout the West Bank. ‘Afifah Abu Qabash lives in Khirbet Humsah with her family. She told B’Tselem field researcher ‘Aref Daraghmeh about life under the cloud of water shortages:

עפיפה אבו כבאש. צילום: עארף דראר'מה, בצלם

About 15 years ago, I married my husband, as a second wife. We have two children together. My husband and his first wife have 13 children. We live as one family, in tents, that don’t really protect us from the heat or the cold. The constant harm by the Israeli authorities makes our lives harder. We’ve been through several demolitions and evacuations. Our livestock has been confiscated and we had to pay fines to get it back. We’ve seen our grazing pastures and crops go up in flames because of their training where we live. For years, the military has been practicing a policy of expelling us from here. Everything here is in short supply, which makes life even harder. There’s no water in the area, and we have to bring it in with trucks and tanker trailers. It costs a lot of money and the measures taken by the authorities make that hard too. In order to get the water to us, the person who hauls the water has to drive on poor roads, where there are sometimes duds from the military training. All the roads that lead to us are rough and unpaved. We get half a tank each time, because a full tank is too heavy to haul along these roads. We’ve had a few tractors along with their tanker trailers confiscated before. They’re trying to expel us by drying us out.

When we do get a water tank, it’s like a wedding or a festival. We put the water in plastic containers and employ a very strict consumption regime to conserve it, after we worked so hard to get it. We use the water frugally, and water our livestock just enough to keep them alive. The Israelis have dozens of water outlets in this areas which supply water to the military bases and the settlements. The pipes run near our houses. We can hear the water running through the pipes. Look over there, at the green farms of the settlers, and look at the dry desert around us. They’ve taken our water, and have plenty, while we undergo ordeals to get our children a glass of water.