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From the field

Thirsty for a Solution: The Water Shortage in the Occupied Territories and its Solution in the Final Status Agreement

July 2000, Summary


Since the beginning of the occupation, in 1967, the demand for water by Palestinians has increased significantly. However, Israel's strict control of the water sector in the Occupied Territories has prevented development of this sector to meet the increasing demand for water, causing a water shortage and hardship.

Underlying Israel's water policy in the Occupied Territories was the desire to preserve the quantity of water that Israel uses. Israel did this in two ways: first, by continuing the unequal division of the shared ground water that was created prior to the occupation. Second, by exploitation of new water sources, to which Israel did not have access prior to 1967, such as the eastern aquifer in the West Bank and the Gaza aquifer, primarily to benefit Israeli settlements established in those areas.

A conspicuous feature of Israeli policy has been substantial neglect of water infrastructure, primarily in two key areas: construction of infrastructure to connect the rural population to a running-water network, and proper maintenance of existing networks to prevent loss of water.

Water Sources

A significant part of the water sources that Israel uses to meet its needs are, according to international law, international water resources, shared by Israelis and Palestinians. Despite this, the rights of Palestinians to share of these resources were not recognized in practice, and the division gradually became discriminatory and unfair. Israelis benefit from advanced and reliable infrastructure for the supply of water for household use, enabling them unlimited water consumption for all household and municipal uses. Even though a high degree of water pollution is occasionally found at certain pumping sites, [??] the water that ultimately reaches Israeli consumers is of reasonable quality. By contrast, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories suffer from an underdeveloped and unreliable water-supply system for household use.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority fully share two water systems: the Mountain Aquifer and the Jordan Basin. Israel receives 79% of the Mountain Aquifer water and the Palestinians 21%. Palestinians have no access to the Jordan Basin: 100% of its water are designated for Israel.

The Gap in Water Consumption

The discrimination in use of the resources shared by Israel and the Palestinian Authority is clearly seen in the figures on water consumption by the two populations: average water consumption in the West Bank for household, municipal, and industrial use is only approximately 26 cubic meters/person/year - approximately 70 liters per person a day.

There is a huge gap between Israeli and Palestinian consumption. The average Israeli consumes for household and municipal use approximately 103 cubic meters/person/year - 282 liters per person a day. In other words, average use per person in Israel is four times higher than consumption in the Occupied Territories. To make a more precise comparison, by also taking into account industrial water consumption in Israel, the average per person use per year reaches 127 cubic meters - 348 liters per person a day, or five times the average Palestinian consumption.

Municipal water consumption of Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip is estimated at 1.3 million cubic liters a year. Since the number of residents in those settlements is lower (6,100 in1998), the water supplied for municipal use constitutes 584 liters per person a day, almost seven times greater than comparable consumption among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The World Health Organization and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recommend 100 liters of water per person per day as the minimum quantity for basic consumption. This amount includes, in addition to household use, consumption in hospitals, schools, businesses, and other public institutions. The average per-person use in the Occupied Territories is 70 liters a day. In Israel and the settlements, average water consumption per person is 348 liters a day.

Three Features of the Water Shortage in the Occupied Territories:

  1. Lack of a Water Network: Among those particularly suffering from the water shortage are residents of villages and refugee camps in the Occupied Territories not connected to a running-water network. In the West Bank alone, as of June 2000, the number of such residents amounted to at least 215 thousand persons living in more than 150 villages. The principal water source for these people is rainwater, which is collected on rooftops and stored in cisterns near each house. This source meets their water-consumption needs for only a few months, generally from November to May. In the summer, these residents must collect water from nearby springs (if such exist) in plastic bottles and jerricans, and purchase water from private dealers at high prices.

  2. Discriminatory and Insufficient Supply of Water: A few towns in the West Bank are compelled to rotate water supply according to areas in order to distribute the little water available. The rotation program is principally operated during the summer. In the rotation program, residents in a particular sector of the town receive water for a few hours and then wait a few days for further water supply, during which time other sectors of the town are supplied water in the same manner. Such programs are operated in Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jenin.

    This system is made necessary due to the increased demand for water during the hot seasons. However, while there is increased demand both among Palestinians and among Israeli settlers, Mekorot [the Israeli water company] discriminates and increases the amount of water supplied to the settlers, at the expense of supply to Palestinian towns. Reduction at times when water consumption increases is accomplished by closing the valve of the main water pipelines which direct water to Palestinian towns.

  3. Poor Water Quality: Unlike the West Bank, the worst problem in the Gaza Strip's water sector is not the shortage or irregular supply during the summer, but the poor quality of water flowing through the pipes. The poor condition of the water seriously affects the quality of life of the local residents and exposes them to severe heath risks. The sole local water source is the Gaza Aquifer, from which 96 percent of the water is drawn. Since the 1950s, this aquifer has become polluted and salinated, a process that has worsened with the increased consumption and pumping of water.

    The main reason for the increased salt content of the aquifer is "overpumping." What occurs is that the amount of water pumped is appreciably greater than the rainfall that replenishes the aquifer's reserves.

The Interim Arrangement

Although Israeli officials relate to the interim agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1995 (Oslo 2) as a turning point, in which responsibility for the water sector was handed over to the PA, in practice, the scope of Israeli control of this sector did not significantly change. Israel's control is evident in its power to veto any new water project, both through the joint water committee and through the Civil Administration.

The starting point of the agreement as it regards division of water from the shared sources is that the amount of water for Israeli consumption, both within the Green Line (pre-1967 border) and in the settlements, is not reduced. According to this principle, any additional water that the Palestinians exploit will come from unexploited sources, and not from a re-division of existing sources. From the perspective of Palestinian water needs, the sole actual "achievement" in this agreement is the Israeli-Palestinian understanding to increase water supply to the Occupied Territories by some 30 percent during the interim period, i.e., from September 1995 to May 1999. As of June 2000, more than a year after the interim period ended according to the agreement, only half of the promised additional quantity was produced and supplied to the Palestinians.

Division of Shared Water Resources in the Final Status Agreement

The main principle for division of water between countries, according to international law, is that of fair and reasonable use. The key that B'Tselem proposes in order to implement this principle is satisfaction of every individual?s basic water needs. The assumption is that, in principle, Israelis and Palestinians have similar water needs (current and potential), and that the quantity allocated to each side for basic needs should be based on the size of the population.

Arrangements regarding management and control of the shared water sources that will be adopted in negotiations over the final-status agreement directly affect the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians. The failure to maintain close cooperation in preserving the shared water resources will lessen the ability of the two sides to cope with dangers such as pollution, salinity, and a lower water table, and will limit the ability of Israelis and Palestinians to exercise their rights to water and to benefit from their natural resources. In addition, implementation of the principle of fair and reasonable use calls for an arrangement that will provide the tools for close and continuous cooperation and mechanisms for resolving disputes between the sides.

The general principle that B'Tselem proposes be adopted on the question of control and management of the shared water resources is shared-management, to be effected by an Israeli-Palestinian institution having the expertise and ability to enforce its policy.

Remedy for Human Rights Violations

Israel's control of the water sector in the Occupied Territories during the occupation entailed violations of human rights and international law. Therefore, the final-status agreement must include provisions for remedy and compensation for these violations. The main violations that require remedy are: violation of the right to proper subsistence and housing; violation of the right to health, resulting from the negative public health effect of the water shortage and consumption of poor-quality water; illegal exploitation of water resources of the Occupied Territories to benefit the settlements; and implementation of a policy of discrimination between Palestinians and settlers in the supply of water.