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From the field

Foul Play: Neglect of wastewater treatment in the West Bank

June 2009, Information sheet

Wastewater in the West Bank – from the settlements, from parts of Jerusalem, and from Palestinian communities – amounts to 91 million cubic meters [mcm] a year.  Most of it is not treated, despite the sanitary and environmental danger inherent to wastewater flowing freely. Prolonged neglect of this issue has caused severe hazards in the West Bank and is liable to pollute the Mountain Aquifer, the most important and highest-quality water source for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Wastewater from settlements

During more than 40 years of occupation, Israel has not built advanced regional wastewater treatment plants in the settlements to match those inside Israel.

It is estimated that the 121 recognized settlements in the West Bank (without East Jerusalem) produce some 17.5 mcm of wastewater a year. Only 81 are currently connected to wastewater treatment facilities, and use methods that are less up-to-date than those used in Israel. More than half of them are small and can treat the wastewater of only a few hundred families, despite the growth of the settler population. Most of the facilities suffer frequent technical breakdowns and at times shut down completely. The rest of the settlements produce some 5.5 mcm wastewater a year, which are not treated and flow as raw wastewater into West Bank streams and valleys.

Wastewater of the Revava settlement. Photo: Ra’aed Mokdi, 7 May 2008.
Wastewater of the Revava settlement. Photo: Ra’aed Mokdi, 7 May 2008.

Israel does not enforce the legal requirement that wastewater treatment be arranged prior to occupancy of buildings in settlements or operation of industrial areas in the West Bank. For example, all the southern sections of the Modi’in Illit settlement, which house more than 17,000 persons, were occupied even though their raw wastewater flowed into Nahal Modi’im .

Although this situation is well known to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the ministry refrains from enforcing the law on polluting settlements and to date, has taken only minor action against them. From 2000 to September 2008, only 53 enforcement measures were taken against settlements for failure to treat their wastewater. In comparison, in 2006 alone, the ministry initiated 230 enforcement measures against governmental authorities in Israel for similar offenses.

Wastewater from Jerusalem

Jerusalem channels some of its wastewater to the West Bank. This wastewater, which amounts to some 17.5 mcm a year, is produced in neighborhoods in the western part of the city and in areas of the West Bank that Israel has annexed.

Approximately 10.2 mcm flow untreated into the Kidron Basin, in southeast Jerusalem, a nuisance that the Ministry of Environmental Protection defines as “the largest sewage nuisance in Israel.” Some of this wastewater undergoes preliminary treatment, after which the water is used for irrigation of date trees in settlements in the Jordan Valley and the remained waste continues to flow freely, seeping into the Mountain Aquifer in an area that is considered sensitive to pollution. The wastewater creates a horrible stench and severe sanitation and environmental nuisances, including pollution of groundwater and of the Dead Sea.

Wastewater flowing from Jerusalem into the Kidron Basin. Photo: Eyal Hareuveni, 2 July 2007.
Wastewater flowing from Jerusalem into the Kidron Basin. Photo: Eyal Hareuveni, 2 July 2007.

Over the years, the Jerusalem Municipality has proposed several solutions for treating this wastewater, but none has been implemented. Since the Palestinian Authority was established, these plans have required cooperation on its part.  However, the PA has refused, claiming that doing so would legitimate Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Despite warnings from the Ministry of Environmental Protection to the relevant officials, no action has been taken to advance a solution for treating this wastewater .

The remaining wastewater, 7.3 mcm, is directed to the Og Reservoir facility, which lies north of the Dead Sea, near Nabi Musa. Og Reservoir was built as a temporary facility, and was intended to treat one-third of the amount of wastewater it currently receives. For this reason, the wastewater is only partially treated. In 2008, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee approved a plan to build an improved facility near the existing Og Reservoir, but construction has not begun.

The lack of proper solutions for treating wastewater of Jerusalem flowing eastward did not prevent occupancy of new neighborhoods, whose residents add to the amount of untreated wastewater. Among these are the Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’akov settlements .

Wastewater from Palestinian communities

According to estimates, Palestinian communities produce some 56 mcm of wastewater a year, representing 62 percent of all wastewater in the West Bank. 90-95 percent of Palestinian wastewater is not treated at all, and only one Palestinian wastewater treatment plant is currently functioning .

  • A few reasons have led to delay in developing infrastructure for treating Palestinian wastewater:
  • Prolonged and unreasonable Civil Administration delay in approving plans for building treatment facilities, in some cases for more than a decade ;
  • in a few cases, Israel attempted to force the Palestinians to connect settlements to planned treatment facilities;
  • Israel seeks to force Palestinians to build advanced facilities that are still not used in Israel, which increase the cost of plant construction and operation and maintenance costs, and are not required according to World Health Organization standards;
  • Partly due to the many delays in construction of wastewater treatment facilities, the US and Germany have reduced their planned funding for these projects.
  • Israel exploits Palestinian wastewater that crosses the Green Line and treats them in one of four plants inside Israel. The treated water is used for irrigation for agriculture and to rehabilitate streams in Israel. However, Israel charges the Palestinian Authority for building the plants and for the treatment of wastewater in them.

Consequences of neglecting wastewater treatment in the West Bank

Since settlers in the West Bank use Israel’s water-supply system, neglect of wastewater treatment in the area has almost no effect on them. Palestinians, however, and especially residents of small towns and villages, rely on water from natural sources. As a result, pollution of these sources aggravates the chronic drinking-water shortage in the West Bank. Also, use of untreated wastewater for agriculture contaminates crops and harms a major sector of the Palestinian economy. In the long run, the flow of untreated wastewater will also diminish land fertility.

In addition, since most settlements have been established on ridges and hilltops, their untreated wastewater flows to nearby Palestinian communities, which are usually located further down the slope. The report present three cases that illustrate how settlements pollute water sources and farmland in nearby Palestinian communities:

B'Tselem reiterates its position that establishment of the settlements and their continuing existence contravene international humanitarian law and result in extensive prolonged infringement of Palestinians’ human rights. Therefore, the government of Israel must evacuate all the settlements and return the settlers to Israeli territory.

However, in light of the severity of the pollution, and taking into account its immediate effects on water sources serving Palestinians and the long-term implication for the Palestinian-Israeli shared water sources, so long as settlements remain, all their wastewater must be treated in accordance with treatment standards applying inside Israel, and the law must be enforced against polluting settlements. Also, the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority must act jointly to immediately advance planned Palestinian wastewater treatment projects. These projects should be executed even if they involve treatment of both Palestinian and settlement wastewater, with the understanding that these projects will continue to serve Palestinians after the settlements are evacuated.