In 1967, Israel seized control of all water resources in the newly occupied territories. To this day, it retains exclusive control over all the water resources that lie between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, with the exception of a short section of the coastal aquifer that runs under the Gaza Strip. Israel uses the water as it sees fit, ignoring the needs of Palestinians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip to such an extent that both areas suffer from a severe water shortage. In each of them, residents are not supplied enough water; in Gaza, even the water that is supplied is substandard and unfit for drinking.
The right to water and sanitation is a fundamental human right enshrined in international conventions. As Israel is a signatory to these conventions, it is obliged to uphold this right in all the territories it controls.
The West Bank
Under the 1995 Interim Agreement (Oslo II), Israel retained control of all water resources in the Occupied Territories . The agreement, still in effect although originally designed as a five-year arrangement, stipulates that 80% of the water in the West Bank that is pumped from the mountain aquifer – a joint Israeli- Palestinian resource – be allocated for Israeli use, and the remaining 20% for Palestinian use. It also provides Israelis with an unlimited water supply, while restricting Palestinian supply to a predetermined amount of some 118 million cubic meters from existing drillings, along with 70 to 80 million cubic meters from new drillings. It further stipulates that Israel sell the Palestinians another 31 million cubic meters a year.
In reality, Palestinians extract less water than specified in the agreement. This is the result of various technical difficulties, as well as the unexpected failure of new drillings in the eastern basin of the mountain aquifer – the area where Palestinian drilling was granted – and obstacles introduced by Israel, such as lengthy delays and not processing approval for projects. The Palestinian population in the West Bank, which has nearly doubled since 1995, currently receives only 75% of the agreed amount of water, while Israelis enjoy an unlimited supply. This forces the Palestinian Authority (PA) to purchase much more water from Mekorot (Israel’s national water company) than originally agreed. According to Israeli Water Authority figures, in 2019, the PA purchased an additional 93 million cubic meters from Mekorot – 79.6 for the West Bank and the rest for the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian communities in the West Bank receive the purchased water from local reservoirs that are connected to Mekorot’s area reservoirs, which lie within settlements. As both the pipelines that run between Palestinian communities in the West Bank and the water grids within Palestinian cities and villages are in poor shape, about one-third of all water bought by the PA is lost to leakage. Israel refuses to approve PA proposals for projects to repair the pipes, which necessarily run through Area C. According to Palestinian Water Authority figures, Palestinians in the West Bank consumed a total of 195.8 million cubic meters of water in 2018. Due to all these factors, Palestinians in the West Bank suffer a constant shortage of water that is largely manmade. According to Palestinian Water Authority figures for the West Bank, in 2018, average water consumption for domestic, commercial and industrial uses (excluding agriculture and accounting for leakage) was 90.5 liters per capita a day. The highest rate of consumption was recorded in Jericho District, with 268.7 liters per capita a day, while the lowest rate was recorded in Jenin District, with 50.2 liters per capita a day. This falls short of the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization, which is 100 liters of water per capita a day, for personal and domestic use only. As the figures for Palestinians include commercial uses, private consumption per capita is even lower.
The water shortage in the West Bank is most acute in summertime. This is partly because Mekorot cuts back on the quantities it supplies to some Palestinian communities in order to meet the higher seasonal demand in certain settlements, and also because wells in some parts of the West Bank produce less water in summer. As the reduced volume of water lowers the pressure in pipes, local Palestinian water authorities have to rotate the supply between communities and neighborhoods to ensure that all the consumers receive water. As a result, many Palestinians suffer from lengthy water outages, usually lasting several days to a week. The low pressure also means that sometimes, the water does not reach remote or elevated locations.
These overall figures regarding average consumption in the West Bank do not reflect the full extent of the crisis, as the supply varies widely between communities and areas. Cities and developed communities enjoy the best services, with a network that supplies homes with running water for at least some hours every day. They also have paved roads that make it easier to transport water from alternative sources, such as springs and Palestinian drills, when Israel cuts back on the supply. Next are villages that have a water grid but are not easily accessible, making transportation of water from alternative sources when needed costly and difficult. Worst off are dozens of communities that Israel prevents from hooking up to a water grid, leaving them no choice but to buy water privately from tankers all year round, at considerable cost. The cost often rises when the water must be transported across rough terrain, because Israel does not allow the communities to pave proper access roads. A 2013 survey conducted by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) identified 180 such communities, which are home to some 30,000 people. Their land is located entirely or in part in Area C.
In these communities, Israel’s stringent restrictions on developing water infrastructure have been exacerbated by settlers and Israeli authorities taking over natural water sources the residents relied on for years, destroying cisterns and spring-fed pools and blocking access to them. All these actions are part of an ongoing effort by Israeli authorities to drive these residents from their homes. Average water consumption in these communities is a mere 20 liters per capita a day. Residents buy water at several times the price of the public service, yet it is often not safe to drink due to poor sanitary conditions in the tankers that transport it. This reality demonstrates how Israel sees water – and other natural resources in the West Bank – as its exclusive property, to be doubly exploited: both for Israeli needs – especially those of settlements – and as way to dispossess and control Palestinians.
The Gaza Strip
Israel has been holding the Gaza Strip under blockade for more than a decade, since June 2007. It does not allow any materials in that it considers “dual purpose”, i.e., that can be used for either civilian or military purposes. This includes construction materials, such as cement and iron, and other raw materials. All these are needed to repair Gaza’s water and sanitation infrastructure, which were heavily damaged by Israeli bombings, especially in Operation Cast Lead (which began in late 2008) and Operation Protective Edge (the summer of 2014). The estimated damage amounts to some 34 million dollars. As of the end of 2015, more than 100,000 Palestinians in Gaza were still cut off from the public water network.
The coastal aquifer, on which residents of Gaza depend for water, has been polluted by over-pumping and wastewater contamination, making 97% of the water pumped from it and supplied to homes unsafe to drink. As there are no other water sources available, the over-pumping continues and the aquifer is on the brink of collapse. Residents have no choice but to cut back on drinking and buy desalinated water from private vendors. Yet an estimated 68% of this water is also polluted, increasing the risk of diseases spreading among the population.
According to Palestinian Water Authority figures for the Gaza Strip, 95.1 million cubic meters were supplied for domestic use in 2018, and the total water consumption that year was 193.7 million cubic meters.
About 35.6 million cubic meters are lost on the way to homes due to Gaza’s outdated and dilapidated infrastructure. Consequently, overall domestic consumption was 83.1 million cubic meters in 2018 – short of the minimum 100-liter average recommended by the WHO. By comparison, according to Mekorot, the Israeli population consumes an average of 230 liters per capita a day – an increase of 95% over the last decade. According to the Israel Water Authority, total water consumption in Israel was 2,237 million cubic meters in 2019. This is more than five times the amount of water consumed in the West Bank and Gaza together, although Israel has less than double the population size of the two areas combined.