Access to water is fundamental to life and perhaps the most basic human right. For Palestinians living under occupation, it is yet another human right which is controlled by Israel. The human right to water refers to domestic needs, however by denying Palestinians access to water, the Israeli government is also denying the human right to food which incorporates water for agriculture, and the human right to sanitation.

Although it is often overlooked, the Israeli monopoly of water – already a scarce resource in the region – undermines Palestinian economic development and is a critical political issue. Water is one of the six permanent status issues to be dealt with in the negotiations between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Israeli Government. This conflict is about resources as well as land, and a viable Palestinian state will not be possible while Israel continues to ignore international laws and previously signed agreements regarding water with the same impunity that it ignores internationally recognised borders and previously signed agreements regarding land. Israel has denied the Palestinians the right to drill one single well in the Western Aquifer since 1967. In this way Israel ensures that the bulk of the flow continues to cross the green line into Israel, and Israel can continue to abstract most of supposedly shared water.

Palestinian water rights were recognised in Article 40 of the Oslo II Interim Agreement, bringing hopes that living standards in the Occupied Territories would improve and that water for agriculture would stimulate economic growth. According to the recent World Bank report, Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development, these hopes have “only very partially been realised”, as Gaza and parts of the West Bank suffer “chronic” water-related humanitarian crises. Problematically, while Article 40 recognised Palestinian Water Rights, it failed to define them as Israel preferred to postpone this to the final status negotiations.

The Joint Water Committee was established under Article 40 of the Olso II Interim Agreement of 1995 to manage the water resources of the West Bank. Typically, Joint Water Committees are established to manage a shared water resource and not just a portion of the resource as is the case with the Israeli-Palestinian JWC, the jurisdiction of which is limited to those water resources accessible from within the West Bank. Essentially, Israel was able to reinforce its 1967 military order placing all of the water resources of the West Bank under Israeli military control.

Under the system established by Article 40, any proposed infrastructure project or management measure within the West Bank must be approved by Israeli authorities. The World Bank report states that the way in which this has been implemented gives Israeli authorities total control over the allocation and management of West Bank water resources. Further, Israeli territorial jurisdiction over 60% of the West Bank (Area C), makes management of water resources “virtually impossible” for the Palestinian Authority.

According to the World Bank report, “fundamental asymmetries of power” prevent the JWC from functioning as a “joint” institution. The JWC is inherently flawed due to its limited jurisdiction over only those shared mountain water resources which underlie the West Bank instead of effective joint management over the entire shared resource.

The majority of the priority projects in line with Palestinian National Water Objectives have still not been realised after 14 years. Israeli projects to abstract water from the shared Mountain Aquifer are not even presented to the JWC. In some instances, Israel has taken action unilaterally, and charged the costs to the Palestinian Authority. Where sewage runs untreated towards Israel, Israeli authorities have taken to treating it and charging the costs to the Palestinian Authority, amounting to $43 million between 1996 and 2008. There is no formal billing: the Palestinian Ministry of Finance is simply informed of the decision and the charges are withheld from Palestinian tax revenue.

However, untreated waste water flows from the large Ariel settlement just 15 metres from the spring of Salfit: recently sewage flooded the spring, which is the source of Salfit water supply. Germany allocated money for a treatment plant for Salfit, but for three years Israeli authorities demanded a joint project. It was eventually approved but when work started, it was said to be close to the site of future settlements and construction was halted in 2000. A new site has been proposed, but as the new site is also in Area C, it is being held up by Israeli “planning considerations”. Since 1996, the JWC has postponed all wastewater projects proposed by the Palestinian Water Authority. In 2005, the entire Palestinian city of Qalqiliyya was flooded with sewage and waste water after the trunk line blocked, and it took three days for the army to get permission from Israel to clear the blockage. In this light, the Israeli Water Authority’s suggestion that “the Palestinians apparently prefer to let their wastewater flow into Israeli territory” (The Issue of Water Between Israel and Palestinians, Israeli Water Authority, March 2009) is unfair, if not provocative.

Records show that the Palestinian projects which have been rejected or delayed by JWC would have benefitted 1.1 million beneficiaries. This is a bare minimum: in reality almost all Palestinians have been negatively affected by Israel’s water policies. The World Bank states that in practice movement and access restrictions present a “formidable, often insuperable constraint” for Palestinians to get projects implemented: “Essentially the Israeli Water Authority has veto power, and in order to solicit approvals on vital emergency water needs, the Palestinian Authority is forced into positions that compromise its basic policy principles.”

Currently, Palestinians have access to one fifth of the resources of the Mountain Aquifer. Israel takes the rest, and overdraws the “estimated potential” by over 50% without JWC approval – almost double its share under Oslo Accords. This lowers the aquifer to the point that the shallow wells which Palestinians drilled before 1967, during Jordanian rule, now run dry. Over pumping aquifers also places the quality of the aquifer at risk. Around half of the households in the West Bank report problems in the quality of their drinking water supply, and only 31% Palestinians are connected to a sewerage network. Even those with access to a water supply network are not guaranteed supply: the infrastructure is useless without enough water in the lines. At Auja, the formerly productive Auja spring now runs dry thanks to the activity of five nearby Israeli production wells: the formerly water-abundant village must now buy back water from surrounding settlements.

As well as causing a crisis in sanitation, this has had a significant impact on the Palestinian economy. In the West Bank, average household expenditure on water is twice the globally accepted standard. Often it is the poorest Palestinians, unconnected to a water supply, who are the hardest hit: one-sixth of their household budget is spent on water costs, as Israeli restrictions on movement and access drive up the cost of tankers. The World Bank estimates these extra costs amount to $45 million annually. Further, the less entitlement Palestinians are permitted to their existing water resources, the more they must spend developing new ones.

The effect of Israel’s monopoly of the water supply has severely undermined the Palestinian economy by impeding the development of the water-reliant agricultural industry, a key sector for the revival of the Palestinian economy. This has particularly affected the irrigated agriculture which already suffers from movement restrictions: in the West Bank produce has to contend with 640 checkpoints and unpredictable closures, the cost of which must be passed on to the consumer. The World Bank estimates that the cost to the economy of foregone opportunity in irrigated agriculture in the West Bank could be as high as $480 million annually, and 110,000 jobs. In Gaza, aside from the border closures which deny access to markets, with water supply at crisis levels the potentially very profitable agricultural industry simply cannot develop. Damage to infrastructure during the war on Gaza has only compounded this, in yet another violation of both the Geneva Convention, and the Joint Declaration for Keeping Water Infrastructure out of the Cycle of Violence, agreed by the JWC in January 2001. The continued siege on Gaza has prevented the reconstruction of its water infrastructure.

Water scarcity in the Occupied Territories is not induced by natural conditions alone: it is a man-made crisis created by Israel, and imposed on the Palestinians. A 2002 report commissioned by the Israel Knesset entitled ’Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the Israeli Water Sector’, concludes that “(t)he water crisis was not brought about only by climatic changes that caused a fall in the quantity of rain, nor even by the steep rise in population and its standards of living in the last 50 years. The astounding failure is primarily man-made”.

The issue of water cannot be postponed any longer, and must be at the top of the list as a new round of peace talks is initiated. A recent study by the Palestinian Economic Research Institute (MAS) estimating future water needs in Palestine until 2020 provides guidelines which can be used in negotiations with Israel. The official PLO position is inline with International Water Law and the principle of “Equitable and Reasonable Utilisation”. However the World Bank report calls for minimal Water Rights to be granted to Palestinians, and Israel has rejected even these.

Given its well-documented disregard for international law it is unsurprising that, in its report “The Issue of Water Between Israel and Palestinians” released in March, the Israel Water Authority (IWA) stressed that the sides should focus less on “legal solutions” and “legal aspects”. Likewise, considering that Israeli water availability is more than six times greater per capita than water availability for Palestinians, IWA’s assertion in the same report that water agreements between countries are “not a question of principles” is also unsurprising.

Israeli discrimination in the allocation of water is part of the structural oppression of an occupied people, perpetuating a system of apartheid, an unsustainable economy and prohibiting any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Water is a permanent status, and has therefore been negotiated over in OSLO, OSLO II, Camp David, Taba and Annapolis, yet water-related humanitarian crises remain chronic in Gaza and in parts of the West Bank. It is vital that Israel does not continue to postpone the issue of water rights for Palestinians in the next round of peace talks, however Palestinian people cannot wait for peace to be granted basic human rights and access to their own water.

ref. Palestine monitor

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