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Palestinians thirst for water treatment plant

Polluted water and lack of treatment plants have hurt the environment as well as human health in the West Bank.

Last updated: 21 Dec 2013 10:11
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Polluted water in the West Bank has caused skin diseases and respiratory difficulties [Eric Reidy/Al Jazeera]

Salfit Governorate, Occupied West Bank - Khaled Sabra stands next to a broken cement wall across from his house in the Palestinian village of Bruqin. Last winter, the rains caused the stream running below the wall to rise until it overflowed, flooding Sabra's house and other homes in the centre of the village.  

The water also carried sewage and industrial effluent from the Palestinian village of Salfit and the Israeli settlements of Ariel, Ariel West and Barkan.

Community members had to break the wall so the polluted water could recede from their homes and the street. The effects of the pollution, however, remained even as the contaminated water flowed away. 

All of Sabra's seven children and his wife have allergies, respiratory difficulties and skin diseases, he says as he rolls up the sleeve of his young daughter's dress to show the scabbing from a rash. The doctor keeps prescribing medications and treatments, but they are unaffordable and, Sabra says, not a solution for the source of the ailments: the polluted water.

Many of Bruqin's 4,200 residents, as well as those of nearby villages, are experiencing similar health issues due to the polluted water, according to the village's mayor, Nafez Barakat. In response to a petition from the Bruqin municipality, the Palestinian Authority recently approved plans to build a two-kilometre-long pipe to move the wastewater running through the village centre.

But Jamal Al-Deek, the mayor of the downstream village of Kafr Al-Deek, is not satisfied with this plan. "If you want to cover two or three kilometres, it's not a solution. You make a problem for another village," he says. "We need a complete solution. Make a treatment plant."

A treatment plant could serve all seven Palestinian villages in the area. It would protect residents and the surrounding agricultural areas from the pollution and provide water for agriculture.

The treatment plant that never was

Plans to build a treatment plant have been in the works since 1994, according to Adel Yasin, director of the wastewater department at the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). The plant was supposed to be the first constructed in the West Bank under Palestinian control.

A water treatment plan could protect agricultural areas from the effects of pollution [Eric Reidy/Al Jazeera]

The project received approval from Israeli authorities in the mid-1990s, and construction began in 1998 with funding and support from the German development bank KfW.

But two months later Israeli soldiers came and ordered work to stop, recalls Saleh Afaneh, head of the technical department in the Salfit municipality. The Israeli military cited security reasons for stopping the construction but did not provide any further explanation, Yasin adds.  

In 2002, Israel gave approval for the treatment plant to be built in a second location, but plans were put on hold when it was found that treated water from the plant would mix with polluted water from Ariel just 20 metres downstream.

Through the Joint Water Committee (JWC), a Palestinian/Israeli body managing water-related issues in the West Bank, the Israelis proposed connecting Ariel to the Salfit plant. The Palestinians rejected this option because they saw it as granting implicit recognition to the settlement, according to Yasin. 

The second option was to build a pipeline to bring Ariel's sewage across the Green Line for treatment in Israel. The Palestinians approved this project in 2008. Five years later, Israel has yet to begin construction on the pipeline - so the project to build a wastewater treatment plant for Salfit remains on hold.

Not just Salfit

Starting in 1996, the PA named the construction of wastewater treatment facilities as one of its top development priorities, according to a 2009 report by the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem. Today, only two plants have been built, although projects for at least three more are in various stages of implementation.

Politicking and deadlock in the JWC have delayed development, according to Eyad Yacob, a former member. The committee has only met once in the past two years and not approved any projects. Projects also often need additional approval from the Israeli Civil Administration, further slowing the process. And in the past, Israel has approved the construction of facilities only if Palestinians allow settlements to connect to them as well, according to B'Tselem.  

For Palestinians, this pits environmental and health concerns against fundamental political principles. "We don't wish to have any cooperation between Palestinians and the settlers," Yasin explains.

Environmental effects

The failure to develop adequate wastewater treatment infrastructure has led to the pollution of fresh water resources in the West Bank. The five streams Palestinians in the West Bank have historically relied on for drinking water and irrigation are now flowing with sewage, says Malek Abualfailat, a project manager at Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). Palestinians and Israeli settlers both contribute to this pollution.

West Bank Palestinians lose water and land

Thirty-three percent of Palestinian wastewater is released directly into valleys without treatment while 65 percent is collected in cesspits that leach into the ground, according to a 2011 PWA report.

Many Israeli settlements treat their wastewater before releasing it into nearby valleys. But, in several settlements such as Ariel, wastewater treatment facilities do not always function or treat sewage to adequate levels, according to Youval Arbel, a project director at FoEME.

Additionally, many highly polluting factories have moved into settlement industrial zones, such as Barkan and Ariel West, to take advantage of a lack of regulation.

In recent years, Nitzan Levi says, the problem with pollution from settlements has improved. Levi is the director general of the Municipal Association for Environmental Quality in Judea, a settler environmental group. He and others have pushed to close regulatory loopholes and enforce environmental standards at a local level.

Even so, the combined effect of Palestinian and Israeli water pollution is threatening to contaminate the Mountain Aquifer, which is located beneath the West Bank and part of Israel. A 2004 report by FoEME called the Mountain Aquifer the "largest and most significant groundwater reservoir in the region". Palestinians are almost entirely reliant on it for fresh water and it is also a water source for Israeli population centers.

In areas close to Tulkarem and Qalqilia, in the northeastern West Bank, wells tapping into the aquifer have been closed because they reached levels of pollution above safe drinking standards, Arbel says.

The threat of polluting the aquifer, according to the FoEME report, is "one of the most severe environmental problems threatening Palestinians and Israelis".

More immediately, the pollution is reaching Palestinians through the food chain. In the Salfit area, for example, animals drink from polluted streams and graze in areas nearby. "I don't drink milk or eat meat from this area anymore," said Afaneh, the engineer overseeing the Salfit project.

In the absence of a solution, Palestinian residents like Khaled Sabra are left to live with the short-term consequences as a broader environmental crisis waits on the horizon.

When he moved to Bruqin in 1987, Sabra said, "it was the most beautiful area in the country". Now, the situation is insufferable. "Where else can I go?" he asks, as he stands holding his daughter's hand by the polluted stream running in front of his house. 

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Al Jazeera
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