Water warfare: Gaza faces shortages

Assad Abd al-Dayim is not involved in politics. He does not associate with any resistance groups. He simply wants unrestricted access to clean drinking water. 

Beit Hanun wells were destroyed in an Israeli incursion
Beit Hanun wells were destroyed in an Israeli incursion

However, as he would soon learn, the Israeli army has a unique definition of “rules of engagement” – one that that does not discriminate between ordinary residents like him and a military combatant.

“I was stuck without a single drop of water for several days.  If I tried to go to a well to obtain water, I would get shot at by Israeli soldiers. If it hadn’t been for the Red Cross, God knows what would have happened,” said Abd al-Dayim, a resident of Beit Hanun.

“I happened to live in an area directly affected by this destruction.” 

During May and June of 2003, Israeli forces invaded the northern Gaza village of Beit Hanun, bulldozing several hundred acres of farmland and destroying the water pipes and wastewater networks in the process.

Moreover, 18 agricultural wells and one of the main village wells that was marked with a white flag were also destroyed. 

Water was effectively cut off from the entire village for seven days straight. Water pipes became polluted and streets in the immediate proximity of residential areas flooded with sewage, resulting in hundreds of cases of water-borne diseases according to the Red Cross. 

No reparations were offered for the damage by the Israeli government. 

“Our residents are still very thirsty. We need at least a few years to return to our pre-Intifada state,” said Ramadan Naim, Director of the Water and Wastewater Department of Beit Hanun.

Palestinians repair damage to water pipes

Palestinians repair damage to water pipes

In January 2001, the joint Palestinian-Israeli Water Committee met for the first time since the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada and signed a declaration stating that the water and sewage infrastructures must not be harmed despite the ongoing conflict. 

Since then, at least 230 wells and hundreds of water pipes and tanks have been destroyed by the Israeli army, as was the water and sewage infrastructure in several Palestinian cities, including Beit Hanun.

When asked about these incidents, both spokespersons from the Israeli Water Commission and the Israeli Water Resources Unit refused to comment.

Chronic shortage

Water woes are not unique to Beit Hanun. Both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank suffer from chronic shortages and poor water quality. And the situation is only getting worse. 

The demand for water in the Gaza Strip is increasing as the quality and quantity continue to deteriorate. 

The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs estimates that the gap between Palestinian demand and available supply will be anywhere from 55% to 65% if no agreement is reached by 2020. 

Yet, the average Palestinian’s per capita consumption of water remains amongst the lowest in the world.

“Most of the Gaza Strip suffers from a variety of problems related to quantity and quality of water, especially in the summer. The high altitude areas and the more remote areas are especially affected,” said Riyad Jinayna, Director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group. 

Salinity is exceedingly high in many areas and the level of nitrates in the drinking water poses a health risk, especially to pregnant and nursing women. 

Because access to potable water is limited, Palestinian villagers often end up relying heavily on water supplied by privately owned water companies, distributed in water trucks or in filling stations.

The quality is poor, the cost not always affordable for the poorest sectors who need it the most, and the locations limited in rural areas. 

Private filling stations struggle to meet demand

Private filling stations struggle to meet demand

The water trucks and filling stations that can be seen all around Gaza now are run by small private companies, according to Jinayna, who are only interested in maximizing their profits, not providing quality drinking water. As a result, the water they provide is of the lowest acceptable quality.  

To make matters worse, Israeli curfews and closures often prevent water trucks from travelling to the neediest of Palestinian villages, and people from accessing wells and filling stations.

Access denied

A few weeks ago, a workshop entitled “Water in Gaza: Problems and Solutions” was held in the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Several governmental and non-governmental organisations attended. 

For the most part the workshop presented more problems than solutions, though, as participants traded accusations of whose responsibility it ultimately was to provide clean, safe, drinking water. 

The frustration felt by the officials present at the workshop is not without due cause. Even their best efforts to come up with any sustainable solutions to the water crisis have been handicapped by Israeli polices. 

In all reality, there is very little that the Palestinian organisations can do in the face of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to water.

“Ours is a political problem. And the fact of the matter is we cannot come to a permanent solution so long as the Israelis continue to deny the Palestinians their rights”

Riyad Jinayna,
director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group

“Ours is a political problem. And the fact of the matter is we cannot come to a permanent solution so long as the Israelis continue to deny the Palestinians their rights,” Jinayna told Aljazeera.net. 

In the meantime, PHG is searching for local and regional solutions to the water crisis, as well as alternative water sources, such as treated water and rainwater. 

“We have rights in the Jordan and Yarmuk Rivers that we cannot realize, for example, because of the political problem,” he continued. 

Israel diverts over 75% of the Jordan River’s flow to the Negev desert before it reaches the West Bank. It also has 23 desalination plants, which produce water for many of its isolated desert settlements and for tourist resorts such as those in Eliat.

Considering how limited a resource it is amongst the Palestinians, the use of water in such a manner has been the source of heavy criticism, both inside Israel and out.  

Water politics

After the 1967 war, Israel confiscated the water resources of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, declaring them state property.

In 1982, the Israeli water company Mekorot took control and destroyed many Palestinian wells through excessive digging and pumping. 

Transporting water for daily usage

Transporting water for daily usage

The quota on the amount of water to be pumped from the West Bank and Gaza Strip was reduced, resulting in drastic water shortages and increased water salinity.

According to PHG, Mekorot has seriously reduced water supply to several Palestinian communities in the past two years.

“Look, Mekorot implements whatever is decided by the government, Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Commission. We only carry out policies determined by them,” said a representative from the company when asked about their water distribution polices by Aljazeera.net.  
The 1995 Oslo II Accord stipulated that during the interim period Israel would maintain control of the flow and volume of water to be used by Palestinians. 

Today, Palestinians have access to less than 15% of their water resources. These resources, too, have not been spared. 

Israel has now stopped the flow of Wadi Gaza, which used to partially re-charge the Gaza Coastal Aquifer. 

As a result, the Wadi’s water is being over pumped, while Israeli settlers continue to extract nearly 12 million cubic metres from the Aquifer annually without paying for it.   

Unequal access

It is estimated that the nearly 6500 settlers, which make up less than 0.5% of the Gaza Strip’s population, control more than 40% of the land and use 10 times the amount of water the average Gaza resident does. That and the water they use is of much higher quality, due in no small part to the settlements’ strategic location on top of the Coastal Aquifer. 

In addition to its control of Palestinian water resources, Israel recently struck a water import deal with Turkey in which it will receive some 15 million cubic metres of water annually for 20 years. 

When asked by Aljazeera.net whether the deal would make Israel more willing to accommodate Palestinian water needs, Uri Shor, spokesperson for the Israel Water Commission, explained,  “this does not affect Palestinians in any way. Only negotiations can do that. Plus, if they want clean drinking water, it’s easy – it’s just a matter of desalination.” 

Unfortunately, the future does not look so promising and the solutions not so simple for the Palestinians, who have no sovereignty over their water resources to begin with.

“What it comes down to is that our citizens need to feel safe while drinking their water. For themselves, for their pregnant wives, and for their children,” said Jinayna.

Source : Al Jazeera

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