Salfit, occupied West Bank – Salfit sits atop an underground wealth of water, but the city’s residents are forbidden from accessing it – and they are now in crisis, as Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, has reduced water supply to the northern West Bank.
Since the start of the month, residents of Salfit have been receiving between 30 and 40 percent of their normal water allowance, said Saleh Afaneh, the head of the local water and wastewater department.
“On the first day of Ramadan, the water stopped for 24 hours, with no notice,” Afaneh told Al Jazeera. “Since then, it has been coming in at less than half the capacity. We’ve done everything we can to try and make residents comfortable, but this is a crisis.”
“He hasn’t slept in two days,” the city’s mayor, Shaher Eshtieh, cut in. “We’ve never seen anything like this; we are in full crisis mode, working around the clock to help our people, but we are doing this on our own … We’ve continuously reached out to the Palestinian government, the prime minister even, but they’ve been no help, and the Israelis are denying there is a problem.”
A Palestinian Authority spokesperson did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Water shortages and cuts have also been reported throughout the northern Jenin and Nablus districts of the West Bank, although Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit, the Israeli body in charge of the occupied West Bank, denied water had been cut or reduced at all.
In a statement, COGAT said the shortages in the Jenin area were reported due to a broken water pipe that had since been repaired. COGAT also stated that a pipe had burst in Salfit, although local water officials said they had no knowledge of this.
Water is running under our ground while our taps run dry ... The people are getting angry. They won't continue to accept this.
The Israeli water company Mekorot, meanwhile, said that owing to shortages in the water supply, it had made “a broad reduction of the supply to all residents in the area”, referring to both Israeli settlements and Palestinian areas in the occupied West Bank.
Camilla Corradin, the advocacy task force coordinator for the Emergency, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (EWASH) group, told Al Jazeera that Israel is using “water as a weapon”.
“EWASH believes that Israel has managed to achieve a water surplus, thanks to its advanced water and wastewater technology and its control over Palestinian water resources,” Corradin said.
“There are little excuses left not to give Palestinians back their water rights, so that Palestinian towns and villages will no longer be left without the most basic of rights – water – in hot summer months.”
While the city of Salfit goes through water shortages every summer, Eshtieh said he had never experienced such a dire crisis. “It’s an emergency situation; even right now our municipality building has no water,” he added.
Some residents said they had gone more than a week at a time without water in their homes since the start of this month. Sweat dripped down the face of Marwan Marayta, a resident of Salfit, as he walked home in the beating sun near the city centre.
“For the past three days, my house has had a bit of water, just enough for drinking and cooking – not cleaning or anything – but before that, we were without any water at all for more than a week,” he said. “It would be hard to live without water under normal circumstances, but during Ramadan we are all fasting and it’s so hot, this is miserable.”
Some residents have taken to buying water from trucks that come through the city, but the price of private water has skyrocketed since the start of the crisis.
“The trucks will fill up one water tank for between 75 and 150 shekels ($19-$25), but many of us can’t afford that,” Marayta said. “I filled one of mine up with a private truck once, but I haven’t been able to pay for it yet.”
Each house has between four and eight tanks on the roof to supply water. With the average monthly wage in the West Bank at around $600 a month, the costs of supplying a home with private water are out of reach for most residents.
Eshtieh accused the private water trucks of extortion, and outlawed them in Salfit for the time being.
“What used to cost residents nine shekels ($2) to fill a tank normally is now 100 shekels from a truck? No, I won’t have that in my city. I told the police force not to allow these water trucks in. Those kind of prices are not fair. It’s not right,” the mayor said.
Jameel Shaheed, a dairy farmer in Salfit, said he would have to shut down within weeks if the water crisis was not solved. “If there is no water, there is no milk from my cows,” Shaheed said. “Before I was using my trucks to deliver milk around the city, but now I am using them to bring water back and forth.”
Salfit gets most of its water from the mountain aquifer, the most significant of the three aquifers that supply water to Palestinians and Israelis. The vast majority of the mountain aquifer is within the West Bank, but under the Oslo Accords, only 17 percent of the aquifer’s water goes to Palestinians, while more than 71 percent goes to Israelis in Israel and its illegal settlements.
Even during normal consumption periods, Palestinians receive an average of 73 litres per capita per day, well below the World Health Organization minimum standard of 100 litres, and much lower than the 240-300 litres Israelis and Israeli settlers receive.
While Palestinians could theoretically build their own wells to access the plentiful groundwater, Israel rarely grants permission, Eshtieh said. In Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control, COGAT documented that on average, 99 percent of all requests to build wells are approved – but it did not differentiate between Palestinian requests and Israeli settler requests. Around 70 percent of Area C falls within the boundaries of illegal Israeli settlement councils.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between 2011 and 2014, only 1.4 percent of building permit requests from Palestinians in Area C were approved by COGAT – including wells, homes, sheds and other structures.
“Salfit is one of the most water-rich lands in the West Bank, but look at us – we can’t access it,” Eshtieh said. “Water is running under our ground while our taps run dry … The people are getting angry. They won’t continue to accept this.”