In 1967, Israel seized control of all water resources in the newly occupied territories. To this day, Israel retains exclusive control over all the water resources on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The one exception is a small section of the coastal aquifer where it 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 the two areas suffer a severe water shortage. In both areas, residents are not supplied enough water. In Gaza, even the water that is supplied is substandard and not potable.
The right to water and sanitation is a fundamental human right enshrined in international conventions of which Israel is a signatory. Israel is therefore obligated to uphold this right in all territories under its control.
The West Bank
Under the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) signed in 1995, Israel retained control of all water resources. The agreement – still in effect although it was supposed to be only an interim five-year arrangement – stipulated that 80% of water in the West Bank pumped from the mountain aquifer – a joint Israeli- Palestinian resource – would be allotted to Israeli use and the remaining 20% for Palestinian use. It further established that Israelis would receive an unlimited water supply, while the supply to Palestinians would be limited to the fixed, predetermined quantity of approximately 118 million cubic meters from existing drillings and another 70 to 80 million cubic meters from new drillings. Another stipulation was that Israel would sell the Palestinians an additional 31 million cubic meters a year.
Due to various technical difficulties, the unexpected failure of new drillings in the eastern basin of the mountain aquifer – the area where Palestinian drilling had been granted – and obstacles placed by Israel – such as lengthy delays and refraining from handling approval to projects – Palestinians currently extract smaller quantities than specified in the agreement. The Palestinian population of the West Bank, which has nearly doubled since 1995, currently receives only 75% of the amount of water agreed upon, while Israelis continue to enjoy an unlimited water supply. As a result, the Palestinian Authority (PA) must purchase from Mekorot (Israel’s national water company) more than double the amount of water specified in the agreement. According to Palestinian Water Authority figures, in 2015 the PA purchased an additional 63.8 million cubic meters from Mekorot for use in the West Bank.
Israel uses the water as it sees fit, ignoring the needs of Palestinians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, subjecting them to a water shortage that is largely man-made.
The water from Mekorot reaches the Palestinian communities in the West Bank via hookups to regional Mekorot reservoirs – located within settlements – that are connected it to local reservoirs. Due to the poor state of the pipelines linking Palestinian communities in the West Bank and of the water grids within Palestinian cities and villages, about one-third of all water supplied to the PA is lost to leakage. Israel refuses to approve PA proposals to repair the pipeline infrastructure which, obviously, runs through Area C.
As a result of all of these factors, Palestinians in the West Bank live with a constant shortage of water that is largely manmade. According to the Palestinian Water Authority figures for the West Bank, in 2015 average water consumption for domestic, commercial and industrial uses (excluding agriculture and accounting for leakage) was 84.3 liters per person per day. This falls short of the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization, which is 100 liters of water per person per day, for personal and domestic use only. As the 2015 figure includes commercial uses, private consumption by Palestinian individuals 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 seasonal higher demand in certain settlements, and also because wells in some parts of the West Bank produce less water during the summer. The reduced volume of water results in lowers the water pressure in the pipes. Therefore, to ensure that all consumers receive water, the local Palestinian water authorities have to rotate the supply between communities and neighborhoods. As a result, many Palestinians suffer lengthy water outages, usually lasting a few days up to a week. In addition, the low water pressure means that sometimes the water does not reach distant locations or those at high elevations.
The overall figures given for average consumption in the West Bank do not accurately reflect the full extent of the crisis as there is a wide divergence in the quantity of water supplied to different communities and areas. Cities and developed communities enjoy the best service, relatively speaking. They have a network that supplies running water to residents’ homes for at least some time 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 Israel reduces the regular supply costly and difficult.
Worst off are dozens of communities that Israel has prevented from hooking up to the water grid, leaving them no choice but to purchase water privately from tankers all year round, at considerable cost. Often, the cost runs particularly high for these communities as the water must be transported across rough terrain because Israel does not allow these 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, home to some 30,000 people. Their land is located entirely or in part in Area C.
The stringent Israeli restrictions on the development of water infrastructure in these communities are further exacerbated by additional actions taken by settlers and Israeli authorities: the takeover of natural water resources on which the Palestinians have relied for years; destruction of cisterns and spring-fed pools and blocking access to them. All these actions are part of the ongoing effort of Israeli authorities to drive these residents from their homes. Average water consumption in these communities is a mere 20 liters a day per person. Residents purchase water at several times the price of publicly supplied water, yet often receive water that is not safe for consumption due to poor sanitary conditions in the tankers that transport it.
This reality is an illustration of how Israel considers water – and other natural resources in the West Bank – as its exclusive property and uses it to gain a double advantage: For its own needs – and especially those of settlements – and as a means of dispossessing and controlling Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Gaza Strip
The Gaza Strip has been under Israeli blockade for more than a decade, since June 2007. Israel does not allow into Gaza any materials it considers “dual purpose”, i.e. materials that can be used for either civilian or military purposes. This includes construction materials such as cement and iron as well as other raw materials. All are needed for repairing Gaza’s water and sanitation infrastructure which was heavily damaged in Israeli bombings during hostilities in Gaza, especially 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, which Gaza relies on as its primary water source, has been polluted by over-pumping and wastewater contamination. As a result, 97% of the water pumped from the aquifer and supplied for domestic use in Gaza is unsafe to drink. In the absence of available alternative water sources in Gaza, over-pumping of the aquifer continues and it is on the brink of collapse. Residents have no choice but to cut back on the amount of water they drink and purchase desalinated water from private vendors. An estimated 68% of the treated water is also polluted, increasing the danger of the spread of diseases.
According to Palestinian Water Authority’s figures for 2016, 98 million cubic meters were supplied for domestic use in Gaza. The breakdown is as follows: 85.8 % of the water was pumped from wells in the Gaza Strip; 10.1% were purchased from Mekorot by the PA; and the rest was treated in 154 private desalination plants. All told, 18.09% of the water supplied from these sources for domestic use is safe to drink. The Palestinian Water Authority estimates that another 85 million cubic meters were pumped from wells for use in agriculture.
About 40% of water supplied for domestic use is lost on the way to consumers due to Gaza’s outdated and dilapidated infrastructure. Consequently, overall domestic consumption was 88 million cubic meters in 2017, short of the minimum 100-liter average recommended by the WHO.