The current water shortage in Arab East Jerusalem is only the latest water crisis facing Arab areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, representatives from regional security, environmental and human rights organizations told Bloomberg BNA.
Its solution need not wait for progress in the currently stalled Middle East peace talks, they said. Nor should it.
Residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods, though outside a security fence built by Israel to prevent terrorist infiltration, have had almost no water from the national grid since March 4.
In many parts of the neighborhoods, particularly their suburbs and elevated areas, there is no water at all. In other sections, pressure is very low, preventing pumping above ground level.
‘Situation Unbearable.’
“There are elderly, babies and people with disabilities, and the situation has become unbearable,” said Jamil Sanduka, chairman of the Ras Hamis Neighborhood Committee. “Anywhere else, if thousands of people were without running water, this problem would have been solved quickly. In our case, the problem is first and foremost that all the responsible parties simply do not care.”
The East Jerusalem water shortage stems partly from a winter drought but mainly from crumbling infrastructure, an overwhelming number of illegal hookups to the remaining grid and a lack of coordination among Israeli government authorities. Some even call the neglect intentional, saying it reflects an Israeli desire to limit Arab population growth in the area where residency comes with a highly valued Israeli identity card and the right to freely cross into Israel.
Residents of the neighborhood are waiting to see how the Israeli government will respond to an April 2 order by the Supreme Court, giving it 60 days to propose solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, they bring water from friends and family who still have it, and buy more in bottles and jerry cans from scalpers at rates far above its regulated cost.
Illegal Hookups, Poor Planning
Hagihon, Jerusalem’s municipal water company, says there is little it can do. Rapid population growth, lack of urban planning and a proliferation of pirated pipes have overwhelmed the infrastructure, Hagihon Director-General Zohar Yinon told the Knesset (parliamentary) Public Petitions Committee on March 19.
Of the 60,000 to 80,000 residents in the area, barely 3 percent are legally connected to the municipal grid, he said. The rest get their water for free through illegal connections to the system, causing leaks and eliminating water pressure further down the line, he said.
The illegal tapping costs Hagihon about 10 million shekels ($2.9 million) a year, Yinon said, compared to the 100 million shekels ($29 million) needed to inspect, map and repair the system, and to install legal, metered hookups. And that does not factor in the cost of the police escorts needed for work crews to enter the area, he added.
“Unfortunately, this whole burden falls on Hagihon,” Yinon said, calling the situation a “national, political problem” that is “beyond our jurisdiction, even though we are the only government body left to deal with it.”
Israel’s National Water Authority said the problem lies with Hagihon.
“Hagihon is Jerusalem’s water supplier and also is responsible for collecting payment for this service,” Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor said.
Solution Will Require Funding
Ultimately, the buck will stop at the Finance Ministry, predicted Tamar Feldman, an attorney working with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which submitted the Supreme Court petition.
“Implementing any plan will require funding, and that’s who has it,” she told Bloomberg BNA April 9.
The East Jerusalem shortage will likely be solved in the short term, Feldman said, unlike the chronic shortage suffered by Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank.
Several water officials estimate that Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank use an average of 70 liters (18 gallons) of water a day, compared with Jewish use of “up to” 260 liters (69 gallons) per day.
Mekorot, Israel’s National Water Company, puts the Israeli average at between 100 and 230 liters (26 gallons to 61 gallons) per day. The difference is mainly a result of large-scale Israeli industrial use and agriculture, which barely exist on the Palestinian side.
However, the Palestinian average can also vary widely according to whether a town or village is connected to the national grid. According to the Israel human rights organization B’Tselem, Palestinian water use in the West Bank ranges from 169 liters (45 gallons) per day in Jericho to 38 liters (10 gallons) per day in Jenin.
But while Palestinians largely rely on rainwater and wells drilled into underground aquifers, Israel has supplemented its own water supply in recent years through widespread recycling, sewage treatment and desalination that today account for about 80 percent of domestic consumption.
A 2012 report by Bar Ilan University on freshwater allocation put Israeli per-capita use at 170 cubic meters (44,880 gallons per year, 123 gallons per day) a year and Palestinian use at 129 cubic meters (34,056 gallons a year, 93 gallons a day), which would be in line with the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 100 liters (26 gallons) per day per person.
Lower per-capita estimates of Palestinian use, Israeli authorities said, come from the use of inflated population estimates, particularly in the West Bank.
Supply Based on International Accords
Under Article 40 of the 1994 Oslo Accords, Israel committed to provide the Palestinian Authority with at least 23.6 million cubic meters (mcm) of fresh water per year, including 5 mcm for Gaza.
The agreement also allowed Palestinians in the West Bank to drill for 28 mcm of water per year on top of the 118 mcm they produced at the time from drilling, agricultural wells, springs and precipitation.
But Oslo was intended to be temporary. Twenty years later, population growth, decreased drilling, aging infrastructure and dropping natural supply have left the area with a water deficit.
According to Water Authority statistics, Israel now supplies more than double the required amount to the Palestinian Authority, or 53 mcm, but even that does not meet the areas’ needs.
Today, according to Naama Baumgarten-Sharon, a researcher at B’tselem, Palestinians in the West Bank procure only 100 mcm of water from drilling and buy the additional 53 mcm from Mekorot, the national water company. About 30 percent of the total, however, is lost to leakage from crumbling pipes, she said.
Those connected to the water grid—about 100,000 people are not—keep their water in rooftop tanks. The tanks are filled between once a week and once a month, depending on their location.
The West Bank water problem is threefold, Feldman said. First comes the “outdated and dysfunctional” Oslo framework. Second are the more than 100 “unrecognized” Arab villages in West Bank areas under full Israeli control, which have no access to the national water grid. And third is Israel’s refusal to license new Palestinian wells. The military authority destroys wells drilled without a license as well as old water cisterns that have been repaired for use, she said.
Gaza Crisis Most Pressing
Gaza’s water situation is more critical, most officials agree (2014 WLPM, 2/5/14). The area relies almost entirely on a coastal aquifer for its freshwater, but water from that aquifer is quickly becoming unpotable.
The 1.6 million Gazans living in the densely populated area currently draw water from the aquifer at almost triple its recharge rate, said Nader Khateeb, Palestinian director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a regional NGO that is spearheading a campaign to include a new water agreement in U.S.-backed peace talks.
As groundwater levels decline, seawater from the Mediterranean seeps into the aquifer along with untreated sewage and agricultural runoff. As a result, saline, chloride and nitrate levels in the aquifer have risen well beyond World Health Organization standards for drinking water, he said.
The situation is a “humanitarian crisis,” Khateeb said.
“Gaza residents are drinking unhealthy water,” he said in a March 21 statement released for World Water Day. “And if no alternative solutions are advanced, they are about to run out of potable water completely. No security fence will hold back people who do not have water for their children and families.”
A large desalination plant, which is being built by UNICEF with a grant of 10 million euros ($13.7 million) from the European Union, is scheduled to come online in 2015. The international community has also funded construction of three large regional sewage treatment plants. Yet they all require electricity on a scale still unavailable in Gaza, and so they function intermittently, if at all.
Israel Holds Key
Israel, which produces more desalinated water than it needs at a coastal plant just north of Gaza, could provide an interim solution, Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israel director, told Bloomberg BNA.
“This isn’t far-fetched,” he said. “Israel is already selling 4.7 mcm of water to Gaza annually and has committed to supply another 10 mcm.”
He said the Israeli government also agreed to sell 20 mcm of purified water to the Palestinian Authority as part of a water-swapping deal signed in December with Jordan and the Palestinians.
“Surpluses of water that are sold or transferred to our neighbors can help strengthen relationships, serve as a gesture to prevent escalation, and a basis for creating mutual interests among Israel and its neighbors,” Bromberg said.
Proposed Agreement Sent to Kerry
FoEME recently submitted a proposal to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other representatives to the Middle East peace talks calling for a “final water agreement” to be achieved within three months of a framework peace agreement. The plan would replace the 1994 Oslo accord and its largely defunct management structure with a new management team, including a third-party representative.
The new body, according to the outline supplied to Bloomberg BNA, would “be based on all sources of shared natural water and be governed by principles of equity, efficiency, environmental sustainability and participatory structures.”
The outline also calls for creation of an action plan to address “urgent issues including water supply and sanitation solutions for Gaza and the West Bank,” and a trilateral committee of representatives from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan to rehabilitate the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
“A final agreement on water between Palestinians and Israelis has been held hostage to the status quo for too long and can no longer wait,” Bromberg said. “The current water arrangements are outdated and have been failing the interests of both sides. Palestinians are not receiving sufficient water to meet their basic needs, and sanitation solutions are urgently needed in the West Bank and Gaza to prevent the continuing contamination of shared ground and surface water that threatens the health of both peoples.”
Some even say a solution to the region’s water problems need not wait for a political agreement.
“We look at this issue from a strategic point of view,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, and a former head of Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians. “We see that water, energy and infrastructure can be a confidence-building measure, and also something that can precede the political peace.”
Progress on water issues “can really enhance the negotiations and the process of normalization among Israel and its neighbors,” he said.

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