Who owns the water?

Palestinians And Israelis Lock Horns Over Water

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Gershon Baskin thinks that the Palestinians are shooting themselves in the foot by concentrating only on water rights.

Like most Palestinian women in this ancient village on the West Bank, Amal Abdel Raouf climbs down a rocky mountain path almost daily to fetch water for her family from a nearby natural spring.

She fills a large jug with water and balances it on her head as she gropes for sure footing among the rocks and brush on the uphill trek home. A crown of twisted cloth covers her had to absorb the weight of the jug; behind her trail young boys with containers of water tied to their donkeys.

The scene, like the crumbling stone buildings in the village centre, could be from mediaeval times. Today, it is reality in dozens of tiny villages across the West Bank, where tens of thousands of Palestinians rely on springs for drinking water. Water experts estimate as many as 120 villages — or about one- fifth of the population — are not connected to a water network.

For the village women who carry the water home, the lack of piping is just one more hardship. “It’s a disaster, a real disaster,” said Abdel Raouf. “It seems as though all I do is go to the spring to bring water and still there’s never enough.”

But for Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, the water problem goes beyond a lack of infrastructure. They fear that today’s shortages will lead to a major crisis further down the line. And of all the issues dividing them, the dispute over water, who gets it and how much, may have the longest-lasting repercussions.

Decisions made now are likely to affect both sides for decades to come, a point not lost on Israel’s infrastructure minister, Ariel Sharon. When the hardliner recently detailed which chunks of West Bank territory he thought Israel should keep in any final peace settlement with Palestinians, water access points helped shape the contours of his map.

Palestinians say those decisions should concentrate on Israel’s recognition of their right to access water aquifers in the West Bank. Though Israel handed over parts of West Bank territory to Palestinians in December 1995, it kept control over the sources of water. Today, if Palestinians want to drill new wells, they must first get permission from Israel.

Palestinians say this in an unfair arrangement that leaves them with less water than the minimum daily amount needed for basic use. This is only one-fifth of the amount consumed by the average Israeli settler, as measured by the United States Agency for International Development.

They think that if they were allowed to control the aquifers, they would be able to allocate water to needy villages, like Der Sudan, that now depend on natural springs or on water tanks purchased from local Israeli companies.

When water negotiators meet, Palestinians focus almost exclusively on water rights. “That is the most important issue for us,” said Fadel Qawash, the deputy head to the negotiations on water for the Palestinian side. “With Israel in control, they allow (us) one well here, one well there… which means that most West Bank villages face water shortages.”

By contrast, none of the 144 Israeli settlements that dot the West Bank have water shortages. Most home have gardens and some have swimming pools. Where a Palestinian villager typically uses 50 litres of water per day, settlers use 250.

Like many Palestinians, Qawash blames the Palestinians shortage on the excess consumed by settlers. “If they want to make the desert green, they should use their own water,” he said.

Israel disputes the allegation that water used by settlements takes water away from Palestinians because the main West Bank aquifer straddles the political boundary. When rain falls on mountains in the West Bank, it seeps downhill toward Israeli territory and into an underground reservoir that collects on both sides of the demarcation line.

Israel gets 25 percent of its water from this reservoir and pumps some of it back to the settlements.

“The settlements would be dependent on the same water resources if they were not in the West (Bank),” explained Meir Ben-Meir, Israel’s water commissioner and top water negotiator. “Their water does not come from Palestinian resources.”

Moreover, any talk of water rights smacks of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, which Israel is not prepared to discuss until negotiations begin on a final peace settlement. In the interim, it wants to limit negotiations to discussions over equitable water distribution while retaining sole control of the aquifers.

They say that is the only way to preserve fragile water sources. They accuse Palestinians of damaging the sources by tapping in without permission as soon as Israeli troops vacated the territory.

“Two women in the kitchen spoils the soup,” said Meir Ben-Meir. “I want to retain responsibility and sovereignty in one hand — Israel’s.”

Ben-Meir maintains that the Palestinian water problem is not due settlements or sovereignty, but simple economics and under- development. Many Palestinian villages don’t have sewage links, paved roads or telephone lines due just to plain poverty. Lack of water, he says, happens for the same reasons.

Rather than worrying about rights, Ben-Meir says Palestinians should concentrate on developing their capacity to use and store water so that fewer drops will go to waste. Now, for instance, only six percent of Palestinian agricultural land is irrigated; the rest depends on rainwater.

Moreover, few Palestinian areas have proper waste water facilities, water pipes are old and broken and reservoirs are virtually nonexistent. In Der Sudan, for instance, water pumps continuously from the natural spring in winter, but there is no way to store it. When summer comes and the spring dries up, there is a shortage.

Water experts agree that the dispute over rights is a diversion that threatens to detract from more pressing matters.

“The whole argument is stupid,” said Gershon Baskin, a water expert who directs the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a pro-peace think tank that helps Palestinians with development issues.

“The Palestinians are shooting themselves in the foot by concentrating only on water rights,” Baskin said.

Indeed, the demand has held up progress in water talks. The committee on water is the only negotiating team that has met regularly since right-wing Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu was elected, but little has been accomplished in areas of cooperation and development that could ease Palestinian water problems today and plan ways to prevent future shortages.

Such cooperation could prove crucial. Water experts estimate only one small West Bank aquifer has yet to be tapped to capacity. Yet when Palestinians twice drilled there for water, the well came up dry. Worse, by 2010, the demands of a larger population could use up half of the groundwater available in the shared West Bank aquifer.

Water experts warn that such a scenario would cause a collapse of the underground water system and precipitate years of drought. By 2020, the population is expected to have doubled to 14 million.

Baskin says Israel has started desalinating water at a plant in the resort town of Eilat. But Ben-Meir said desalinisation in large enough quantities to matter is not yet an option that Israel’s treasury wants to authorise or that the Palestinians can afford.

For now, Ben-Meir says the best option is to find ways to share the resources they’ve got fairly — without drilling new wells. “Digging,” he says, “is like sticking a straw into the same glass.”

Deborah Horan

Deborah Horan

Deborah Horan spent more than a decade covering the Middle East from Jerusalem, Baghdad, Cairo and elsewhere for the Houston Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. Her main areas of interest are Iran, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab media, women in the Middle East, and journalism’s changing economic environment. She wrote for the Chicago Tribune for six years, covering the Middle Eastern community in Chicago and the war in Iraq. Previously, she was the Jerusalem-based correspondent for the Houston Chronicle, where she covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the region, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. In 2001, she won the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she studied the rise of Al-Jazeera satellite television. She has written for magazines including Newsweek, The Washington Monthly, Progressive Woman, and Psychology today. In 1999, she was chosen as a finalist for the Livingston Award for outstanding young journalists. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she is a senior communications specialist for a food policy research institute.
Deborah Horan