Amira Hass’ Water Woes

More precious than fuel, water is a complex and critical issue, especially in an arid region where Israelis and Palestinians alike reside. And yet, too often, journalists fail to cover the contentious subject of Palestinian and Israeli water use with professionalism. Ha’aretz‘s Amira Hass is no exception. Making no effort to balance her reports by taking into account opposing claims, she ignores facts and figures which completely refute Israel’s accusers.

In the latest example, Hass quotes a report by the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy which  assesses the alleged financial damage incurred by the Palestinian Authority as a result of various Israeli policies (“Palestinian report: Israel causes billions of dollars of damage in the West Bank,” Ha’aretz Hebrew edition, Nov. 11, 2011). Part of the financial damage, according to the PA report, is a result of Israel’s discrimatory practices in distributing water among Israelis and Palestinians. Hass explains (CAMERA’s translation):

The Palestinian economy, and in particular the agricultural sector, loses a similar amount [some $2 billion] as a result of Israeli discrimination in the distribution of water among Israelis and Palestinians. Based on a 2009 World Bank report, the [PA] document finds that not only did the Oslo Accords freeze the inequal distribution among Israelis and Palestinians of water pumped in the West Bank (a ratio of 80:20), but also Israel is overpumping water from the western aquifer, in amounts greater than those set in the Oslo Accords. Israel makes up for the decreased amount distributed to the Palestinians by selling it to them at a high rate. Israel’s control of water pumping and on access to Area C territory prevents Palestinians from developing irrigated land, which today makes up 9 percent of cultivated land. The reports authors estimate that if not for the Israeli restrictions, it would be possible to significantly boost the agricultural sector, up to a quarter of the 2010 GDP ($1.88 billion).

The Israeli policy of restricting access to water causes various health problems, which are documented in numerous studies. The report’s authors wrote about the cost of treatment for these medical problems — 20 million dollars — adding this to the tally of losses thanks to the blocking of access to pumping water.

Hass mentions that the figures are based on a 2009 World Bank report, but doesn’t bother to tell readers that the Israel Water Authority responded to the World Bank report with a report of its own (“The Issue of Water Between Israel and the Palestinians,” March 2009). The Water Authority’s report contains figures which not only disprove the claims about discrimination, but which also demonstrate how the Palestinians themselves are responsible for the precarious state of their water supply.

In addition, Chaim Gvirtzman, an expert in hydrology and water supply in Israel, also published a detailed article refuting the Palestinian claims with facts and figures not included in Hass’ article. The majority of the figures cited below are drawn from the Water Authority report or from Professor Gvirtzman’s article.

From 4  to 643 Connection Points

Starting in 1967, when Israel gained control of the West Bank, Palestinian communities benefitted from a dramatic improvement in all aspects of their water supply. Under Jordanian rule, Palestinians lived with antiquated water systems, which allowed for a very low standard of living. At the end of the Jordanian period, the water supply reached 65 million cubic meters (MCM) per year. Only four communities, out of a total of 700 residential locales in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), had local water authorities which distributed water to homes.

Within five years after the Six Day War, the water supply increased by 50 percent thanks to new wells, and improved pumps and pipes, which reached most cities and large villages. In the 1970s and 80s, following the building of Jewish communities in the West Bank, many Palestinian villages were connected to the national water carrier. On the eve of the signing of the water agreement in 1995, the water supply in the territories nearly doubled to 118 MCM. In 2004, 643 cities and villages, out of 708 communities, were connected to the water authority. More than 97 percent of the West Bank Palestinian population lives within one of the connected locations.

Professor Gvirtzman concludes:

In reality, in the last 30 years, practically all of the internal water distribution authorities were built, most of them by the Israeli government. As earlier mentioned, under Jordanian rule, there were internal water authorities in four communities.

The Interim Accords, also called “Oslo II,” signed in Washington in 1995, includes an extensive section (article 40) dealing with water and sewage. It was decided that to accomodate future needs, Palestinians would receive an additional 70-80 MCM on top of the 118 MCM  that they needed that year. The accord also determined that out of this amount, 28.6 MCM would be immediately delivered to the Palestinians (of which 5 MCM would go to Gaza.)

Amira Hass claims that the Oslo Accords “froze” the unequal water distribution. But she did not note that the agreement was to be in effect for five years, at the end of which negotiations on the final status came to a halt after the failure of the Camp David summit followed by the outbreak of the Al-Aksa Intifada. Hass also does not say that although the Interim Accord was to be in effect for five years, Israel continued to abide by its obligations, and even increased the amount of water it gave to the Palestinians, beyond the amount agreed upon in 1995.

In other words, in 1995 the Palestinian Authority’s water needs stood at 118 MCM. In the Interim Accords, it was agreed that the water quota would increase by 20 percent annually. In reality, as of 2007 (the latest figures that appear in the report), the amount increased by 50 percent to 200 MCM. (The future goal, according to the final status agreement, was 188-198 MCM).

The 50 percent increase includes 24 MCM that Israel pipes over to the Palestinians, and another 40 MCM from new Palestinian wells, wells which were given to the Palestinians, additional production of wel ls approved for upgrade and production of unlicensed wells (10 MCM).  By 2009, the Joint Water Commission (JWC) permitted the Palestinians to drill 59 wells for drinking water, 11 wells for irrigation and agriculture, and 22 exploratory wells. In addition, 42 wells in the Kalkilya and Tulkarem area and 13 wells in the Jordan Valley were approved for upgrading. Not all of the approved wells were drilled.

In actuality, Israel fulfilled all of its water obligations, even according to the future needs under a final agreement.

Who is Stealing Water?

Palestinians repeatedly violated the accords by illegally drilling 250 wells which were not licensed by the JWC. In addition, according to the Interim Accords, the majority of the Palestinian wells were supposed to have drawn from the less tapped eastern aquifer, but the majority of the pirated drillings were carried out in the northern aquifer, which harms Israeli pumping in the northern valley.

An additional phenomenon is the Palestinian theft of water  via illegal connections from pipes belonging to Mekorot, the Israeli water company. Water theft, primarily in the Hebron hills, involving an estimated 3.5 MCM per year, harms the water supply to Jewish and Palestinian communities given that Mekorot also supplies the latter.

It is noteworthy that in Gaza the situation is catastrophic. The digging of some 3000 illegal wells since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal caused a drop in the water level and serious harm to the quality of the aquifer’s water, not to mention the entire Gaza water supply. The damage is practically irreversible and it is Gaza’s residents who first and foremost pay the price. Thus, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and its battle against illegal drilling, prevents the West Bank from suffering from the ecological and health catastrophe which plagues the Gaza Strip, which is entirely under Palestinian rule.

Contamination, Mosquitos and Stench

The water agreement obligates the two sides to treat their own sewage. While Israel successfully does so and is a world pioneer in recycling and desalinization of water, the Palestinians have hardly lifted a finger. Despite the fact that donor countries (primarily Germany, the United States, Japan and the World Bank) expressed their willingness to provide significant funding to establish a desalinization plant (some $300 million), the Palestinian Authority is not developing water purifying projects.

According to the Water Authority report:

The Palestinians currently produce some 52 MCM of sewage a day. This includes some 4 MCM which are treated in Palestinian treatment facilities and some 14 MCM which are treated in Israeli treatment facilities. The rest of the sewage, some 34 MCM, pollute the ground water and the Israeli and Palestinian environment.

Not only does the Palestinian sewage present a health hazard and cause environmental damage, it also seeps into the group water and pollutes drinking water. The pollution also caused the closing of six Palestinian and Israeli drilling sites in the areas of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho.

According to a 2003 report by the Palestinian Water Authority, only five percent of the total budgeted amount designated for recycling sewage was used (for the establishment of a single, defective water purification facility in Al-Birah.) As the Israeli Water Authority report details:

In addition, from 2002 until 2007, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in various projects, but not in the purification of sewage. It’s clear that the establishment of the internal water authorities only increase the production of sewage and the extent of pollution. Plans for the treatment of sewage do exist, (and were approved by the Joint Water Commission), as does funding, or the willingness to fund, on the part of donor countries for the following cities: Nablus, Tulkarem, Jenin, Salfit, Ramallah, Hakidron, Hebron, central Gaza Strip, and more, but the Palestinians are not implementing these projects. It is important to remember that purified sewage can be used for agricultural irrigation, thereby freeing up freshwater for municipal needs and significantly increasing the amount of drinking water.

Israeli Malfeasance or Palestinian Foot-Dragging?

And what about per capita water consumption? First, it should be noted that the number of Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) is disputed. Use of the highest or the lowest figure greatly influences the figures. The minimalists speak of 1.4 million residents and the maximalists claim there are 2.2 million. The Israeli water authority chose to use the average of the two numbers, or 1.8 million, in its calculation of per person water consumption in Judea and Samaria.

In Israel, the per capital water usage in 1967 was 508 CM (cubic meters) per year. By 2006, the usage dropped to 170 CM in the wake of population growth and a decrease in the supply of natural water. In Judea and Samaria, in contrast, per capita water usage in 1967 was 85.7 CM per year, and in 2006, it increased to 100 CM per year, despite the population growth. This increase was thanks to the improvements in water infrastructure.

It is important to remember that Israel has significantly increased total yearly water consumption by recycling and desalinization. If the Palestinian Authority would likewise pursue these alternatives, it too could increase the amount of water available for agriculture and private households. The 1995 water agreement not only included the transfer of water from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, but it also called for the development of additional water sources via purification and desalinization, for the bilateral coordination of the water plants, for the proper treatment of sewage and for refraining from activities likely to pollute. On all of these counts, the Palestinian Authority has not delivered. The failure is not due to lack of ability, but rather to foot-dragging.

Additional points raised in the Israeli Water Authority report and in Gvirtman’s article are:
* The loss of water in the Palestinian Authority stands at 33 percent, versus 11 percent in Israel. This amount (which includes theft) translates to some 10 MCM which could have been put to use in Palestinian communities.
* In 1994, Palestinians took over responsibility of a water supply system in the Gaza Strip, including the management, development and maintenance of the water and sewage systems. Following Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the water infrastructure which had served the Israeli communities in Gaza, including 25 wells, retaining pools, and a sophisticated carrier system, was also transferred to the Palestinians. With the completion of the disengagement, all water and sewage infrastructure in the Gaza Strip fell exclusively under Palestinian control. Furthermore, in the Interim Accord, it was agreed that Israel would pipe in 5 MCM to the Gaza Strip yearly from Israel’s national water system. Israel built the pipe needed for this project, extending it to the border with Gaza. The Palestinians have yet to connect to this pipe. The Palestinian regime in Gaza has neglected management of the water supply and is failing to prevent an ecological and health disaster.

* According to Professor Gvirtzman, Palestinians already have the ability to step up the amount of water available for consumption in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The proper care of pipes to prevent leakages would save 10 MCM. An improvement in irrigation methods, by replacing flooding with drip irrigation used in Israel, would conserve an additional 15 MCM, enabling the cultivation of more agricultural land. And the treatment of municipal sewage would yield 30 MCM.

Blaming Israel, Again

In conclusion, Amira Hass relies upon a report which describes alleged Israeli discrimination in every aspect of water distribution, including styming the development of agricultural lands and even causing health problems. She doesn’t bother to request a response from the Israeli water authority, or any Israeli expert, and never considered balancing the report with figures which show the reality in a different light.

Palestinians receive and consume less water than Israelis. That’s a fact. And it’s very easy to depict this fact as Israeli “discrimination,” “theft,” or “over-pumping.” Hass could be considered a serious reporter were she to have presented the full picture, including the fact that Israel has fully implemented the Interim Accords and even provides the increased amount mentioned in the permanent deal that was never implemented. The Palestinian Authority (and Hamas, in Gaza) clearly are responsibile for their water problems, because of the illegal drilling, the theft of water, and the failure to treat sewage.

But why would Hass write about the Palestinian Authority’s abject failures regarding its rundown water infrastructure, and the fact with a little effort it could immediately improve the amount and quality of water in the West Bank, if it means passing up a chance to once again blame Israel?

Comments are closed.