NPR Misleads on Water Again

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered has once again broadcast an error-ridden report alleging Israeli theft of Palestinian water. Correspondent Mike O’Connor’s July 27th story charged that:

1. Israel is "violating international law … [by] helping itself to most of the water that runs beneath Palestinian lands."

2. The "average Israeli consumes about six times more water than the average Palestinian."

3. "Israeli officials say that their policy is to ensure Israelis get sufficient water to live properly and develop economically. It’s unfortunate, they say, if there’s not enough water left over for the Palestinians."

4. "… the Israeli government has done very little to improve the water distribution system during the 32 years it is has occupied [the area]."

Each of these charges is false. In particular,

1. Israel has never "helped itself" to water "beneath Palestinian lands." Israel obtains roughly 40 percent of its water from the Sea of Galilee and the Coastal Aquifer, both of which are entirely within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Another 30 percent comes from the Western and Northeastern Aquifers of the Mountain Aquifer system. These two aquifers straddle the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank, but most of the stored water is under pre-1967 Israel, making it easily accessible only in Israel.

Thus, even in the 1950s Israel used 95 percent of the Western Aquifer’s water, and 82 percent of the Northeastern Aquifer’s water. Today Israel’s share of these aquifers has declined to 83 percent and 80 percent respectively. That is, under direct Israeli administration the Palestinian share of these aquifers has actually increased.

In addition, it should be noted that over 40 MCM (million cubic meters) of water per year from sources within Israel is piped over the Green Line for Palestinian use. Ramallah, for example, receives over 5 MCM annually from Israeli sources. Thus, it is the Palestinians who are using Israeli water.

With regard to Israel’s alleged violation of international law, the relevant legal norms are the Helsinki Rules (1966), as supplemented by the Seoul Rules (1986). According to a leading authority, these may be summarized as:

A. Human conditions, i.e., the actual needs of the communities that depend on the waters, take precedence over the natural properties that exist in the basin.

B. Among the human conditions, priority is given to past and existing uses, at the expense of potential uses. (emphasis added)(Eyal Benvenisti, International Law and the Mountain Aquifer, in Water and Peace in the Middle East, Jad Isaac and Hillel Shuval, eds., 1994)

Thus, under international legal guidelines, Israel’s first and continuing use of these water resources justifies the present allocation. Charges that Israel’s usage violates international law are completely baseless.

It is also interesting to note that relevant United States law, if applied to the Western Aquifer, also supports Israel’s present usage. In Colorado v. New Mexico , 459 US 176 (1982) and Colorado v. New Mexico, 467 US 310 (1984), the Supreme Court held that Colorado could not use water from the Vermejo River, despite the fact that the river originates in Colorado before flowing into New Mexico. The prior use of the river’s water by farm and industrial users in New Mexico was held to entitle them to continued exclusive use of the resource.

2. O’Connor’s charge that "the average Israeli consumes about six times more water than the average Palestinian" is grossly incorrect. While Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, use more water per capita than Palestinians, the actual ratio is far less than six. In 1995, for example, Israel’s annual per capita usage was 303 CM, while for West Bank Palestinians usage was 124 CM, a ratio of 2.4. Moreover, among countries in the immediate area, Israel has the second lowest annual per capita usage: Syria’s is 1069 CM, Egypt’s is 921, Lebanon’s is 444, and Jordan’s is 201.

3. O’Connor’s charge that "Israeli officials say that their policy is to ensure Israelis get sufficient water … [and that it’s unfortunate] … if there’s not enough water left over for the Palestinians," is also incorrect.

Israel’s stated policy, when it had full control of the West Bank, was to ensure a safe supply of drinking water for all inhabitants. However, under Oslo 2 (Interim Agreement, Sept. 1995), significant responsibility over water was transferred to the Palestinian Authority, including the right to drill wells at agreed sites. As part of the accords (Annex 3, Article 40), the two sides resolved that in the near term Palestinians would receive an additional 28.6 MCM per year, of which the PA was obligated to supply 67 percent. While Israel has supplied its share of additional water to the Palestinians, the PA has largely failed to do its part.

4. O’Connor’s charge that Israel did "very little to improve the water distribution system" is also entirely incorrect. In 1966 annual per capita domestic use in the West Bank was estimated at 5 CM, while in 1995 it had risen to more than 34 CM, an increase of 580 percent. This huge jump in consumption was possible only because Israel drilled or permitted the drilling of over 50 new large-scale wells for the Palestinian population, laid hundreds of kilometers of new water mains and connected hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns to the newly built water system.

However, for political reasons many Palestinian villages and towns refused to be hooked up to the main water system that was built under Israeli administration, and they therefore do not have a reliable water supply today. Writer Bruce Stutz noted, for example, that the West Bank town of Marda:

… like many West Bank villages and towns, had refused to hook up with the Israeli water system in the early 1980’s, when Israeli officials offered them the chance. Doing so, the politicians felt, would legitimize the Israeli occupation. Even the villages that did hook up refused to pay into the Israeli water fund that subsidizes the system’s costs. As a result, Palestinians now pay as much as three times what Israelis pay for water. (Water and Peace, Audubon, September 1994)

It is, at best, disingenuous for NPR to blame Israel for such self-inflicted water problems.

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