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Destruction of the water network in Masafer Yatta, South Hebron hills, Area C of West Bank | Courtesy: Nasser Nawaj'ah, B'Tselem, 25 November 2020.
Destruction of the water network in Masafer Yatta, South Hebron hills, Area C of West Bank | Courtesy: Nasser Nawaj'ah, B'Tselem, 25 November 2020.

Palestine: Where manufactured water scarcity meets climate change

The Israeli-occupied territory of Palestine faces both natural and state-sanctioned acute water scarcity. 

The term “man-made climate change” is used to reiterate the role humanity has played in causing the climate crisis. In present-day Palestine, which is suffering from acute water scarcity and colonial occupation, the term takes a whole new form. 

The semi-arid Middle East and North Africa region is considered a climate hotspot due to its natural dryness. Droughts are common and locals have, over time, adapted to these circumstances. Palestine is no stranger to these conditions.

The heatwave that hit Israel and Palestine this summer brought extreme temperatures to the region, raising temperatures by 5 degrees C (41 degrees F) above the seasonal average. In the Jordan Valley, the eastern portion of the West Bank region of Palestine, temperatures soared as high as 45 degrees C (113 degrees F).

However, despite these extreme changes, Israelis, in both the Zionist State and the Settlements, did not face any water shortages, while Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as usual, did.

“The chronic water shortage [in Palestine] is the outcome of the Israeli occupation regime,” said Eyal Hareuveni an Israeli researcher with B’Tselem working on water issues.

“All Israeli settlements are built in opposition to the international humanitarian law. In the Jordan Valley, communities that depend on water for agriculture and consumption have lost it to the wells that Israel is digging for neighboring settlements.”

The West Bank

While Palestinians in the West Bank don’t have water to drink, Israelis in the settlements fill their swimming pools to the brim, highlighting a glaring disparity. 

According to Palestinian officials, Israel controls 85 percent of the water in this region and has a say in how the rest is allocated. Year-round water cuts, therefore, which can last weeks, have become a core facet of Palestinian life.

And while most Israelis and settlers can consume between 240 and 300 liters of water per day, most Palestinians only reach about 73 liters — much less than what the World Health Organization regards as the minimum required standard of 100 liters per person. 

Many apartment buildings in city centers have resorted to lining their roofs with black and white water tanks, which residents pay extra to fill when their taps inevitably run dry.

Water tanks on the roofs of homes in Nablus, Palestine | Courtesy: Salma a-Deb’i, B’Tselem, 13 September 2017.

In some rural agricultural communities, water consumption is as low as 20 liters per person per day. Some villages receive water once every 15 days. In the case of poor communities, half the family’s income is spent on water alone. Many are not connected to piped water and must buy water from mobile water tankers and contractors. In Aroura, a village near the capital city of Ramallah, the price of 250 liters (66 gallons) of water from a mobile tanker is $61.

Village of a-Duqaiqah, South Hebron Hills, West Bank, not hooked up to water grid; villagers purchase water from water trucks, paying 4 times as much as the average water tariff for private use in Israel | Courtesy: Nasser Nawaj’ah, B’Tselem, 19 August 2012.

The Gaza Strip

In the Gaza strip, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the situation is precarious; its limited freshwater resources are being pumped unsustainably.

97 percent of the groundwater in Gaza is undrinkable due to contamination; an electricity crisis has inhibited water wells and sewage treatment operations. The salinity of the water is so high that it ruins faucets, pipelines, and tanks — Gazans have to regularly replace them.

“All the faucets in our house are full of limestone and rust, which makes them fragile. The minute one part needs fixing, everything breaks down. Even the toilet’s ruined from the salt and can break when you clean it,” Hatem Hamad told BT’selem.

The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor has attributed the crisis to the 15-year Israeli blockade

Depriving Palestinians of water

Israel regularly attacks Palestinian water and sewage infrastructure. In June this year, water pipelines in the West Bank were destroyed. During the military offensive in the Gaza strip last year, 18 sewage water pumps were damaged, 4 of Gaza’s central sewage treatment stations were non-functional and 18,700 meters (20,400 yards) of sewage networks were damaged. 

Destruction of the water network in Masafer Yatta, South Hebron hills, Area C of West Bank | Courtesy:  Nasser Nawaj’ah, B’Tselem, 25 November 2020.

But these are not isolated incidents. Palestinians say that Israel has categorically weaponized water.

After the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza strip, it took control of all water infrastructure and resources in the region. In November of that year, Military Order 158 was issued, prohibiting Palestinians from constructing any new water installation without a permit from the Israeli army. Permits are nearly impossible to get. Water resources, since, have been controlled through several military orders.

In 1995, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo II agreement with provisions on water and sewage that recognized some Palestinian water rights, returning some West Bank water resources to the Palestinian National Authority.

But these water rights are still continuously violated. Israel not only overdraws water, violating the Oslo agreement but also denies access to water by prohibiting new water infrastructure.

“They knew that it is the substance of life. So they denied the water to Palestinians, they denied them life.

“Palestinians cannot dig for groundwater. Israel has drones in the sky to monitor this. We cannot use any water other than the meager amount that Israel decides by the good graces of the colonizers. Israel also denies Palestinians the right to collect rainwater. Imagine – rainwater, it comes from heaven,” said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian scientist and founder of the Palestine Museum of Natural History and the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability at Bethlehem University.

“Before the Zionist project, all Palestinian water was used by Palestine. When the project came about, water was their priority. They knew that it is the substance of life. So they denied the water to Palestinians, they denied them life.” 

In 1964, Israel built a dam on the shared river Jordan, blocking the river’s outflow to the Sea of Galilee (or Kinneret). A once green strip in a dry region has been dying and drying ever since. The diversion of the river, and other tactics such as the draining of Lake Hula, resulted in a loss of livelihood for the subsistence farmers and the consequent depopulation of native Palestinians. According to Qumsiyeh, this was a meticulous process that depended on water for ethnic cleansing. 

“Instead of river Jordan, it should be called stream now. You can literally walk across it,” he chuckled.

Before the 1967 war, less than a tenth of the river was in Israel. After the war, almost all of it has been under Israeli control. The river, which once discharged 1.3 billion cubic meters per year, now drips 20 to 30 million cubic meters of water. Still, Israelis are water secure.

“The Israeli settlers next to my village of Beit Sahur [east of Bethlehem] have a swimming pool and even a water park. My village gets water very infrequently and it goes weeks without water sometimes.”

Climate Change

Climate change is set to make things worse, with droughts expected to become more frequent and intense.

“There is already an incredible scarcity of water in this land. In the coming years, we are expecting to see less precipitation and it gets a lot worse in the ‘worst-case scenarios’. There are numbers as high as a 25 percent reduction in rainfall,” said Karim Elgendy, Associate Fellow at the Environment and Society Program of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House.

A recent report found that the Eastern Mediterranean region, where Israel and Palestine lie, is heating up at twice the global average, leaving the occupied Palestinian territory even more vulnerable to water and food scarcity. Palestinians are doubly threatened by climate change caused by the Global North and the occupation actively denying them access to their land and resources.

Qumsiyeh said, “The Zionist project is a project of colonialism. And as you know, the colonialists are interested in the land, [they are] interested in the natural resources. They don’t want the people who come with these resources. So they deprive people of their land, of their water, of their resources. And that’s not enough. They kicked out most of the Palestinians.

Looking Ahead

In the coming years, streams in the region are expected to dry up, forest fires and disease outbreaks to increase and the cost of agriculture to rise. Experts say that it will eventually become dangerous to venture out in the heat of summer.

“They [Palestinains] are not aware of western conceptualizations of climate change and adaptation,” said Muna Dajani, a Palestinian environmental activist, and researcher who holds a Ph.D.from the Department of Geography and Environment at London School of Economics, in an interview with Currently last year when speaking about how Palestinians grapple with the realities of climate change.

“They might tell you that they have more pressing issues to deal with.” 

Going forward, experts like Dajani say it will be important for Palestinians to use their voice and re-establish their connection to the land, which has been severed by the occupation.

“The occupation and control over resources have caused the alienation of people from their land and water. Palestinians must be able to speak about climate change in their own language. Even though climate change is a global issue, it is also a very personal and local one.”

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