Water for Life, Water for All

Palestinians organize for water rights and local solutions

Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories (oPt) has not only physically dominated the land that supports the Palestinian people but also the vital water resources that feed the land. The natural cycles and recharging of these important water resources have been altered by the systematic confiscation and control policies imposed by Israel that deny Palestinians’ right to the water resources in the oPt. Drought-induced water scarcity, poor sanitation conditions and low economic development further add to the hardship of water-starved Palestinians.

Currently, Israel controls 100 percent of the Jordan River Basin – along with approximately 75 percent of diverted water from the Jordan River and 80 percent of the Western Mountain aquifer. Altogether, that accounts for 85 percent of total groundwater resources in the West Bank.

As a result of such vast control of water resources, Israel’s per capita water consumption is approximately 240 liters per person per day. However, average consumption in the oPt is approximately 70 liters per person – falling well below the 100 daily liters per capita minimum recommendation by the World Health Organization for basic water consumption.

Palestinian water infrastructure has also been impaired by various Israeli policies and practices, including  prohibiting the repair of damaged Palestinian wells and digging of new ones; military destruction of ancient and newly constructed rain water cisterns; the disengagement of water pipelines; contamination of downstream water allocated for Palestinians; damage to sewage infrastructure; and physical separation from water resources through mechanisms such as wired fences, the Separation Wall, and settlement construction and expansion.

As a result of these regulations which prohibit them from developing or repairing water infrastructure, Palestinians are forced to rely upon Israeli-owned and controlled water infrastructure to alleviate their irregular, depleted and contaminated water supplies. Palestinians often spend as much as 40 percent of their income purchasing water from Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. All this occurs within the context of a 70-80 percent unemployment rate.

The dearth of water access in the oPt has made daily life a struggle for Palestinians. Grassroots International partners, Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC), the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC)  and grantee LifeSource, have employed on-the-ground-strategies in Palestine that seek to address the challenges of inadequate water access in the oPt in order to ameliorate the effects upon livelihoods and to push for recognition of Palestinian water rights.

In Gaza, PARC is working to address chronic water shortages due to Israel’s depletion of Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer, as well as pollution from sewage, chemical fertilizers used in industrial agriculture and other sources of nitrates, chlorine, and saline pollutants (often originating from Israel). PARC has identified that in response to challenges of quantity and quality, 30 percent of households in Gaza purchase water from Mekorot, 25-50 percent of households utilize micro-de-salination equipment and the remaining households use the contaminated water that is available. As a result, a high percentage of Palestinians, especially women and children, suffer from water-related illnesses such as kidney disease, cancer and blue-baby syndrome (a medical condition where a baby appears blue in color due to the inability of the heart to fully oxygenate blood). In ameliorating water quantity and quality issues, PARC advocates for a keen focus not on relief aid and emergency recovery but rather, an open space developmental approach that enables Palestinians to assert their own decisions and drive meaningful action.

PARC has facilitated workshops and organized interventions at various community locations to revitalize water resources through strategies that focus primarily upon women, children, and farmers. Developed through water workshops, PARC’s cisterns collect rainwater, which is distributed to drip irrigation systems to feed connected greenhouse gardens. To date, over 5,000 cisterns have been developed to collect water for irrigation of crops and 150 cisterns for fish farming in rural locales. As well, PARC employs the adoption of graywater practices – using wastewater from domestic use such as laundry, sinks, and showers – for household gardening needs.

As PARC continues to address inadequate water access in the oPt, it shines a light on the resource struggles of Palestinians resulting from land as well as water confiscation. While more intervention and services are needed in the oPt, so is more research regarding water practice strategies from the rehabilitation of existing irrigation networks, the use of graywater, non-water intensive crops and the development of coordinated techniques for small scale de-salination for schools and micro-de-salination for homes.

Zayneb al-Shalalfeh of LifeSource emphasizes that the daily water shortages in the oPt is a political issue in which Israel demonstrates its refusal to recognize water or resource rights for Palestine. The difficulty in encouraging Israel to recognize water rights for the oPt has been exacerbated by an increase in the destruction and demolition of cisterns, wells, and homes.

LifeSource actively works toward solutions that address inadequate water access in the oPt. On the ground, LifeSource continually employs efforts to build cisterns, connect wells and connect river water infrastructures despite threats of confiscation and destruction from Israel. LifeSource continues to facilitate partnerships and community workshops that are based on trust, support and shared decision making processes. At the roots of all community efforts is the focus that education leads to action.

According to Dr. Taha Rifaie, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) has identified three leading challenges regarding the inadequacy of clean water access in the oPt: 1) Israel’s prevention of Palestinians from accessing and controlling their rightful water; 2) the overall supply of available water resources in the region, including aquifers and other sources; and, 3) the effects of climate change on seasonal rainwater availability.

Although each point poses increasing challenges, the main immediate challenge stems from the inadequate supply of water resources for Palestinians due to the Israeli occupation. Dr. Rifaie emphasizes that there is enough ground water for adequate population consumption; however, this is being constrained by Israel’s withdrawal of 800,000 million cubic meters (MCM) annually from a total available supply of 1,000,000 MCM.  As a result, Israel has depleted important geographical water resources such as the Jordan River, used up 99 percent of natural springs for recreational activity, and has contributed to salt-water contamination of much of the water aquifers in Gaza.

UAWC focuses its actions on the utilization of graywater for agricultural use and as a means of environmental control in using water that would otherwise flow into residential streets and drains. UAWC establishes small-scale graywater projects as a part of a larger project to connect entire villages together through graywater treatment pipelines and centers. UAWC’s roots within Palestinian communities are an important focus in its work to advance graywater projects as viable sources of water for agricultural purposes.

As UAWC employs mitigation efforts and strategies that increase water access in the oPt, such as the rehabilitation of water treatment plants and the protection of cisterns from Israeli destruction, it foresees a real solution where the human rights of Palestinians are declared, recognized, and prioritized, leading to meaningful action. Moving forward, community-based campaigning and international public awareness will continue to be central to spreading the message of Palestinians’ human right to water.

Shadia Lahlou, a student at Fitchburg (MA) State College, served as an intern at Grassroots International in 2012.