by EA Svenn    –    5 min read

‘Our van rattled from side to side as it climbed the rocky road up the dusty hill. At the top of the hill we were met with the scattered remnants of a water tank, which until minutes before was storing one million litres of water – almost half the amount of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. This tank supplied water for Palestinian families, livestock, and farmland in the area. Without this tank, nearly 500 people now lack adequate water for their basic needs and livelihood.’

‘This was just one of several water tanks in the Jordan Valley which the Israeli military demolished in the crucial days ahead of the planting season for Palestinian farmers. Three days earlier, a water tank the same size had been destroyed. This tank, near the village of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, provided water for 25 families – water they used in the home, to drink, and to nourish almost 100 acres of cucumbers, aubergines, and other crops.’ (EA, Cassie)

Water is essential to sustaining all life on earth. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day are needed to ensure that most basic needs are met and few health concerns arise. Viewed in the context of Israel and occupied Palestine, where temperatures regularly exceed 30’c for much of the year, access to sufficient amounts of water becomes particularly important.

The total per capita water use in Palestine averages almost 93m3 per year, compared to nearly 244m3 per year in neighbouring Jordan and almost 344m3 per year in Israel.

(Source PENGON / Friends of the Earth Palestine 2014)

Total annual per capita water use in…

Palestine:    93m3

Palestine 23.5%

Jordan:    244m3

Jordan 61%

Israel:    344m3

Israel 86%

Despite its arid appearance, occupied Palestine is abundant with natural water. The West Bank sits atop three large aquifers (subterranean water reserves), capable of providing ample water for all of the land’s inhabitants. However, the reality on the ground is that many Palestinians find themselves without enough water to meet their daily needs.

More than 70% of communities located entirely or mostly in Area C (which makes up some 61% of the total West Bank) are not connected to the water network and rely on tankered water at vastly increased cost. Water consumption in some Area C communities drops to 20% of the minimum recommended standard (20 out of 100 litres per day per capita). Whilst this is sadly not uncommon in many places on earth, the difference here is that this deprivation is entirely avoidable. Israel has established an extensive network of water mains and reservoirs across the West Bank, to service its many settlements and associated industries. However, permission is seldom granted to rural Palestinian communities to connect to it. Even when the pipes run through their land.

‘Water consumption in some Area C communities drops to 20% of the minimum recommended standard*’

*20 out of 100 litres per day per capita

Israeli authorities saw apart water pipes which supply Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills

A young Bedouin child fills up water from a tank

In the years since the occupation began, Israel, via its state water company Mekorot, has gained a near monopoly on all water in the West Bank. Even in Areas A and B, where civil matters are supposed to be governed by the Palestinian Authority, permission must be granted by the Israeli Civil Administration before any new wells can be dug. According to one local UNHCHR source, Palestinians in Area C are prohibited from drilling wells beyond a depth of 30m. This is often not enough to reach fresh or ‘sweet’ water; meaning that newly dug wells will only produce brackish water, unsuitable for drinking and with a saline content that is too high for watering most crops.

Where there have been existing Palestinian wells, it is a common scenario that Mekorot, with their superior technological ability and support from the military apparatus, have dug a much deeper well close by, effectively undermining the Palestinian’s water source. In some cases, in order to prevent economic collapse, Palestinian municipal authorities in farming areas have signed agreements with Mekorot whereby they will buy back some of the water being extracted from their land. Where once the water was free and plentiful, communities now have to pay to receive limited access to the same water.

A Palestinian farmer covers his crops in plastic to prevent evaporation

Israeli water restrictions have had a significant impact on Palestinian agriculture. Farmers find themselves increasingly having to move away from growing traditional staple crops and switching to others which are more drought resistant, require less water or can be watered with waste or saline water. One farmer from Al ‘Auja, an area in the Jordan Valley once famous for its bananas, told visiting EAs about how, within a matter of years, he went from having 80 dunams (approximately 20 acres) of bananas to just three plants behind his house (which he feeds with harvested rain water). Since Mekorot began pumping water close by, the water which he is able to extract from his well has become too salty to sustain bananas. He now grows less profitable date palms on his land.

Elsewhere, to accommodate increasing demand for water by Israeli settlement plantations, Mekorot has been significantly cutting the amount of water allotted to Palestinian farming communities. One farmer reported that, since the restrictions took hold, his output has halved. ‘Of 30 dunams, now I only grow on 15. It’s just too much of a risk to cultivate more as we never know if the amount of water we get will decrease again.’ In his eyes, these restrictions are part of a deliberate policy designed to drive them from their land. He explains, ‘They’re trying to turn our land into a desert. This way they displace us without force. When our youth can’t find jobs here, they’ll leave.’

‘Of 30 dunams, now I only grow on 15. It’s just too much of a risk to cultivate more as we never know if the amount of water we get will decrease again.’

Palestinian livestock catches the drips of water from a tank

Mekorot water pipes unaccessible to Palestinians

Palestinian children clean out mud from the water cistern

Failed crops in Deir Istiya

‘They’re trying to turn our land into a desert. This way they displace us without force. When our youth can’t find jobs here, they’ll leave.’

In reference to the clearly preferential provision of water resources to the settlements and settlement enterprise, Al-Haq Centre for the Application of International Law has written: ‘…under international humanitarian law, Israel is obliged to administer the natural resources belonging to the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) without damaging or diminishing them. Accordingly, it is prohibited from exploiting them in a way that undermines their capital and results in economic benefits for Israeli citizens, including settlers, or for its national economy.’

What does international law say?

'The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.'

Article 49, Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949

'Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.'

Article 53, Fourth Geneva Convention

'The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family...'

Article 11, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966

'To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities.. public health and hygiene in the occupied territory.'

Article 56, Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949

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