(July 1, 2016 / JNS)
Highly publicized severe water shortages in Palestinian villages in the northern West Bank have caused tens of thousands of local residents to suffer without an adequate water supply, bringing negative attention to Israel in international media.
For instance, a recent Associated Press news headline—“Palestinians say Israel caused their summer water shortage”—was republished by mainstream media such as ABC News and the San Francisco Chronicle.
The current situation has been caused by a number of factors relating to Israeli-Palestinian water policy, damaged infrastructure, and an extended heat wave. Yet the shortages—which also affect neighboring Israeli villages, albeit to a much lesser extent—are raising serious questions about the overall state of Israel’s water supply, water policy, and a crumbling water infrastructure that was never designed to serve so many residents.
“What has been happening over the last few weeks is a combination of problems,” said Dr. Saul Arlosoroff, former director of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. “Number one, a critical pipe bursting; number two, the [regional water supply] network cannot supply the demand; and thirdly, water in this area is prioritized toward Israelis over Palestinians.”
Arlosoroff explained that the water carrier in the West Bank is broken into subsystems. In this area, Israelis and Palestinians get their water from the same subsystem.
“Today we are talking about a specific subsystem in Nablus. Tomorrow we could be talking about water supply across the entire West Bank,” Arlosoroff told JNS.org.
Much of the water infrastructure for Israelis and Palestinians in this region was laid down more than 40 years ago, and it is now “coming to the end of its expected lifecycle,” according to Arlosoroff.
“We did not think that the pipes that were laid in the 1970’s in the West Bank would be used for such a long period of time,” he said.
In addition, increased water demand by growing Israeli and Palestinian populations is also stretching the limits of the infrastructure’s intended capabilities. “The quality of the pipes and the diameters are inadequate,” said Arlosoroff. “The diameter that was used for the pipes was much smaller than what is required for the size of the population that there is right now.”
The current situation is “undoubtedly a strong warning” for what Israel is going to face in the near future, Arlosoroff argued.
“In the next five, 10, or 15 years, the entire network will not work anymore,” he said. “We’re talking about a higher consumption of water and the network was simply not built for that….It’s not just the subsystems. The entire network will need to be enhanced.”
Yet once such a project is started, it could take many years to fix or replace the water infrastructure—at a significant cost.
“Each piece of pipe in a mountainous, rocky, limestone area could cost millions. It’s very difficult to know the precise cost, but if the entire network in the West Bank will need to be replaced, it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Arlosoroff.
As for the current water shortages, most acutely felt in the Palestinian village of Sulfite, political issues between Israeli and Palestinian authorities have prevented broken infrastructure from being repaired in a timely fashion. While Israel runs the national water carrier that supplies water to both Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinians have full administrative control over most Palestinian villages, and fixing the infrastructure requires bilateral cooperation.
“There is a joint water committee that is supposed to meet every few months, to discuss water issues and to solve problems. But currently the committee is not meeting,” said Nadav Tal, a hydrologist at EcoPeace, a not-for-profit organization with offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and the Jordanian capital of Amman that is dedicated to promoting solutions for regional water issues.
“We urge the committee to meet as soon as possible,” Tal told JNS.org.
Israel has three natural water sources: Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and two underground aquifers. The 1993 Oslo Accords allotted Israel approximately 80 percent of the water that comes from the mountain aquifer, which runs under much of the West Bank, while Palestinians were allotted approximately 20 percent. The allotments did not account for growing demand for water in the region.
Yet according to Tal, “the issue is much larger than just an issue of water shortages” and allocations. Due to the lack of water supply, Palestinians have dug a series of illegal wells to draw additional water from the aquifer, further dwindling supply.
“In addition to the issues of water shortage, we are also seeing tremendous issues of pollution, both in Palestinian and Israeli territories. There is significant pollution to the mountain aquifer, as well as to rivers which flow through Israeli territory toward the Mediterranean,” said Tal.
Tal said that Israelis and Palestinians alike have been reluctant to work on an agreement that can help solve the complex water situation between the two populations.
“We believe that the water issue is an issue that can be solved, even in absence of any kind of full peace agreement,” he said.
Palestinians in particular, said Tal, “have been reluctant to sign any water arrangement” because they prefer to negotiate in a wider political context.
“I am sure that local Palestinians would prefer that their government sign a deal to solve local water issues,” he said.
For Israel, a country that is no stranger to image problems, the inability to solve the ongoing water shortage creates yet another public relations challenge.
“Undoubtedly, the continuation of this problem can erode the image that the international community has of Israel,” said Arlosoroff.
In recent years, Israeli desalination plants have increased Israel’s water supply and were intended to solve water shortages in the long run. But below-average rainfall during the past few years— particularly in northern Israel near Lake Kinneret, Israel’s largest fresh water source—has created additional water shortages.
“We thought that our problems were over and that it would take a long time before scarcity would be part of our water sector, as it was in the past,” Arlosoroff said. “Everybody thought that for years and years the issue of water would not be in the media. If the droughts will continue, Israel can find itself in a severe water shortage despite the desalination plants.”