Water and Environmental Justice in Palestine

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JERUSALEM, BORDERS, SECURITY, VIOLENCE and the fate of Palestinian
refugees: these are the issues most often mentioned when
the mainstream media discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Indeed, President Bush has specifically mentioned these
issues as he tries to restart talks aimed at a peace deal “by the
time I leave office.” All of these issues are real and important,
but miss the critical reality of the conflict: Israelis control a disproportionate
amount of the resources in a land shared by two
peoples. Nowhere is clearer than in the case of water.
Cases of environmental justice generally document the
disproportionate placement of toxics and pollutants on the
basis of race or socio-economic status. The case for environmental
justice can be made as well on the basis of systematic
denial of access to natural resources. This is the
case for Palestinians and water, a classic example.
That there is unequal access to water between Palestinians
and Israelis is almost beyond dispute. In addition to a
host of Palestinian advocacy groups both in the US and in
the West Bank and Gaza, organizations ranging from the
World Bank to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem
have documented systematic and long standing disparities
in access. As a B’Tselem report states:
“Israel’s citizens, like those of developed countries worldwide,
benefit year-round from unlimited running water to
meet their household needs. On the other hand, hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians suffer from a severe water shortage
throughout the summer. The shortage drastically affects the
residents’ health and economic well-being. […] This harm
results from Israeli policy, in effect since 1967, based on an
unfair division of resources shared by Israel and the Palestinians.”
As an example of the systemic nature of this problem, B’Tselem
reports on the Israeli role in denying Palestinian water
rights date to 1998, and have been issued periodically in
1999, 2000, 2001, and most recently in 2006, with the report:
“Act of Vengeance: Israel’s Bombing of the Gaza Power Plant
and its Effects.” Among the most critical effects was disabling
water treatment capability in Gaza. I add here my own experience
of living and working in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and
Hebron from 1993–1998. Especially in Bethlehem and
Hebron, I witnessed in each of those summers weeks of water
shortage where piped water was not delivered to Palestinian
families and businesses. Those with resources were forced to
pay tankers who would supply water of undetermined quality.
Those without, would make due best they could. All buildings
had rooftop tanks to store water when it arrived.
It is important to note that there have been efforts to
counter these reports by Zionist groups in the US, such as the
media watch-dog group the Committee on Accuracy in Middle
East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA). They argue two
things: a) That the occasional news stories by US media outlets
such as National Public Radio and the New York Times (hardly
radical pro-Palestinian news outlets) that document the disparities
in water access ignore the swimming pools and lawns
that exist in Palestinian communities; and, b) Even if there are
disparities in access to water between Palestinians and Israelis,
these are largely due to corruption and inefficiency on the part
of the Palestinians. In other words, Palestinians are surely misrepresenting
the level of disparity, and even if there are shortages
in Palestinian communities, these shortages are the result
of Palestinian mismanagement and corruption.
The existing statistics on water in Palestine supports the
counter argument. According to various sources, including
the United Nations and the World Bank, Palestinians consume
far less than Israelis. Three million West Bank Palestinians
use only 250 million cubic meters per year (83 cubic
meters per Palestinian per year). The more than 1 million
Palestinians in Gaza are estimated to have a per capita consumption
of just 70 liters per day. Six million Israelis enjoy
the use of 1,954 million cubic meters (333 cubic meters per
Israeli per year). This means that each Israeli consumes as
much water as four Palestinians. Israeli settlers are allocated
1,450 cubic meters of water per person per year. Consumption per capita might be written
off as a problem of inefficiency, lack of
maintenance of infrastructure, or other
operations and maintenance problems on
the part of Palestinians—and indeed
groups like CAMERA have used these
arguments. If that were the case, we would
find that while Palestinians consume far
less water per capita, they have equal
access to the available sources of water.
Analysis shows this not to be the case.
Let’s start with shared surface fresh
water resources. Roughly one quarter of
the water in Israel’s National Water Carrier
(the Mekorot) comes from the Jordan
River. Even though 93% of the river separates
the West Bank from Jordan (making
Palestinians full riparians) they do not have
direct access to its waters.
Israel also consumes a disproportionate
amount of the groundwater resources. The
Coastal Aquifer Basin is largely overtapped
and the Gaza Aquifer, under the Gaza Strip, is
overdrawn both by the large Palestinian population
and by ongoing Israeli mining of
groundwater. Of the water available from West
Bank aquifers, Israel uses 73%, West Bank
Palestinians use 17%, and Jewish settlers use
10%. This is enforced through restrictions on
well drilling in the West Bank, which is rarely
granted and all wells of greater than 100
meters have been prohibited since 1967.
Groups like CAMERA argue that this disproportionate
access is more than offset by
the supply of water to the West Bank. Roughly
53% of water supply to the Palestinians
comes through the Mekorot. The problem, in
addition to the water cutoffs during the summer
mentioned above, is that Palestinians
pay $1.2 per cubic meter compared to
Israelis, who pay $0.4 per cubic meter for
domestic use and $0.16 for irrigation.
The situation of access to water has been
exacerbated by the Israeli separation wall
(often referred to in the mainstream media
as Israel’s “security fence,”) implemented in
2004. According to the Water and Sanitation
Hygiene Monitoring Project, the construction
and implementation of the wall
has either destroyed or rendered inaccessible
some 50 Palestinian wells and 200 cisterns
“used for domestic and agricultural
needs by over 122,000 people.” Additionally,
the construction of the wall destroyed
35,000 meters of water pipes.
These statistics indicate the reality:
Palestinians suffer unequal access to shared
water resources as part of the ongoing occupation.
Water is crucial to public health and
economic development. Rectifying this
inequity through sincere steps toward joint
management of shared water resources will
be critical to moving toward real peace and
justice in Israel and Palestine.

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