Issue of April, 21, 2003
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Report
Water Divides, But Can It Unite?
By Ana Ruth Jerozolimski

Israel is building a wall that has revived a long-time focus of the Middle East conflict: water use.

JERUSALEM, (Tierramérica).- The government of Ariel Sharon continues unrelentingly in its endeavor to build a wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, breathing new life into the discord surrounding an essential natural resource: water.

Begun in 2002, the wall is a vast barrier made of brick, electrified wire, and patrol routes, ostensibly intended to ensure greater security for Israel from attacks by radical Palestinian groups.

But Palestinians see the wall as much more than that. They say that the best farmland and water sources are on the Israeli side of the wall, which in its first phase is being constructed in the northern part of the West Bank.

"In West Bank towns like Tulkarem and Jenin families were left with land on one side of the wall and water on the other," Taher Nasser al-Din, director of the West Bank Water Department, told Tierramérica.

According to local official, some 8,000 residents of another West Bank town, Qalkilya, had to abandon their homes and search for new lands due lack of access to water.

But Uri Shor, spokesman for the Israeli Water Commission said in a conversation with Tierramérica that the wall is only a response to the need for security. "The water pipes can pass from either side and the wall does not have to affect a thing," he said.

Water has proved to be a symbolic element of what separates the Israelis and Palestinians, whose ongoing conflict has been intensified since 2000, with the beginning of the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), triggered in part by Sharon's controversial visit to an Islamic holy site.

Because of its scarcity in the Middle East, water is precious to the peoples living in the region and has often been the motive of political tensions. But there are those who believe that with rational management, water could also contribute to unity.

For now, the only thing clear to Israel and to the Palestinian National Authority is that water reserves are insufficient and the problem will only become worse until a broad program for water desalinization is implemented.

Nearly a fifth of the Palestinian population of four million does not have access to household water services. In some areas, like the northern West Bank city of Jenin, residents complain that they go days without water, the pipelines are dry, even though they are included in the water service network.

Under the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Israel must provide 70 to 80 million cubic meters of water annually to the Palestinian population for immediate necessities, Nabil Al-Sharif, director of the Palestinian Water Authority, told Tierramérica.

"The situation is better than in 1995. Today we have more water. But Israel has not been totally compliant because they should authorize us to dig more wells," he said.

But Uri Shor says Israel has adhered strictly to the quantities agreed in the Oslo Accords, and has even distributed more than the quota to the Palestinians.

Of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, some 160,000 to 200,000 do not have household potable water services and are supplied by water tanks, according to Palestinian sources.

Meanwhile the 6.7 million Israelis consume at least three times as much water as the Palestinians.

"If one takes into account the water consumed by industry, in Israel water usage per person reaches 128 cubic meters, or 350 liters per person per day. Five times more than Palestinian water usage per person," reports Betselem, an Israeli human rights organization.

But it is when the two sides begin to explain this phenomenon that the discrepancies come to the fore.

The Palestinians say that the different levels of water consumption are the result of a discriminatory Israeli policy, especially when it comes to supplying the Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories and providing for the Arab villages and homes in the same areas.

Israel responds that the problem lies in the lack of an appropriate Palestinian water management plan.

Although shortages and poor quality of water are common throughout the Palestinian territories, the tensions with Israel run highest in the West Bank.

The region's two main reservoirs are located there. One is an aquifer that extends from Mount Carmel in the north to Bersheeva in the south, and to the Dead Sea in the east, encompassing the West Bank.

That source is what supplies a quarter of Israeli consumption, of the Jewish settlements and nearly all the Palestinian population.

The second major source is the upper Jordan River and its tributaries, providing water for nearly a third of Israel's consumption, as well as providing for Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The Palestinians do not receive any water from that source, as Israel claims it is already being shared with Jordan, points out West Bank water official Al-Din.

More than 60 percent of domestic water consumption in the West Bank is supplied by Mekorot, an Israeli national enterprise. The rest is managed by the Palestinian municipal authorities. In the Gaza Strip, Mekorot provides just six percent of household water supplies. Meanwhile, Palestinian agriculture relies exclusively on local wells and rivers.

"In the West Bank, no Palestinian can say that he or she is receiving less water than last year… or than before the Oslo Accords. They are receiving more. The system is working at full capacity," Mekorot director Amos Epshtein told Tierramérica.

Over the course of the clashes since the Intifada began, the Israeli army damaged wells in Gaza and the West Bank, according to Palestinian sources.

"I have signed a protocol with the Israeli water commissioner (Simon Tal) to keep water out of the conflict because it is a daily necessity. Israel has begun to abide by it," said Al-Sharif, the Palestinian Authority's water official.

Water management and distribution in the Palestinian areas will be shifted to five public, non-profit entities, run by a private international company chosen through a bidding process, he said.

These entities will be in charge of extracting and distributing the water, as well as managing the network. Their work will begin in Gaza.

However, the technicians seem to be more pleased than the politicians about the solutions to the water problem.

"Water is a central issue for peace, and if the politicians resolve the political problems, I have no doubts that the water problem will be resolved," commented Al-Sharif.

Epshtein expressed similarly cautious optimism: "The solution lies in working together and in finding a shared formula." Otherwise, both sides will be stuck in the same bad situation, he warned.

* Ana Ruth Jerozolimski is a Tierramérica contributor.

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