The Palestinian Water Crisis


For more than 50 years, water has been a source of conflict between Israel and its neighbors, especially the Palestinians. Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are in the midst of an acute water crisis brought about not simply by the area’s naturally arid conditions or the current drought, but primarily by the mal-distribution of water imposed by Israel, which controls Palestinian water resources.

Currently, Israel consumes more than 80 percent of Palestinian ground water and denies Palestinians their rightful utilization of the Jordan River. Israel allocates Palestinians 93 million cubic meters (mcm) per year for industrial use, and 153 mcm per year for agricultural use, leaving per capita consumption for domestic use at less than 30 cubic meters per year. Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories are consuming Palestinian water at the rate of more than 75 mcm per year. On an annual, per capita basis, Israelis consume more than four times as much water as Palestinians.

Where the Water Comes From:

Palestinian water originates from two sources: surface water and ground water. Surface water is that water which flows permanently in the form of rivers and wadis, or is held in seasonal reservoirs. The Jordan River is an international river basin whose riparians include Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan. In 1953, the Jordan River had an average flow of 1,250 mcm per year at the Allenby Bridge (the main crossing point between the West Bank and Jordan), but now records annual flows of 200 mcm of poor quality water. The reason for this is that, following the June 1967 war, Israel secured control over Jordan River headwaters, destroyed 140 Palestinian water pumps in the Jordan Valley, and diverted Jordan River water through its National Water Carrier, thereby denying Palestinians their historic rights to this river. Israel uses approximately 500 mcm per year of water from this source, amounting to some one-fourth of water consumed in Israel.

Ground water is the primary source of the Palestinians’ freshwater supply. In the West Bank, the aquifer system is comprised of several rock formations that are recharged from rainfall in the West Bank. In years of normal rainfall, some 600-650 mcm of rain per year infiltrate the soil and replenish the aquifers. The West Bank ground-water resources are classified according to flow direction into:

The Western Aquifer system, which is the largest, and has a safe yield of 362 mcm per year: Israel exploits most of the water of this aquifer through 300 deep groundwater wells. Israel limits Palestinian use from this aquifer to 22 mcm per year.

The Northeastern Aquifer system, which has an annual safe yield of 145 mcm: Israel utilizes 103 mcm per year, and limits Palestinian use to 42 mcm per year;

per year (of which 70 mcm are brackish): It lies entirely within the West Bank and, until 1967, was used exclusively by the Palestinians. After the 1967 war, Israel expanded its control over this aquifer and began to tap it, mainly to supply Israeli settlements, which, according to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, were illegally established in the area (see CPAP Policy Brief #1: “Israeli Settlements and U.S. Policy,” dated 18 June 1999). Israel extracts 40 mcm per year from this source, and limits Palestinian extraction to 54 mcm per year.

In Gaza, some 2,200 wells tap its shallow coastal aquifer. In the past, this aquifer was partially re-charged from the Wadi Gaza that flows during the winter from Hebron, but Israel stopped its flow. The Gaza coastal aquifer has an annual safe yield of 55 mcm, but is currently being over-pumped at the rate of 120 mcm per year. Israeli settlers in Gaza are extracting 10 mcm annually from the few freshwater lenses in this aquifer. Water quality in Gaza is deteriorating rapidly due to seawater intrusion, wastewater pollution, and agricultural water return flows.

Water Consumption:

Israel takes more than 80 percent of Palestinian water from the West Bank aquifers, accounting for 25 percent of Israel’s water needs. As a result of Israeli policies, Palestinians currently are utilizing 246 mcm annually to supply three million Palestinians in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza for their domestic, industrial, and agricultural needs. By comparison, Israel’s population, comprised of fewer than six million persons, is consuming 1,959 mcm annually. Thus, on an annual, per capita basis, Israelis consume 340 cubic meters of water, compared to 82 cubic meters consumed by Palestinians-more than four times as much. In addition, the approximately 380,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and some 5,000-7,000 settlers in Gaza annually consume 65 and 10 mcm, respectively.

Intermittent Supply:

While Israelis have received a continuous supply of water throughout the drought, largely from Palestinian resources, millions of Palestinians have suffered from an intermittent supply of water, especially during summer months. The Bethlehem area, for example, should receive 1,200 cubic meters of water per hour, but Israel has reduced this to 300 cubic meters per hour, forcing most Palestinian neighborhoods to wait weeks for piped water. Moreover, there are some 180 Palestinian communities with 300,000 residents in the West Bank not yet linked to public water distribution systems, and Israel is hampering the efforts of the Palestinian Water Authority to provide them with this essential service. While 34 percent of Palestinian homes have rainwater storage cisterns to help them cope with water shortages, the drought has prevented them from filling these cisterns. Rainfall has not exceeded 30 percent of the annual average in this record drought year.

Palestinian and Israeli Agriculture:

Palestinian agricultural activity, which contributes 15 percent to the Palestinian gross national product (GNP), includes both intensive irrigated farming primarily in Gaza, the Jordan Valley, and the northern districts of the West Bank, and extensive rain-fed farming, primarily in the West Bank highlands. Rain-fed farming is the predominant agricultural pattern in the West Bank, covering 94 percent of the total cultivated area. Palestinians irrigate roughly 11 percent of their cultivated lands, while Israel irrigates more than 50 percent of its cultivated land. Irrigated Palestinian areas include approximately 201,358 dunums (one dunum is 1,000 square meters), while Israel irrigates an area more than 10 times as large-2,177,500 dunums-contributing less than 1.8 percent to Israel’s GNP. Irrigated Palestinian agriculture annually consumes 153 mcm of water, whereas, in Israel, it consumes more than eight times as much-1,252 mcm.

Impact of the Drought:

The agricultural sector has been severely hit; indeed, rain-fed farming in the West Bank has totally collapsed. Irrigated agriculture has also been affected since spring flows have been reduced by decreased precipitation. An estimated $200 million loss has resulted from this year’s drought. The Palestinian Authority, which has declared a state of emergency, is trying to prevent the total collapse of the agricultural sector.

Palestinians are being forced into the black market to purchase water, consuming up to 20 percent of their income on this item. The Philadelphia Inquirer (26 July 1999) describes Palestinians paying $4 per cubic meter (including delivery costs) for water costing Israelis $0.50 – $1.00 per cubic meter. The same newspaper reports Israeli settlers selling water-taken from Palestinian sources-to desperate Palestinians at a 40 percent profit.

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