The Thirst of Palestine

By Nidal Atallah

Theoretically, there is enough water in the West Bank, but Israel allocates most of it to its illegal settlements in the occupied territory. This leads to enormous shortages on the Palestinian side, especially in the summer months. Civil society speaks of clear discrimination.

Reading time: 8 minutes
Water Tanker in the Jordan Valley

At the dawn of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, a series of military orders were issued dismissing previously enacted Jordanian and Egyptian laws handing all jurisdiction over water in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) to the Israeli military. The orders ensured set quotas on Palestinian groundwater abstraction and prevented the digging of new well or the repair of existing ones. This represented the beginning of systematic policies that denied the local Palestinian population access to their own water resources. Israel also seized control over surface water resources, most notable the Jordan River.

The West Bank has historically enjoyed ample water resources due to its mountainous topography falling within a recharge zone where substantial amounts of rainwater enter the ground to feed major aquifers. However, its occupation resulted in a new grim reality whereby access was restricted or limited at best. As an ever-growing number of groundwater wells required maintenance yet denied by Israeli authorities, water supply steadily dwindled.  

Water for the illegal settlement project

Israel allowed “Mekerot” (Israel’s National Water Company) to manage water supply in the oPt, which introduced a discriminatory system of inequitable distribution. Today, illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank enjoy 5-8 times more water than Palestinians on a per capita basis.

In the summer months, while Palestinians suffer extreme water shortages due to intermittent supply, settlers in nearby illegal settlements enjoy uninterrupted supply and the luxury of swimming pools and sprinklers for their suburban lawns.

The Oslo Peace Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993 bringing hopes a peaceful solution to the decades-long conflict. In 1995, Oslo II, a five-year interim agreement was signed between the two parties containing Article 40 on “Water and Sewage”.  It stipulated that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was to be allocated an annual 118 million cubic meters (MCM) from the West Bank’s three aquifers (Western, North Easter and Eastern Aquifers, combined commonly referred to as “the Mountain Aquifer”) as well as an additional 78 MCM to be developed specifically from the Eastern Aquifer. The agreement granted Israel 483 MCM from these same resources, which actually contradicts the fourth Geneva Convention pertaining to the use of resources by the occupying power.

By virtue of allotting Palestinians around a quarter of what was given to the occupying power, many in Palestinian civil society perceive Oslo II as having entrenched Israel’s illegal control over Palestinian water resources and arguably “legalizing” its unjust use and distribution. What is certain is that the agreement has eventually resulted in acute water shortages for Palestinians living in the West Bank. Even had the set amounts been sufficient for Palestinians at the time, nearly three decades have passed since the signing of the five-year interim agreement and the Palestinian population has nearly doubled since, yet the allocated amounts remain unchanged. In 2021, Palestinians abstracted a mere 105 MCM from West Bank aquifers, falling far below the 196 MCM allocated to them in Oslo II.

Meanwhile, Israel’s abstraction from West Bank aquifers reaches at least 664 MCM annually as reported for 2011 (World Bank, 2018), which has directly served its ongoing illegal settlement project. It is predicted that this amount may even be higher and there is wide consensus that Israel controls at least 85% of groundwater resources in the West Bank.

Furthermore, the interim agreement established the Joint Water Committee (JWC), a body consisting of an equal number of Palestinian and Israeli members that was authorized to approve or reject all water and sanitation projects in the oPt. Since the JWC has to approve projects through consensus, Palestinian projects were jeopardized as one vote against could bring the demise of a proposed project.

The same does not apply for Israeli projects by virtue of Israel’s de facto occupation on the ground allowing illegal settlements to implement any water projects at their disposal. In a sense, the JWC that once seemed to represent a positive bilateral mechanism for mutual understanding and development has been mechanized as a tool to maintain Israeli dominance over water resources. Even further, projects approved by the JWC still have to go through the Israeli Civil Administration, which often times rejects projects or leaves them pending approval for years at end, in some cases even decades.

Israel continues to deny Palestinians their right to water despite successfully developing its water system to secure the needs of Israeli citizens, both within its sovereign territory and those in West Bank settlements for decades to come, by their own admission. While the Palestinian Authority has put in tremendous efforts to develop its organizational structure, legal framework and strategies in the water sector, its internationally funded projects are heavily restricted by the occupation.   

A grim reality for Palestinians

In light of Israel’s utter control over Palestinian water resources, Palestinians face a forced reliance on Mekerot for their water supply. In essence, Palestinians are purchasing their own water and at extremely elevated prices. Yet despite their willingness, Mekerot often denies Palestinian requests to increase purchased quantities, especially in the summer months when there is an immense need. The result is an average domestic Palestinian water consumption of no more than 86 liters per capita per day (l/c/d), which falls short of the World Health Organization’s internationally recognized minimum of 100 l/c/d.

However, this is not the full picture, as Israeli Authorities deny numerous communities in the West Bank access to the water pipeline network or any water and sanitation facilities, causing water consumption to drop as low as 25 l/c/d. This is particularly the case in Area C, currently making up 63% of the total area of the West Bank, which in Oslo II was agreed to fall under the administrative and security jurisdiction of Israel until it is “gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction”. The latter was never fulfilled and much of the population in the area is now under the threat of expulsion and dispossession due to Israel’s existing restrictive policies and announced annexation plans. Communities in these areas are prevented from developing the most basic water and sanitation infrastructure such as cisterns and bathrooms and instead rely on extremely expensive tankered water.

Despite this grim reality in the West Bank, it pales in comparison to the extremely dire situation in the Gaza Strip. Even before the current war that has resulted in massive destruction to the civilian infrastructure, 97% of available water was deemed unfit for human consumption due to salinity and pollution. The 16-year long siege and blockade of the densely populated strip had deprived its residents of their water rights and obstructed the implementation of water and sanitation infrastructural projects aiming at alleviating the situation.

Climate change is no stranger to the MENA region and has already resulted in heat waves and droughts, wild fires, intermittent rainfall, flashfloods and other extreme weather events. For many years now, Palestinian communities have observed climatic shifts on the ground, most notably heat waves and irregular precipitation trends that have resulted in water shortages, in effect exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. However, the occupation’s policies in the West Bank have largely impeded potential adaptation measures, especially for the most vulnerable communities in Area C. This includes governmental plans and efforts highlighted in the State of Palestine’s National Adaptation Plan (NAP), its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement, as well as other international commitments.

However, the occupation’s strict policies have also obstructed the implementation of simple community-based climate adaptation measures, such as rainwater harvesting, which has limited their adaptive capacity and further negatively affected their livelihoods that are highly dependent on water and other natural resources.  

In the wake of the October 7th attack on Israel, the world has witnessed Israel’s illegal weaponization of water in its response and war in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant infamously stated “There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything will be closed”. This form of collective punishment, undoubtedly illegal under international law, is not new to the Israeli occupation. Cutting water supply in particular has been used by Israel in the past as a tactic to repress Palestinian non-violent civil disobedience, especially during the first Intifada.

The cutting of water in the Gaza Strip and its unbearable health consequences on civilians highlights the importance of advocating for the right to water as a global justice issue. The weaponization of water should never be perceived as an acceptable tactic in armed conflicts as it fundamentally violates international humanitarian law.

This article was first published in German in INKOTA 's Südlink magazine on March 13, 2024.