Eight tankers are parked on the rough ground at the filling-point. The drivers look anxiously at a metal box attached to a large water-pipe. Plastic pipes from the box carry a trickle of water into the nearest tanker. Dr Hassan (not his real name) of the Palestine Hydrology Group explains:
“They are looking at the pressure-gauge. Pressure is very low and the drivers are worried. It’s only early April and already it’s taking a long time to fill up. It’s their livelihood. No water deliveries, no pay.”
This is the Dhahiriya water filling-point, a few miles south of Hebron in the West Bank. Many nearby Palestinian communities rely on supplies from here; these are the unconnected villages.
Dr Hassan scans a clip-boarded list and makes a quick calculation.
“When the pressure is good” he says, “a tanker can be filled in 20 to 30 minutes. But now it takes about three hours. At this rate it will take 2 months to supply all the people on this list. But new names are being added every day. It is going to be a very bad year.”
There is no immediate solution. Pressure is low because there is a water deficit in this area; demand outstrips supply and this is another drought year. Of course, in many parts of the world drought and water shortages are endemic. In most the picture is of countries sharing water and river resources. But in others the problems are exacerbated by political arrangements. Israel-Palestine is one such area.
2008 will be a particularly bad year as rainfall during the 2007-8 wet-season has been much lower than expected. But the difficulties faced by those living in the region will not be shared equally. Whilst the population is being urged to conserve supplies, one group will bear the brunt of the shortage – the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
It is well-documented that Israel dominates water resources in the region – 80% of West Bank ground water is controlled by Israel. This unequal arrangement represents the reality when the Oslo Interim Agreement was signed in 1995. But in the process which was to follow, negotiations on joint Israeli-Palestinian development of resources would lead to a more equitable division. That the Oslo process unravelled means Israel still dominates and little has changed.
Under Oslo the West Bank was divided into three areas. Area A is under full Palestinian Authority (PA) control and B is controlled jointly by the PA and the Israeli army. But Area C is still under full Israeli military control. It is here (60% of the West Bank) where the effects of the Israeli occupation are most in evidence. About 70,000 Palestinians live in Area C, mainly farmers and shepherds, eking out a precarious living in circumstances which deteriorate year on year. Perhaps the worst affected part of the West Bank is the area centred on Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city. A disastrous 2007-8 wet season has produced only 13% of the expected annual average rainfall. By March it was becoming increasingly clear that for the communities living in Area C, to the south of the city, survival would be a major achievement .But it is not just lack of rain which affects the people here, it is the stifling effect of Israeli policies and the expansion of Jewish settlements.
In Area C there are numerous villages and hamlets which, unlike the settlements, are not connected to the water network. The people here rely on springs, wells and the collection of surface-water in cisterns, but it is not enough. Connection to the mains would make a huge difference to life in these rural communities. But there is huge snag. They need permission to build any infrastructure and ultimately, even if their documentation is in order, the final say lies with the Israeli Defence Force Civil Administration. It is well known that it is virtually impossible for Palestinians to get permission.
The story is always the same: permission is denied ‘for security reasons’ or the area has been designated a ‘closed military zone’. But the underlying reality, as far as Palestinians are concerned, is that the land here is coveted by Jewish settlers and the denial of access to an adequate water supply is part of Israel’s plan of ‘silent transfer’ – if life here becomes too difficult for Palestinians they will leave. There are many settlements and settlement outposts in the Hebron area and, although under international law they are built illegally, the settlers have no trouble gaining access to the water network. Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, will connect them and they will be charged the same price as other domestic customers in Israel itself – 4 shekels per cubic metre (pcm). The Jewish settlement of Otniel , visible from the Dhahiriya filling-point, enjoys this luxury.
For the unconnected villages life is rather different. Tankered water is vastly more expensive. The communities closest to the Dhariya filling-point can expect to pay 15 to 17 shekels pcm. But, with the spiralling cost of fuel, some of the more remote communities have to pay as much as 50 shekels pcm – more than twelve times the price paid by the settlers. For people whose main incomes derive from subsistence farming, the costs are impossible to meet.
Foreign aid agencies have assisted. Oxfam, for example, had an emergency supply programme for the area in 2007, alongside its project to improve water and waste-treatment infrastructure. But because it has been frustrated in terms of gaining planning permissions in Area C, the charity has pulled out of Hebron. A spokesman, however, said he was sure that it would be back later in the year to restart its emergency supplies.
That the next war will be about water is a commonly expressed sentiment in Palestine. This may not be the case – there are many other reasons for conflict here – but the unequal division of this life source could well provide the spark for the next eruption.
Ron Taylor is an independent researcher and journalist working with LifeSource, an initiative to help stimulate a popular movement for water access and sustainability in the Palestinian Territories and Israel. For more information on the water situation, go to www.thelifesourceproject.org.