The Israeli Water Authority has described as “incorrect and fallacious” a World Bank report that accuses Israel of "systematic and severe constraints" on Palestinian access to water in the West Bank and Gaza.
Several years of drought have resulted in severe shortages for both Israelis and Palestinians, who share common water sources including underground aquifers that experts say are being contaminated as a result of over-drilling.
The World Bank report, “Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development,” was requested by the Palestinian Authority and published in April after consultations with both sides. It notes the “complete dependence” of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “on scarce water resources shared and largely controlled by Israel.”
“Because of the imbalance in power, capacity and information between parties, interim governance rules and practices have resulted in systematic and severe constraints on Palestinian development of water resources, water uses, and wastewater management."
"Furthermore," the report charges, "since 2000, the Israeli-imposed movement and access restrictions, consisting of physical impediments, but also of permitting and decision-making practices, have further impaired Palestinian access to water resources, infrastructure development and utility operations."
The report says that the amount of fresh water per person available to Israelis is “approximately four times” greater than in the West Bank and Gaza. “Whereas Israel has established efficient water infrastructure and management, the PA is struggling to attain the basic level of infrastructure and service of a low-income country… In Gaza, marginal water and sanitation investment is contributing to an unchecked water quality crisis with severe public health and environmental impacts.”
Officials at the Israel Water Authority wrote a furious letter to the World Bank on April 16, days before publication of the report, saying that despite face to face meetings and a 36-page document they had presented, “in all matters related to the description of the situation and the conclusions concerning the relationship and activity between Israel and the Palestinians, you were basing your positions mainly on Palestinian contentions and figures, while disregarding important facts and data that were shown and given to you in writing by the Israeli side.”
“You chose to point out Palestinian contentions even after it was made clear to you that these contentions were incorrect and fallacious,” the Israeli officials charged.
“Israel believes that the report of the World Bank may be beneficial if it describes reality as it is, rather than being biased and serving as another propaganda document that yields no benefit and only defers the providing of applicable, genuine solutions,” they concluded.
The World Bank blames the water crisis on the lack of progress made since the two sides set up a Joint Water Committee in 1995 under the Oslo Peace Accords. The committee was supposed to oversee water co-operation during an interim five-year period pending final peace talks in 1999-2000. Because no final treaty was agreed and the region then collapsed in violence with the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, the temporary arrangement has become semi-permanent.
“14 years of the Joint Water Committee have not produced the results that both sides require,” said Gidon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth in Israel, who hosted a discussion between Israeli and Palestinian officials at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel Conference in Jerusalem this week.
“Palestinians every day feel the consequences of water shortage. Israelis don’t have a sense of how severe the crisis is on the Palestinian side,” Bromberg told The Media Line, warning of a “severe situation” if the two sides did not find better ways to work together.
Yossi Dreisen, an adviser to the Israel Water Authority, said Israel had implemented its obligations under Oslo and helped to boost the fresh water supply to the Palestinians by three times the amount used there in 1967.
Dreisen said that despite the interim nature of the committee, Palestinian water supply had reached more than 200 million cubic meters per year – nearly double the 118 million agreed at Oslo.
The total consumption of fresh natural water in Israel rose from 1967 to 2006 by nearly 700%. Water consumption in the West Bank rose during the same period by 2300%.
Dreisin said the total quantity of fresh water per capita in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian areas were well below the levels of surrounding countries. Palestinians have 105 cubic meters per person per year. Israelis have 153 and Jordanians 172. But in Egypt, the figure is 732, in Lebanon 861, and in Syria 949 cubic meters per person per year.
“It’s not that Israel has much water to supply itself and the rest don’t. We are all in the same bad situation,” Dreisen said.
Dreisen urged the Palestinians to improve their waste treatment and water recycling capacity, and said the long-term solution was a desalination plant on the Israeli coast that would pump drinking water up to the West Bank, reducing dependence on the underground aquifers.
Fuaad Bateh, legal and policy adviser to the Palestinian Water Authority, called for “creative options to get out of the crisis that we’re in.”
“The facts are that the Palestinian community in the West Bank’s average domestic consumption is about 50 liters per day. The World Health Organization’s minimum guidelines is about 100 liters per day,” Bateh told The Media Line. He said Israeli restrictions on construction in both the West Bank and Gaza had hindered the ability of the Palestinian Authority to develop vital new facilities.
Bateh said that existing water resources were “shared in a highly inequitable and politically unsustainable manner.”
“We’re not talking about emergency humanitarian over a short period of time. We’re talking about a constant availability of water for them. These have to be redressed as a matter of health, as a matter of environment, as a matter of creating a viable and prosperous neighbor who ensures the security of their neighbor Israel,” said Bateh.
He said the Palestinians should be able to use the water “under their own feet” rather than rely on supplies controlled by Israel. “As long as you’re subject to control of supply," he warned, "the opportunity for one party to misbehave exists."