Did European Parliament President Martin Schulz err horribly when he claimed during a speech in the Knesset this week that Palestinians living in the West Bank are allotted one-fourth of the amount of water that Israelis are allotted? Judging from the reactions of many of our lawmakers, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he undoubtedly did.
But while Schulz might have quoted the wrong figures, he came very close to being right about the ratios, according to an assessment provided by Friends of the Earth Middle East, an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian organization that has been dealing with regional water and environment issues for two decades.
The issue is complex. Water consumption estimates depend on the size of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank – itself a highly contested and politicized issue – the amount of water loss from leaky pipes, water theft, and a deeper understanding of the causes behind the lack of Palestinian sewage treatment facilities.
Nevertheless, according to Friends of the Earth’s best estimates, municipal water consumption per capita per day in Israel in 2011 was 250 liters, compared to an average of 70 liters for Palestinians. B’Tselem estimates are about the same.
While Israelis living both inside the Green Line and in settlements in Judea and Samaria enjoy unlimited water supply, the situation for Palestinians living in the West Bank is much different. Water supply is sporadic, even in cities such as Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus. You turn on the tap but no water comes out. To compensate, Palestinians have large black containers on their roofs that are filled up when there is a water supply.
In large part, the failure of the Palestinian water system is directly related to the Oslo Accord’s problematic legacy, particularly the demarcation of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. To prevent Palestinian farmers from stealing water, for instance, Palestinians authorities need access to Area C, because most farmland is located there. But since Area C is under complete Israeli civilian and military control, they do not have that access. And it is not the job of the IDF to serve as police. As a result, water theft is rampant.
The construction of sewage treatments plants, which would enable Palestinians to rely less on potable water for agriculture, also depends on Israeli permission, since these plants must be built partly or entirely in Area C, which makes up more than 60 percent of the West Bank, and includes most of the unpopulated areas.
Projects funded by Germany – Schulz’s country – France, the US and the World Bank have run into obstacles as a result of disputes and red tape. For instance, Israel has demanded that sewage treatment plants funded by international donors in places such as Salfit, near Ariel, serve Jewish settlements as well as Palestinian ones. Palestinians and their donors reject this proposal.
Israel has also demanded that the sewage treatment plants meet standards so high even some Israeli plants do not meet them. This has resulted in a sharp increase in construction and management expenses. The result is that large quantities of raw sewage continue to flow, untreated, into riverbeds, endangering groundwater sources and health.
The Joint Water Committee, an Israeli-Palestinian body created under the Oslo Accords to mediate, has proven ineffectual since all decisions must be approved by the IDF’s Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria.
Meanwhile, Palestinians have not done enough to fix leaky pipes.
It is undeniable that the quality and amount of water provided to West Bank Palestinians has improved significantly since 1967, when Israel took over control of the area.
Palestinians get more and better water than citizens of many neighboring countries. But more can be done.
Thanks to Israel’s wide use of desalination, which provides most of our drinking water, we have water to spare.
Helping Palestinians to solve their water issues is not only the right thing to do, it would provide considerable political gains in the eyes of the international community at a relatively low cost.
Instead of lashing out at Schulz, who was only conveying to the Knesset the widely felt sentiment among our Palestinian neighbors that our water policy is discriminatory, our lawmakers should take to heart the German politician’s message and take steps to remedy the situation.