Israel is accused today of denying the West Bank and Gaza access to adequate water through a "total" and "discriminatory" control that enables its own people to consume four times as much as the Palestinians.
An Amnesty International report paints a picture of many Palestinian families struggling – and often failing – to secure enough water for drinking, cleaning, and agriculture while Israelis, including residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, have all they need for lush, irrigated farmland, swimming pools and gardens.
Amnesty also suggests that taxpayers in countries who donate aid to the Palestinians are facing unnecessarily high costs to meet severe water shortages because their governments are unwilling to challenge "the most unreasonable" restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinian access to the regionally scarce resource.
It claims the 450,000 settlers who have taken up residence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the Six-Day War in 1967 consume as much as or more than the 2.3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. It says the overall Palestinian per capita consumption of 70 litres per day compares with the WHO recommended level of 100 litres and Israeli consumption of 300.
The report adds that between 180,000 and 200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities – especially in the Israeli controlled "Area C" which comprises 60 per cent of the West Bank – have no access to running water. According to Amnesty, the Israeli military "often" prevents them from accessing rainwater – for example by destroying water-harvesting cisterns or even confiscating water tankers.
At the same time the report highlights the unequal distribution of water from the mountain aquifer which is the principal groundwater resource for both communities, most of which is located in the West Bank, and from which Israel draws 80 per cent. It also points out that using water for Israel's supplies from the River Jordan – as Jordan does, and Syria and Lebanon do further upstream – before the river reaches the West Bank, deprives Palestinians of any access to the river's water.
The report is critical of past mismanagement by the Palestinian Water Authority and says the international donors sometimes lack coordination in funding water-related projects in the occupied territories. But the bulk of the report blames Israeli restrictions and repeated refusals to grant permits for wells and other installations.
While the Oslo accords in the mid-Nineties agreed a highly unequal distribution, the report suggests the disparities have worsened since then. Instead of challenging restrictions, international donors – among which the principal governments are those of the US and Germany – choose to divert "significant funds" to short-term projects such as repairing war damage or funding tanker shipments at many times the cost of piped supplies.
In Gaza, the report says 90-95 per cent of the water from the coastal aquifer which has traditionally supplied it, is now unfit for human consumption. It adds that Israel's refusal to allow water to be exported from the West Bank to Gaza, now compounded by the embargo on materials for infrastructure development and repair, have brought Gaza's water and sewage system to "crisis point."
Donatella Rovera, author of the Amnesty report, called for an end to the restrictions and added that Palestinians were allowed "only a fraction" of the shared water resources, which lie mostly in the West Bank, while "the unlawful Israeli settlements receive virtually unlimited supplies".
Israel's water authority complained the report was "biased and incorrect" and said it had met its obligations under the Oslo agreement while Palestinians were not distributing water efficiently.
It also challenged the Amnesty figures and said the real gap was 408 litres per head in Israel and 287 litres for the Palestinians. But Amnesty said last night that Israeli figures did not take account of desalinated and treated water consumed by Israel, or the 35 per cent of leakage from the Palestinian water supply caused by Israel's failure to build new infrastructure. Amnesty said its own figures showed a slightly smaller gap than that identified by the World Bank.
Aisha and Hafez Hereni: 'We save every drop, but it's never enough'
*Aisha and Hafez Hereni live in the small village of Tuwani, located in the Southern Hebron Hills. The village is not connected to a pipe network, and so they rely on rainwater, stored in cisterns, and water delivered at great expense by tankers.
The cisterns are often soiled by Israeli settlers, Aisha says – they have found nappies and dead chickens in the supply. With the family's goats a key food source, and five children, the need for an adequate supply is critical. "We save every drop, but it's never enough," Aisha goes on. "It is a daily struggle."
Nearby Israeli settlements are fully plugged in to the water network; indeed, one water conduit passes through Tuwani on its way to an illegal settlement. The Israeli army has denied the village permission to tap into that supply, despite a prolonged drought. And in July this year, soldiers delivered a stop work order for a large cistern that could have greatly eased delivery costs by providing a long-term storage option. "We spend a lot of money on water and we never have enough," says Hafez. "They are trying to force us out of the area by all means. Taking our land is one way and limiting our access to water is another way."