Water in the West Bank: Nor yet a drop to drink

This article originally appeared in The Economist on July 30, 2016.

Salfit — Iyad Qassem is trying to run a coffee shop without water. He reuses the stuff in his sink, which quickly fills with muck, and in the shishas that Palestinians puff on his patio. It would be a difficult task, if he had many customers: but it seems people who haven’t showered in a week lose interest in sipping tea in 35°C heat. “The café is empty because everyone is worried about the situation. It’s getting impossible to run a business,” he says.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians in Salfit and the surrounding villages are suffering through a months-long drought. Summer shortages are nothing new on the parched hills outside Nablus, in the northern West Bank. But this season is particularly bad. Taps slowed to a trickle before the Ramadan holiday, and few expect relief before the winter rains.

Israelis once obsessed over the level of their largest natural reservoir, the Sea of Galilee. As The Economist went to press, it was just 11cm above its “red line”, the point at which Israel stops pumping water to avoid ecological damage. Yet this no longer causes public concern, for most of Israel’s water is artificially produced. About a third comes from desalination plants that are among the world’s most advanced. Farmers rely on reclaimed water for irrigation. Israel recycles 86% of its wastewater, the highest level anywhere; Spain, the next best, reuses around 20%.

None of these high-tech solutions helps the Palestinians, though, because they are not connected to Israel’s water grid. They rely on the so-called “mountain aquifer”, which lies beneath land Israel occupied in 1967. The 1995 Oslo Accords stipulated that 80% of the water from the aquifer would go to Israel, with the rest allocated to the Palestinians. The agreement, meant to be a five-year interim measure, will soon celebrate its 21st birthday. During that time the Palestinian population in the West Bank has nearly doubled, to almost 3m. The allocation has not kept pace.

The settler population has doubled too, and they face their own shortages. In Ariel, a city of 19,000 adjacent to Salfit, residents experienced several brief outages this month. Smaller settlements in the area, which are not hooked up to the national grid, have dealt with longer droughts. Palestinians have suffered far more, however. On average they get 73 litres per day, less than the 100-litre minimum recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Walid Habib spends 300 shekels ($75) each week to fill the tanks on top of his house in Salfit—a huge sum in the West Bank, where the average monthly wage is about $500. The water, drawn from wells drilled by the Palestinian Authority, is trucked in each morning on the winding mountain road. Supplies are limited, and residents do not always get their weekly deliveries. “We have a sea underneath us in Salfit, but we can’t even take a shower,” he says. “It’s pathetic.”

Down the hill at a taxi company, workers have no water to brew tea. A more urgent problem is the office bathroom—dry toilets do not flush. “We’ve probably spent more on Dettol this summer than on gasoline,” jokes a dispatcher.

The situation is even worse in Gaza, which relies almost entirely on a fast-shrinking coastal aquifer; what remains is polluted from years of untreated sewage and agricultural run-off. The stuff that comes out of Gazan taps is already brackish and salty. UN experts think that aquifer will be irreversibly damaged by 2020.

Israel’s water authority sells the Palestinians 64m cubic metres of water each year. It says they cause their own shortages, because up to a third of the West Bank’s water supply leaks out of rusting Palestinian pipes. A joint water committee is supposed to resolve these issues, but it has not met for five years. Predictably, each side accuses the other of causing the deadlock. Palestinians also find their own government neglectful: the administrative capital Ramallah is well-supplied as the hinterlands go thirsty. Blame is never in short supply, even if water is. “When you don’t have water, it destroys everything,” says Mr Habib, sipping on a cup of the stuff—bottled, of course.