Water in the middle east: a quiet conflict

It has not rained extensively in the middle east for five years. The dispute over water aggravates the already tense situation

Water in the middle east is running out: springs are drying up, drinking water reserves are shrinking, and the once-frictional jordan river is a poor little stream. Palestinian farmers suffer the most, because agriculture in the west bank is becoming more and more difficult. But the water crisis is also becoming more visible in israel.

It has not rained extensively in the middle east for five years. The winter rains have simply failed to materialize. Whether climate change is to blame or not, no one can say for sure at the moment. One thing is clear: the region has not seen such a long dry spell in a long time, and it could aggravate the already difficult political situation even more.

"Water is a quiet conflict in the region," says german hydrogeologist clemens messerschmidt, who has lived in ramallah for 12 years. But this does not make the situation any less explosive: for years, the dispute over the distribution of the increasingly scarce water has been intensifying. According to a recent amnesty report, israel claims more than 80 percent of the water reserve under the west bank for itself. The israeli water authority also determines how much is distributed to the palestinians.

"The israelis were very quick to understand what was most valuable in this region," explains water expert messerschmidt, who works closely with the palestinian water authority, "so it’s no wonder that they were the first to secure water sovereignty in the occupied territories after the 1967 war". This includes the upper tributaries of the jordan river in the golan heights as well as the drinking water resources located below the west bank. "Their first official act was to introduce the permit system: according to this system, all palestinians must apply if they want even one screw for a water pipe," says messerschmidt.

A permit is needed for everything in the west bank when it comes to water: to drill wells, build cisterns and repair pipes. "All applications can be rejected without justification," says messerschmidt. The chances of getting a well approved are very slim, as confirmed by the palestinian water authority.

Its head dr. Shaddat complains: "i am the chief of virtual water". He says he is exclusively concerned with distributing the water allocated by the israeli authorities. "Palestinian farmers from all over the country come here to ramallah and ask me for more water – but i just can’t help them."

Imbalance between occupiers and occupied grows

Since the second oslo accords in 1995, israel has promised to cede a certain amount of water per year to the palestinians, and to gradually increase it. "But that never happened," comments hydrogeologist messerschmidt, "instead, the amount of water available is now less than the amount once promised in the oslo accords". The main problem is that the palestinian population is growing rapidly. This leads to an increasing imbalance between the occupiers and the occupied. According to amnesty’s report, an israeli consumes on average close to 300 liters per day, while a palestinian has just 70 liters, and 20 liters per person per day in poor regions. The israeli water authority had denied the figures of amnesty however.

The consequences of israel’s water policy on the ground, however, are obvious: in the entire west bank, one hardly sees any green patches or even wax houses that indicate agriculture. The area is bare, covered with female rocks and some withered olive trees. Passing the checkpoint and entering the israeli heartland, the picture changes abruptly: fields lie on the right and left of the road like green carpets in the landscape, voluminous greenhouses, date and banana plantations stretch as far as the eye can see.

Rationed water soon also in israel?

But in israel, too, people are now beginning to economize. And that first with the farmers. Because israeli agriculture accounts for only about three percent of national income. The sea of galilee, israel’s largest drinking water reservoir, has less and less water due to the lack of winter rains. Above the lake, in the golan heights, through which numerous tributaries of the jordan river run, residents complain about running dry springs and government rationed water supplies. Farmers report that subsidized water prices will be capped.

Moshav rehov, who grows herbs, says he currently pays one shekel, about two cents per cubic meter of water. But the government had already threatened to increase prices tenfold soon. "Then we have no chance to survive," says the farmer, who relies on particularly water-intensive greenhouse production. Palestinians, on the other hand, already pay an average of five shekels per cubic meter for their tap water.

West bank: cut pipes and drying up wells

The fact that palestinian farmers are not allowed to drill new wells and are dependent on the water allocation means that their dependence on natural sources is high. Remote areas that are not connected to the pipeline system are hit particularly hard. One example is the once fertile jordan valley. According to the locals, even before the jewish occupation there were numerous fields where fruit, vegetables and herbs were grown. But this has long been the end.

One of the first acts of the israeli army after the six-day war in 1967 was to cut off the water pipelines from the jordan river to the fields, explains the palestinian water engineer nader al-khateeb. At present only a fraction of the formerly irrigated land is cultivated. Today, the jordan river is located in the west bank in a military zone secured by mines and barbed wire. Its water, however, is no more than a cesspool, since its tributaries are as good as dry and millions of liters are also pumped into the israeli supply system from the sea of galilee, through which the jordan river flows. Mainly sewage is discharged.

The durre is now causing the natural springs to dry up as well. This happened in the community of ouja near jericho, not far from the jordan river. Die meisten haushalte der gegend sind nicht einmal an das leitungssystem angeschlossen, so wie rund ein drittel aller palastinensischen dorfer. Three years ago, farmers were deprived of access to the jordan river. Now the natural al-ouja source is also drying up. The inhabitants can only hope that it will rain one day. The only alternative is to have tankers brought in with expensive water. A cubic meter then costs more than five times the average price of water. For this, palestinians have to work long hours – often as day laborers in israeli settlements, as al-khateeb recounts.

"It always hits the poorest in a society first," says messerschmidt. In ramallah, on the other hand, the seat of government of the palestinian authority, there is no sign of the water crisis.

I have been living in ramallah for 12 years now and there has always been water coming out of the tap.

As long as the ruling class does not experience the problem first hand, nothing will change – this is no different in palestine than in any other country in the world. The hydrologist, however, is particularly disappointed with europe: western development ngos have been printing themselves around the dispute with israel. Access to water is one of the most pressing problems in the west bank and gaza. Hier gehe es nicht nur um die okonomische entwicklung des landes, sondern oftmals um die nackte existenz vieler menschen.

Israelis and palestinians alike are now eagerly awaiting winter. If there was no gross rain again, the quiet conflict could soon turn into a loud, visible confrontation.

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