Mohammed Assadi
September 17, 2008 - 8:00pm

In the plains around the village of Bardala, the Israeli-Palestinian tug-of-war over land and water plays itself out in vivid colour -- largely brown Palestinian farms border green fields owned by Jewish settlers.

Israel and the occupied West Bank have both been hit hard by drought, but Palestinian farmers say Israeli restrictions on their water supplies have made conditions far worse for them than for farmers in nearby Jewish settlements.

In many homes in the West Bank city of Jenin, water has been all but cut off since April. To cope, residents of Jenin and hundreds of villages get their water delivered by truck at sky-high prices.

In U.S.-sponsored peace talks over Palestinian statehood, disputes over water may be overshadowed by more sensitive issues like the future of Jerusalem and refugees. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said an accord would be "unthinkable" without agreement on dividing up the region's water resources.

"If you want to have a state, you must have water," said Palestinian Water Authority chief Shaddad Attili.

In Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, Ziyad Sawafta says he gets only enough water to plant eggplant, cabbage and other crops on half his 125-acre (50 hectare) plot.

To illustrate the disparity, Sawafta, a 60-year-old father of four, points to the thriving citrus grove next door, owned by the Jewish settlement of Mehola and fed with water through a network of irrigation pipes.

"We get only the ear from the whole camel. The rest of the camel goes to the settlements," said Sawafta, using a common Arab saying to illustrate how little water he receives.

Uri Shor, spokesman for the Israeli Water Authority, said Palestinians get more water than called for under interim peace agreements. He attributed shortages to Palestinians who he said illegally tap into the water system.


Water has long been a scarce resource in the Middle East but the problem is more acute this year. Scant rainfall has further strained supplies already restricted by Israel, which largely controls the West Bank's three main aquifers.

Water Authority Chief Attili estimated Palestinian farmers in West Bank and Gaza need 250 million cubic metres of water per year only for irrigation, but they get only about 20 percent of that, or about 50 million cubic metres a year.

The total amount of water that Palestinians get from their own resources and from Israel is estimated at 205 million cubic metres annually.

"People and land are thirsty and we can do little about it," Attili told Reuters.

Palestinian officials say Israel controls some 50 West Bank wells, with a total capacity of 50 million cubic metres per year, directing it mainly to Jewish settlements, which house some 250,000 people.

The Palestinians control about 200 shallow wells in the West Bank, many of them drilled before the 1967 Middle East war in which Israel captured the territory. Those wells produce about 105 million cubic metres per year, but they are meant to supply water to 2.5 million Palestinians.

Attili says West Bank Palestinians supplement their own well supplies by buying up to 45 million cubic metres of water from Israel. Another 5 million cubic metres bought from Israel goes to the Gaza Strip, supplementing 50 million from an aquifer.

A big part of the problem for Palestinians, officials and rights groups say, is that the amount of water supplied by Israel, set by quotas in interim peace agreements in the 1990s, has not increased in line with Palestinian population growth.

"That is not fair," Attili said, adding that the shortages could be alleviated if Israel allowed his authority to drill two or three new wells in the West Bank.

But Shor, of the Israeli Water Authority, said permitting Palestinians to drill more wells could "ruin" the existing West Bank aquifers.

Israeli officials say Palestinians aren't the only ones facing water shortages. Underscoring its concerns, Israel's government has launched a public campaign to discourage residents and businesses from wasting limited supplies.

Abdel-Rahman Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, said there was no comparison between the shortages facing Israelis and those facing Palestinians in the West Bank because some areas do not even have piped water and other areas suffer from irregular access to drinkable water.

He described the West Bank water crisis as "suffocating" because it affects both families and businesses, "whereas Israel is talking about reducing water for recreational purposes, such as ... swimming pools and lawns".

A recent report by the Israeli human rights group B'tselem said Israeli households consumed on average 3.5 times as much water as Palestinian households.

The group attributed the water shortage in Palestinian areas to what it called Israel's "discriminatory" policy in distributing water resources and restrictions on drilling new wells.


The shortages have translated into brisk business for water delivery trucks in several West Bank areas.

Jenin is connected to the water system but dwindling supplies have forced many there to turn to water vendors, whose prices have soared due to heavy demand and limited supply.

A recent U.N. report found that Palestinians in some of the hardest-hit communities were spending as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of their income on water delivered by truck. The Israeli Water Authority did not return several calls from Reuters to request similar information about Israeli consumers.

"I have never witnessed such shortage before," said Hussein Rahhal, a 73-year-old Jenin water vendor, as he stood by his truck in a long queue of similar vehicles waiting to fill their tanks. He added that some Jenin wells have already dried up.

His colleague, Hashem Abdel-Hafith, who nodded in agreement with Rahhal, said he switched off his mobile phone because he couldn't keep up with callers demanding water. "I kept answering: 'No water,'" Abdel-Hafith said.

In Bardala, home to nearly 2,000 Palestinians, farmers remember better days. Bardala had a surplus of water until the late 1970s when Israel drilled three deep wells next to the village's four shallow wells, causing them to dry up, they said.

Since then, Israel has reduced the amount of water it pumps to Bardala's farms, from 240 cubic metres per hour to 140, forcing many to slash production by up to 50 percent and to choose crops such as eggplant and beans that can survive on one watering per week.

Yousef Sawafta, another farmer from Bardala, said prices were falling because everyone in the village was planting the same drought-resistant crops.

"In the past, one could find all kinds of vegetables throughout the year. It is not the same any more," he said.


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