Palestinian City Parched After Israel Cuts Water Supply
Chickens and gardens in Salfit die of dehydration, and factories are shut down in an effort to conserve water; 'We woke up one morning to an empty reservoir,' the mayor says. 'Had we known ahead of time that the water would be cut off, we would have stocked up.'
“I can fast. My chickens and plants can’t. I can go without drinking water for 18 hours during Ramadan. I understand. But my plants and chickens, what do they know? What can I tell them – to make do, because Mekorot [the Israeli water company] is reducing the amount of water, and specifically now during the summer and Ramadan?” says Nizar Rayan, a resident of Qarawat Bani Hassan in the Salfit District.
Rayan has an impressive plant nursery in front of his house and a large chicken coop down the road. At the beginning of June, when it became clear that the cuts in the water supply to the towns and villages in the central West Bank district were not temporary, he rushed out and sold almost all of his 700 chickens. He thought he would have enough water for about 80 chickens when the regular water supply was renewed, but 50 of them died from dehydration last week. Another died on Sunday. When he entered the almost empty coop to show me around, he discovered the dead body lying on the ground. That’s how, within two to three weeks, Rayan calculates that he’s lost some 7,000 shekels ($1,800).
Now he fears for the fate of the plant nursery. The squash gourds and zucchini seedlings have already shown signs of wilting. So far, he’s gotten by, barely, with water he brought from a cistern that collects and stores rainwater at his parents’ house, and with the water he bought – at 10 times the normal rate – from a tractor driver who travels a few dozen kilometers to fill his tank with water. The payment is for the diesel fuel, work and time.
But he cannot use up all his parents’ water, and the driver, a local resident, can’t spend 24 hours a day hauling water. He doesn’t have a pump to raise the water into the plastic tanks on the roof, either.
When Rayan washes his hands before prayer, he is careful to do so in the garden – above a small tree or the seedlings – so they can enjoy a little too.
For the past three weeks, the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians around Salfit and Nablus have revolved around water.
“On the morning of June 4, we discovered that our main water reservoir, with a capacity of 1,500 cubic meters, was completely empty,” Salfit Mayor Dr. Shaher Ishtayeh told Haaretz last week. No one warned the local council in advance that Mekorot was cutting off the supply for a day.
“If we had known, we could have prepared appropriately,” Ishtayeh said. “Told people to fill bottles, to give up what was not urgent – for example, washing cars or floors. To warn the owner of the cowshed. Close the taps in order to ensure that some water will remain in the reservoir, so that when we start [the water] flowing again, there will be enough pressure.”
Ishtayeh gave his own small garden as an example: he planted tomatoes, parsley and other vegetables before Ramadan. The work, money, pleasure watching the growing plants and the expectations for the bounty – all was lost. And the same goes for many others in the area.
Priceless drops going to waste
Salfit is a city with a tradition for rapid organization, and a municipality emergency committee was immediately convened. The mosques’ loudspeakers, Facebook and the local radio station all reported on the situation. The owner of the local cement factory was ordered to close temporarily: We’re sorry, he was told, drinking water is more important.
The city’s sewage department has a truck with a split tank: One half for clean water (for flushing the pits) and the other for collecting sewage. They immediately filled the clean half with water from the spring well in the wadi, and drove between the houses so that at least the drinking and washing needs for that day could be met.
Even though the water supply from Mekorot was eventually renewed (albeit at half the normal rate), a few hours and hundreds of priceless cubic meters of water were wasted in order to wash out the rust and sand from the system.
Residents call city employees constantly: Why does my neighbor have water and I don’t? Why hasn’t water reached our neighborhood? When should I expect the water to start flowing – and when will it stop again? The municipality’s and village councils’ employees are not exaggerating when they say they’re working night and day, with barely time to sleep.
They divided Salfit into three zones, and the water is distributed in rotation: When the water flows in one area, the central pipes’ taps to the other two are turned off. Because of the low water pressure, a pump has to be used for the higher areas. The city was prepared and bought two such pumps a few years ago. One now operates flat out, 24 hours a day, to supply water, generating a lot of heat. The second pump is ready to go for when the first needs to be rested. Hence, the water shortage also entails additional electricity expenses.
Once in a while, engineer Ahmad Shahin receives a phone call from one of the workers: The water has reached all of the homes in a certain area, so you should close the valve and pump water to a different area.
Sometimes, Hassan Afaneh – the engineer in charge of the city’s water and sewage department – orders that water distribution be stopped in all areas for a few hours, in order to allow the reservoir’s water level to rise and increase water pressure. Such an order can be given at night, which is why city workers must always be on call.
Article 40 of the 1995 interim agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization – better known as the Oslo Accords – states that the division of water from the mountain aquifer to the Palestinians and Israelis – both settlers and those living inside the sovereign territory of Israel – will remain unchanged from what it was before the signing of the agreements, with an estimated growth in future Palestinian water needs of between 70 to 80 million cubic meters of water a year.
Some 28.6 million cubic meters a year was to be provided by Israel, and the Palestinians could get the rest by drilling new wells. (The Jordan River is not included in this division. Even when water flowed in the river, after 1967 Israel did not allow the Palestinians to use it.)
Increased dependence on Israel
This division of water saw 80 percent going to Israel, and 20 percent to the Palestinians. The “interim” period was meant to expire in 1999, with the end of negotiations on the permanent agreement. But the interim continues: The Palestinian population has grown, industrial and development needs have been added, while the amount of water available to the Palestinians has shrunk in practice because some of the new wells have failed or supply less than the expected amount, and some existing wells now produce less.
Estimates say that the Palestinians now have access to only about 14 percent of the mountain aquifer’s water. That’s why the amount they buy from Mekorot, and their dependence on Israel, has grown.
The mountain aquifer is the only source of water for the Palestinians. It’s also an important source of water for Israel, but not the only one.
The Salfit area, like the entire western basin of the mountain aquifer, has an abundance of water. The potential for pumping from the western basin is between 360 million to 405 million cubic meters of water a year. (The potential for extraction from the mountain aquifer in total is between 620 million to 700 million cubic meters of water a year.)
The Palestinian water authority told Haaretz last week that the Oslo Accords allow the Palestinians to extract some 22 million cubic meters of water a year from the western basin, and that today they are pumping some 30 million. The rest – that is between 330 to 380 million cubic meters – is for Israel.
In winter and spring, nearly 100 small springs flow between the rocks and olive trees on the area’s hills. A few of them still flow even now, in the middle of the summer heat, with surprisingly clear and refreshing water just a kilometer or two from the homes and their dry taps.
A young child, Shaher, was headed toward one of these springs from the village of Yasuf. The donkey he was riding had plastic bottles hanging off both sides of a makeshift saddle. “My mother sent me,” Shaher said. “We have no water at home.”
Two of the springs – Al Mwatti and As-Sika – flow throughout the year. They serve the farmers, and the city pumps some of their water to its central reservoir. This water is pumped to the Salfit reservoir through a red pipe, about 150 cubic meters a day. The blue pipe, the larger one, carries water sold by Mekorot – about 100 to 120 cubic meters an hour, on normal days. This means the spring provides about 6 percent of the area’s daily water supply.
Last Tuesday, the water meter on the blue pipe still spun at a painfully slowly rate. Some three weeks after the supply was cut for a day, the water that Mekorot sends through is still only 40 percent to 60 percent of the normal amount.
In other areas of the western West Bank, such as Tul Karm and Qalqilyah, the Jordanian authorities drilled deep water wells before 1967. They’re included in the water infrastructure the Palestinian Authority was allowed to operate. The Salfit District was unlucky, though, and has no such wells. The springs, shallow water wells and cisterns for collecting rainwater in homes and fields, met the needs of 60 years ago. “Who ever thought the day would come when we wouldn’t be able to use the water flowing under our feet based on our own needs,” says the mayor.
The temporary-permanent Oslo Accords forbid the Palestinians from drilling deep wells in the region richest in water – the western basin. Fully aware of the dependence on Mekorot, Ishtayeh has informed various Palestinian officials of city development plans that cannot be implemented: For example, it will be impossible to establish university branches there because of a lack of water for students and faculty. The Palestinian security services were also informed that their plans to build a training base in the area were unrealistic.
The governor’s offices and headquarters of the security services are located in the city, which has increased the number of water consumers to 18,000 (two nearby villages, plus the 14,000 residents of Salfit).
Two villages that used to receive their water from the Salfit reservoir were asked to find a new water source. The amount of water Israel allocated was inadequate for them all, too, as their needs changed.
‘Not in our hands’
The water shortage has also caused internal tensions: Ishtayeh told the police not to allow a water broker from a different town to come in, since he sells water at excessive prices from his tanker. The three villages northwest of Salfit – Qarawat Bani Hassan, Biddya and Sarta – share a single pipe, so they must share the little they have between them and take turns.
Some people have complained that the distribution was not done fairly and suspected the employees favored their own village.
Aziz Assi, the mayor of Qarawat Bani Hassan, asked the district governor to appoint an employee from somewhere else to the post, who will therefore be above suspicion.
On popular radio programs, the mayors are forced to appear time and again to answer citizens’ complaints about the water shortage. “It’s not in our hands,” they say in desperation. The radio show hosts then call the Palestinian water authority officials, who tell them, “It’s not in our hands.” They call the officials at Mekorot and are told about the water shortage, including in the settlements, and that the main reservoirs in the settlements must be filled first.
Do the settlements in the area (Ariel, first of all) suffer from a similar problem? Palestinians who work there know full well that they do not.
“On every roof here, there are tanks to collect water (for when the pipe is dry). Have you seen such tanks on the settlers’ roofs?” asks Rayan, as he tries to squeeze a few more drops out of one of the empty barrels in his garden for a geranium seedling.