Climate change is a human rights issue. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), where land and natural resources required for climate adaptation are controlled by Israel, and systematically denied to Palestinians. Of all these resources, none are more vital than water.
‘Water apartheid’, it’s called: Jewish settlers receive copious volumes for cheap, Palestinians scrape and scratch to get what they need, at great cost. A highly asymmetrical, discriminatory and exploitative regime formalized in law, achieved through physical separation and enforced by soldiers and police. The very definition of apartheid.
As water grows scarcer in the fast-warming Middle East, as rainfall variability and evaporative losses climb (Israel is in the midst of a five-year drought), those with access to water, and the capacity to capture, store, convey and recycle it, will survive. Perhaps even thrive. Those who don’t will either move on or perish. Nothing would make Israel happier than to see the Palestinians go away.
“The use of water for population transfer is a predictable reflection of the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” writes UK political scientist Mark Zeitoun. “The water conflict and suffering will continue so long as the more influential politicians continue this game, and diplomats and thinkers choose not to challenge them.”
Although Palestine is largely arid, water has always been surprisingly available. It flows from three main sources: the Jordan river, the ‘Mountain Aquifer’ and the Coastal Aquifer. Fed by springs and upstream catchments in Lebanon, Syria, the occupied Golan Heights and northern Israel, the upper Jordan flows into Lake Tiberias, the system’s largest freshwater basin. From there, it empties into the lower Jordan, trickling on to the Dead Sea.
The ‘Mountain Aquifer’ is Palestine’s most abundant source of drinking water. Straddling the Green Line between Israel ‘proper’ and the occupied West Bank, from Jenin in the north down to Hebron, it consists of three distinct basins – the Eastern, Northeastern and Western aquifers. The Western Aquifer is larger than the other two combined.
In the wake of Israel’s June 1967 conquest of the West Bank, water immediately on his mind, Major General Chaim Herzog declared that all “movable and unmovable property” would be transferred to his “exclusive custody.” Hours later, another order handed all West Bank water resources to the Israeli state. Subsequent decrees nullified pre-1967 arrangements, granting “absolute authority” over all wells, springs and water projects to the Israeli military. More followed, forbidding Palestinians to “set up or to assemble or to possess or to operate a water installation unless he has obtained a license from the Area Commander.” Applications could be rejected without justification. The banks of the lower Jordan were declared a closed military zone. Pumps and irrigation ditches tapping into the Jordan were confiscated or destroyed.
In 1982, management of West Bank water systems was transferred to the water utility Mekorot, fifty percent-owned by the state. A decade later, the 1994-95 Oslo Accords promised a certain measure of water access to Palestinians under military occupation. Article 40 of the 1995 Oslo II Interim Agreement “recognized” Palestinian “water rights,” without specifying what they were, setting aside this thorny question for final status negotiations that would never take place. In the interim, “each side’s powers and responsibilities” would be “respected.” West Bank water resources would be “maintained and developed in a coordinated manner,” all decisions made “by consensus.”
A Joint Water Committee (JWC) was struck, but equality was a mirage. Israeli members could delay or veto Palestinian projects, including in Oslo Areas A and B (40% of the West Bank), the archipelago of enclaves where most Palestinians live, and where the PA ostensibly exercised control. Palestinian members would not have the same right vis-à-vis Israeli projects drawing water from downstream portions of the Mountain Aquifer, inside the Green Line, or from the Coastal Aquifer.
Nor did they have any say over water projects within Area C (including the water-rich Jordan Valley), the sixty percent of the West Bank where Israel’s Civil Administration (COGAT) calls the shots, where Israel’s half million settlers live, and where most wells and conveyance lines supplying Areas A and B are located. In theory, Palestinian JWC members could veto settlement projects, but the Israelis would veto theirs in return. Moreover, JWC-approved projects to renovate pre-existing Palestinian structures in Area C would be subject to COGAT veto. “Coercive horse-trading,” UK political scientist Mark Zeitoun calls it. Water theorist Jan Selby sums up Israel’s aims in three words: “cooperation, domination and colonization.”
Under JWC “co-management,” two separate water systems have been created in the West Bank: a continuous one for Jewish settlements, large pipes tied into Mekorot’s national network, though also drawing water from the Mountain Aquifer, supplying Jews with cheap, reliable water; the other for Palestinians, a fragmented network of narrow pipes receiving some forty percent of its supply from Mekorot, the remainder from wells and springs under PA control. Although an estimated eighty percent of Mountain Aquifer waters lie beneath or are recharged from the West Bank, only twenty percent are apportioned to West Bank Palestinians. Israel and its settlers appropriate the rest.
Israelis are quick to point out that eighty percent of Tel Aviv and Haifa’s drinking water flows from their world-famous desalination plants, that a third of their irrigation water is recycled (an energy-intensive process partially offset by biogas captured from sludge digesters), and that reclaimed water will soon be used to refill the fast-falling Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately, the PA hasn’t the cash or autonomy to develop climate-smart technologies of these sorts. Gaza certainly doesn’t.
The bottom line: Israelis consume the lion’s share of West Bank water – ninety percent, by some estimates. Four to five times more, per capita, than Palestinians. Jewish settlements, hooked up to subsidized Mekorot lines, consume about six times more. Israelis consume an estimated 300 liters of water per capita per day (lcd). Palestinians consume seventy (as low as fifty in Gaza). One hundred lcd is the World Health Organization standard. According to a 2012 report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, one hundred Area C grazing communities get by on as little as thirty lcd. The gap between Israeli and Palestinian irrigation water use is even wider.
Asymmetrical water access is the most flagrant in the Eastern Aquifer region. Lying beneath the eastern flank of the mountains and the Jordan Valley, almost all of it within Area C, Israel appropriates seventy percent of its volume. Palestinian permits to dig or rehabilitate wells are routinely denied. Palestinians who approach the banks of the Jordan River are liable to get shot. Each day, Mekorot conveys a million cubic meters of Jordan River water from Lake Tiberias, down three meter-diameter pipelines, to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Negev communities.
Elsewhere within Area C, from Jenin in the north down to the South Hebron Hills, “water apartheid” is the name of the game. Permits to dig or refurbish wells, or install cisterns or pipes are systematically denied. Those that get dug or laid down without permits are demolished or filled in. Water tanks shepherds rely on for their lives and livelihoods are brutally confiscated. Even rainwater collection is forbidden. ‘Illegal’ connections to Mekorot’s network – sometimes spotted by settlement drones – are bulldozed. Settlements do not need to apply to COGAT for Mekorot connections. Mekorot provides them copious supplies, or they dig deep wells, with IDF support.
For thirsty Palestinian communities in Area C, natural springs are a free alternative to tankered water conveyed over long distances, arriving contaminated, at five times the cost. These bubbling founts and pools are their largest source of water for irrigation and livestock, and offer volumes of cultural meaning. According to Israeli researcher Dror Etkes, less than twenty percent of the estimated 530 West Bank springs are currently active, and their yield has fallen, presumably due to declining precipitation and Israeli over-extraction. A 2012 survey carried out by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) identified 56 West Bank springs either seized or under threat by local settlers. Over eighty percent were located on private Palestinian land. Twenty-two had become scenes of intimidation and violence, four had been declared “closed military zones” and four had been annexed. Forty of the 56 springs had been turned into settler tourist sites, replete with picnic benches, shading structures and Hebrew signage bearing the names of local settler leaders or victims of ‘terrorist’ attacks. Others were blocked by checkpoints or the Separation Wall, or sealed off inside the ‘seam zone’ between the Wall and the Green Line.
Precious water can be equally inaccessible in West Bank cities. A forest of rooftop water tanks dominates their skylines, filling up on the day of the week or the two or three days a month when tap water flows – through narrower pipes than the ones in Israeli homes. (During the Second Intifada, Israeli soldiers enjoyed shooting holes in them.)
Water apartheid is the cruelest in Gaza. Lying beneath the overpopulated strip, Israel’s coastal plain and the Sinai, the Coastal Aquifer is fed by rainfall, groundwater flowing from Israel, artificial recharge and seawater intrusion. Although Israel has plenty of other sources of water, it appropriates three-quarters of the aquifer’s flow before Gazans get their turn. Now below sea level, intruded by seawater, polluted by Gaza’s untreated waste, 95% of the aquifer is undrinkable. Most Gazans turn to bottled or desalinated water, for up to a third of their income. With the support of the World Bank and other agencies, the PA hopes to refurbish Gaza’s wastewater treatment plant, using solar energy to pump treated water back into the aquifer. Their ambitious project will require Palestinian unity – and Israel’s permission.
Israeli hegemony over Palestinian water resources crucial for climate change adaptation, on behalf of its own economy and illegal settlement enterprise, places it in breach of numerous humanitarian and human rights laws. Among these: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Fourth Geneva Convention (FGC), the International Covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Among the ‘customary’ or ‘peremptory’ norms embodied in these laws – universally accepted, incumbent on all, without derogation: the right to life, liberty, equality, self-determination, personal security, private property, a dignified livelihood and protection from degrading treatment. Access to natural resources — especially those essential for adapting to mortal threats like climate change – embraces all these rights. As an occupying power, Israel must administer Palestinian natural resources on behalf of the people under its rule, people the FGC defines as “protected.” It must conserve their quantity and value, and refrain from exploiting them for its own economic benefit, or for the benefit of its own citizens — certainly not those illegally transferred into occupied territory.
Will it do so? Will Israel approve the proposals Palestine has put forward under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, aimed at adapting to water scarcity? Will it grant permits for the wells Palestinians want to rehabilitate, the cisterns, tanks, earthen dams, soil water harvesting systems and leak-proof conveyance systems they want to build, from Jenin and Tulkarm in the north, down to Bethlehem and the South Hebron Hills, so that Palestinians can continue to live on their land, whatever Earth’s climate delivers over the next fifty years? Or will Israel say no?
Five years into one of the region’s worst droughts, water scarcity on the rise, ‘water apartheid’ amounts to forced transfer. Both are egregious crimes. The ‘crime of apartheid’ is a crime against humanity.