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Middle East Team Dispatch

The Politics of Thirst
January 29, 2000

Scarcity of water has always been a significant problem in the arid, semi-desert regions of the Middle East. For Israelis and Palestinians, access to water is not only a question of survival, it has become a political issue as well.

Since the beginning of Israel's modern history, stretching existing water sources and developing new ones has been not only a survival necessity, but also a nationalist mission. After the First World War, when the Israel/Palestine area was still under British occupation, the British government attempted to restrict immigration to Palestine by stating that the physical conditions (including lack of water) could not support any more people. The Jewish community already living there did not want to accept this restriction. They strove to demonstrate that, with proper development, the land could sustain a much larger population. The Jewish immigrants at this time consisted of a wave of settlers who were ready and eager to learn about and adopt any new technology or idea in order to achieve their dream of "making the desert bloom". Their hard work resulted in the establishment of a large number of successful, flourishing agricultural settlements.

Vocabulary Box

Desalinating - removing salt
Vigorous - Powerful in action or effect
Ground Water - Water that has seeped beneath the earth's surface
Scarcity - Insufficient supply; not enough to meet demand

Using a variety of methods, the settlers were able to obtain, store and distribute significantly more water than the area had ever seen. Modern methods include purifying sewage or wastewater and desalinating seawater. Another creative project they used is called "rainfall enhancement" or "cloud seeding" - that is, making clouds produce more rainwater.

Conservation is also very important and the slogan "don't waste a drop" is known in every home in Israel. Today, Israel's National Water Carrier system delivers in one hour the same quantity of water delivered in all of 1937. In one day it can deliver the total amount poured in 1948. Its 6,500 kilometers of pipeline reach all corners of the country.

Nevertheless, even after drawing on all of its water resources and promoting vigorous conservation programs, Israel's basic quantity of water is still barely sufficient. For example, while Israel's average "water balance", or total quantity of water which is practically and economically fit for use, is estimated at 1.7 million liters per year, countrywide consumption in 1994 amounted to almost 2 million liters.

For Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, the issue becomes even more serious. Many Palestinians feel that they are discriminated against and are being denied their fair share of water. According to the Palestinian Water Authority, Israel utilizes more than 85% of the ground water resources, leaving Palestinians, who form about 30% of the population, with only 15% of the water. In addition, this scarce water supply has significantly affected Palestinian economy, limiting water use not only in homes, but also for agricultural purposes, a major source of income.

Since 1967, Israel's national water company, Mekerot, has controlled all surface and underground water in the occupied territories. Mekerot is responsible for managing all of Israel's water resources, developing new sources, ensuring regular delivery of water to all localities for all purposes, and licensing water to various sectors. Since its founding in 1937, Mekerot has sunk 1,300 wells, built 700 pumping stations, constructed 600 reservoirs and laid 6,500 kilometers of pipes.

Despite these grand achievements, the Palestinian Water Authority asserts that only 50% of the Palestinian communities in the West Bank are served with water networks. They also complain that water service in the Gaza Strip, which supplies 80% of the population with water, is almost always irregular, unreliable, and extremely poor in quality. The Palestinian Water Authority also claims that while the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip need at least 1.16 million liters per year for domestic use, they are restricted to 0.92 million liters. In other words, Palestinians are limited to about 50-85 liters per person per day, while, for example, Israelis use about of 280-300 liters per person per day. In contrast, Americans use about 385 liters per person per day. According to the PWA, the 3,000 to 4,000 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip use 75% of the available ground water, while around one million Palestinians use less than 25%. In the town of Hebron, the PWA estimates that 70% of the water goes to an estimated 8,500 settlers and 30% goes to the city's 250,000 Palestinian inhabitants.

In the areas under its civil control, the Palestinian National Authority has been made responsible for the distribution of water and for the collection of payments. However, it does not have the power to dig new wells or develop additional water sources, and has no control over the Israeli water system that passes through its territories.

Throughout its history Israel has devoted major efforts and funding to developing its water resources. They assert that water scarcity prevents them from offering Palestinians any more water. As an alternative, Israel has suggested either "desalination" - which is extremely expensive - or importing water from neighboring Arab nations. Nevertheless, Palestinians maintain that they have a right to an equal share of Israel's water resources.

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