Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Wednesday, 20 August 2008 11:47 UK

West Bank struggles for water

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Jerusalem

Roof tanks, Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem
Back-up roof tanks in Beit Jalla are nearly empty

The former United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Ghali, may not have been right when he said in the 1990s that the next major war in the Middle East would be about water, not politics.

His statement, though, accurately reflected the strategic and political importance of water in the region.

For Israelis and Palestinians the control of water is almost as important as the control of land.

This year, much lower than average rainfall has led to drought conditions.

In Israel it is only just beginning to have an impact, but just a few miles away in the occupied West Bank, the crisis is much more acute for the Palestinians living there.


Rabab Zorab lives just outside Bethlehem. Her husband has a good job and they have a comfortable home.

But, playing with her one-year-old daughter Justina, Rabab said it was humiliating having to wash at the homes of family members, or to go days without clean clothes because they have no water.

Justina Zorab and her grandmother
The Zorab family say they are struggling without running water
The Zorab family hasn't had running water for more than two weeks.

Like every other family in this apartment block they have "back-up" tanks on the roof.

The tanks, though, are nearly empty despite the family's careful attempts not to use much of the precious water.

Abir Suqar lives in the same apartment block. She also has young children, two small boys, and has nowhere near enough water to do her daily chores.

"There's no water to have a bath or shower," says Abir.

The young mother looks almost embarrassed as she says she is having to buy the boys new clothes because she cannot wash the ones they have.

In some areas of the West Bank, Palestinians only have one-third of the minimum daily amount of water recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Official figures show that per capita water consumption is three times less than in Israel, even though Israelis and Palestinians theoretically share many of the same water supplies.

Growing population

It is all about control.

Agriculture is an important industry in Israel and the country has developed some of the world's most efficient irrigation systems.

Shaddad Attili, Palsetinian
Mr Attili says he is the minister for "virtual water"
But the cultivation of non-native crops - like bananas, which consume large amounts of water - is controversial.

Human rights groups accuse Israel of using its occupation of the Palestinian territories to control the supply of water from vast underground aquifers.

Uri Shani, the Director of Israel's Water Authority, says the problem is more fundamental.

"The population of this region - Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Jordan - has grown by more than 20 million in the last century", said Mr Shani.

"All of these people use, consume and drink water."

One of the West Bank Palestinians' greatest grievances is that while they struggle with irregular or unpredictable water supplies, nearby Jewish settlements enjoy the benefits of regular access to running water.

The settlements, considered illegal under international law, are highly controversial and, like water, are seen as one of the biggest obstacles to peace.

The Israeli government insists that all communities in the West Bank - Jewish or Palestinian - have the same access to resources.

'Crisis management'

The Head of the Palestinian Water Authority is Shaddad Attili.

With a shrug of the shoulders, he says that because of the Israeli occupation he is utterly disempowered to do anything about the chronic shortage of water.

Roof tanks, Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem (Image: Science Photo Library)
The already dry region is suffering a drought
" I am the minister for "virtual" water," says Mr Attili, without a hint of a smile.

On a map of the West Bank he shows that the Mountain Aquifer lies largely under Palestinian territory, but says his department is prevented by Israel from sinking wells to extract water.

"All I do is crisis management. I can't even put two ends of a pipe together without Israel's permission", he says, somewhat sarcastically.

Israel insists that it is supplying the Palestinians with more than their agreed share of water, under interim agreements.

In the meantime Israel is helping to ease the pressure on traditional supplies by developing alternative sources of fresh water, especially desalination plants on the coast.

But with more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank not connected to a running water supply, there are concerns that the current drought may lead to an even more unfair distribution of this precious resource.

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