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As Water Dries Up, West Bank Village Thirsts for Less Precarious Supply

  • Reuters

FILE - Bedouins ride donkeys in the West Bank near Jerusalem, Dec. 3, 2012.

FILE - Bedouins ride donkeys in the West Bank near Jerusalem, Dec. 3, 2012.

A mountainous Palestinian community in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Al Jab'a differs in many ways from surrounding Israeli settlements but it shares one worry with its neighbors — a shortage of water.

In the last few decades, the West Bank has seen rainfall decrease and groundwater levels fall, with drought expected to become "more frequent [and] more intense," according to a 2012 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report.

Residents of Al Jab'a, who once had to walk for hours daily to fetch water, do have limited access to Israeli water supplies in their concrete homes due to a reservoir, pipeline and pump built in 2013 by an Italian non-governmental organization.

But the water provided is not enough, according to families in Al Jab'a, a village of about 150 houses 12 km (7 miles) southwest of Bethlehem. They also fear their system could be demolished, as it was not officially approved.

"Before, we had to walk many times a day to the nearby springs to fill our bottles and buckets," said Omar Musa, 18, who lives with his parents and five siblings near the reservoir in a house atop a hill. "I was happy when I knew I would have water at home."

He estimated that his family saves about six hours a day by not having to fetch water for themselves, their crops and their livestock.

Water restrictions

But numerous rural and Bedouin communities in the West Bank are not connected to a network run by Israel's national water company, Mekorot, which is responsible for supplying water to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territory.

In Al Jab'a, only 10 percent of homes were part of the Mekorot distribution system until the pipes and reservoir completed in 2013 extended the network to the remaining households. Water piped by Mekorot is pumped up the hill to be stored in the reservoir.

But this has not completely resolved the community's water problems. Residents say the Mekorot system supplies water only intermittently and at low pressure. When supplies flow, families must hurry to store as much as they can.

In addition, residents like Musa and his family fear the reservoir could be demolished by the Israeli authorities because, like many of their homes, the structure was built without an official permit.

Construction by Palestinians is forbidden in Area C, a designation covering about 60 percent of the West Bank, including Al Jab'a. Between 2010 and 2014, only 1.5 percent of requests for building permits in Area C were approved, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

An application for a permit for the Al Jab'a reservoir by GVC, the Italian development organization that built it in partnership with UNICEF, was turned down, GVC said.

According to Israeli authorities, issuing demolition orders for structures built without permission is a legitimate measure, a 2015 OCHA report notes.

Although only one-fifth of the 14,000 demolition orders issued in Area C since 1988 have been carried out, according to OCHA, the uncertainty leaves residents worried for the safety of their homes and their water supply.

After the 1967 war in which Israel acquired the West Bank, Israel imposed restrictions on well drilling and constructing distribution networks, which has left a quarter of Palestinians without piped water, according to a report by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

An assessment by UNICEF in 2015 showed that 400,000 Palestinians from 1.7 million living in the West Bank were in need of improved water, sanitation and hygiene services.

The U.N. Environment Program said in a report that Israel uses the majority of the water resources available in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel, however, points out that it provides the Palestinians with double the 30 million cubic meters of water annually that was agreed to in the 1995 Oslo accords.

Bring back cisterns?

Gregor von Medeazza, chief of the water, sanitation and hygiene program at UNICEF in East Jerusalem, said water remains a persistent sore point between Israel and Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

"Water should be a source of collaboration and should bring people together," he said. "At the end of the day, they all share the same water resources."

Von Medeazza said that UNICEF is concerned about ensuring measures are in place to use water carefully and help communities adapt in the face of growing scarcity.

"It means having rational use of [the] water available and making sure there is no wasting of water," he said. With climate change bringing more variable rainfall, "it is also important to emphasize that there is a question of accessibility and human right to a minimum amount of water."

Apart from building reservoirs, Von Medeazza suggests rehabilitating around 300 ancient cisterns — underground storage tanks dating from Roman times that once collected water in the rainy season. These have the potential to be used today and would be a cost-effective measure, he said.

Around 80 such cisterns have been restored so far by a coalition of non-governmental organizations.

"The long-term vision is to increase the current access [to water] of people living in remote places," Von Medeazza said. "We have the technical solutions to extend services and connect communities. What we need is further support from all parties [Israelis and Palestinians] for this to happen."

For his part, Musa in Al Jab'a remains worried but resolute.

"We are really afraid of losing our reservoir," he said. But "we are not leaving our house nor our community."

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