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West Bank Drought Increasing Palestinians' Hardships - 2001-07-21

Years of drought in the West Bank are adding to the hardship of Palestinians. The area is mostly desert. But many Palestinians blame Israel for making a bad situation worse.

In his modern office in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abdel Rahman Tamimi monitors the water situation as director-general of his consulting firm, the Palestinian Hydrology Group.

He sees two main problems made worse by the drought: an aging water supply infrastructure and Israeli policies that further restrict access to water for farming and domestic use through bureaucratic stumbling blocks. "We used to submit the application to the Civil Administration in Israel, and they used to say yes or no," he said. "Now, you have to submit that to 22 addresses: archaeology, planning, settlement council, and [if] anyone says no, that means [the] project fails. And in most of the cases, the settlement council or Israeli regional planning council, they say no."

As a result, says Mr. Tamimi, water is in short supply in many places. The situation has been made worse by the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, particularly in Arab villages where water has to be trucked in. A report by his office says road closures ordered by Israeli authorities and roadblocks set up by Jewish settlers prevent tankers from delivering water to isolated villages. Water prices have increased in many areas, sometimes dramatically so.

A 15-minute drive away from the busy Palestinian city of Ramallah, past breathtaking scenery is Ayn Arik, a mixed Muslim-Christian village where most families still make their living from the land.

A member of the local council, Mohammad Hassan Mohammad, shows visitors the water flowing from an underground spring through a concrete irrigation ditch by a grove of dried-up looking pomegranate trees. He says the system has to be improved, but there is no money to do so, and the village has appealed for international aid. Ayn Arik is heavily dependent on agriculture, and Mr. Mohammad blames Israel for the poor water supply.

By August, he says, there will be a 90 percent decline in the natural water flow reaching Ayn Arik. Hot summer weather and the drought are partly to blame, but Mr. Mohammad mostly blames nearby Jewish settlers whose wells he says have depleted the water supply.

There is a widespread perception among Palestinians that Israel is acting to restrict water supplies. Mr. Tamimi, the Palestinian water expert, says Jewish settlements get generous allotments of water while Palestinian villages nearby go thirsty.

A report issued by his Palestinian Hydrology Group says residents of the Halmeish settlement northwest of Ramallah repeatedly cut off the water supply to Arab villages downstream.

Israel has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Responding to similar allegations from residents of the nearby village of Abud, a spokesman for the army's civil administration in the territories, Captain Peter Lerner, admits Palestinian villages have had inadequate water supply, but he said in the case of Abud at least, it was strictly a technical problem.

"There were leaks and burst water pipes and so on, on the Israeli side. We sent a Palestinian water team to fix the two or three problems within the Palestinian areas," he said. "The claims that settlers were turning off the water are not based [in fact] as far as we're concerned. The problems that were caused there were caused by technical problems and of course the severe water shortage within the West Bank and the territories."

Dan Zaslovsky also discredits the Palestinian assertion. He is a professor emeritus at the Technion, Israel's technology university in Haifa, and a former Israeli water commissioner.

For decades, Mr. Zaslovsky says, Israelis and Palestinians have been using water faster than it can be replenished by rainwater. The effects are especially acute in drought years like this one. And the mountain aquifer from which most West Bank communities draw their water simply holds less water than the coastal aquifer that supplies Israeli's main population centers.

Professor Zaslovsky says the region has too little drinking water, and he says the only solution is large-scale desalination of seawater. The Palestinians, he suggests, have the most to gain. "They cannot possibly survive because their water use [has] increased, and they have no source to assure that there will be a reliable, continuous water supply," he said. "The only way they can survive is to join forces with Israel and coordinate with Israel the production of desalinated seawater."

In the meantime, the water shortage continues, and rightly or wrongly, Palestinians blame Israel for their water problems, a perception that contributes to the Palestinians' sense of being oppressed.

Gideon Levy, writing recently in Israel's leading daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, links the nine-month-old Palestinian uprising with the daily indignities suffered by Palestinians. The roots of violence, he writes, "are planted deep in the endless line of cars at the ubiquitous checkpoints, in the wells sealed up by the soldiers, and in the faucet that emits only air when turned on."