Water Distribution in the West Bank: A System Frozen in Time

Naama Baumgarten-Sharon

On February 12, 2014, European Parliament President Martin Schultz addressed the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), quoting a claim that the average Israeli used four times more water than the average Palestinian in the West Bank. The address brought the subject of water allocations – something often overlooked when more pressing aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are making headlines – to public attention. From a policy perspective, it is important to understand not only what the problem is, but also the decision-making process. While the figures Schultz mentioned in his speech were inaccurate, the situation is alarming.

As of February 2014, according to B’Tselem data, Palestinians in the West Bank who are connected to running water consume on average 73 liters per capita per day (not including industry or agriculture), far below the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 100 liters. Some 113,000 Palestinians in rural areas not connected to running water consume 20-50 liters per day. Israelis, both inside Israel proper and in settlements along the West Bank, consume 183 liters per day. Even in larger cities such as Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah, Palestinians in the West Bank do not have running water all year round. Large tanks on the roof are filled when the water is running, and then used when it is not. During the summer, some places, though connected to the water system, receive water only once every two weeks.  As a result, water consumption during the summer, when more water is actually needed, is substantially lower than during the winter months. In this post I would like to explore how decisions made 20 years ago make it effectively impossible to improve the water system at this time.

The water policy in the Oslo Accords, designed for a five-year period, was meant to postpone the most difficult issues to resolve in the conflict such as water (and borders and refugees and other especially sticky issues) in the hopes that better trust would be built in the meantime.  Twenty years later, the water in the West Bank is still distributed based on this system, resulting in insufficient water supply.

Water allocations

The current water allocation in the West Bank was set by the 1995 Oslo B Agreement. According to the Agreement, 80 per cent of what was then extracted from the Mountain Aquifer was allocated to Israelis, and 20 per cent to Palestinians, who were then supposed to develop additional resources from unutilized parts of the aquifer. This development never occurred. At the same time, the Palestinian population has grown and, despite the fact that Israel has increased the quantity of water it sells to Palestinians, the Palestinians today do not even use as much water as they were supposed to have at their disposal 15 years ago.

Geographic control

According to the Oslo B Agreement, the West Bank is divided into three areas:

  • Area A – approximately 20% – is under total Palestinian control – both security and civilian.
  • Area B – another 20% – is under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control.
  • Area C – approximately 60% – is under complete Israeli control, both civil and security.

While intended to be temporary, this division still holds today. The Joint Water Committee established under the Oslo Agreement requires decisions on all major water projects in the West Bank to be unanimous. In practice, Israeli agreement for even the smallest infrastructure repairs in Area C is often given only in return for Palestinian consent to approve projects in Israeli settlements in the West Bank – something the Palestinians are no longer willing to do. This makes it extremely difficult for the Palestinians to plan and repair their water infrastructure, which suffers from an annual loss of about 30 percent due to old pipes. They have trouble raising money for infrastructure repairs because they cannot guarantee completion of projects.

Structure of the Palestinian Water Authority

There is no one body that holds authority over the water distribution in the West Bank. Local companies, pursuing their own narrow interests, control the water distribution in each area. Each local water authority also makes its own decisions as to distribution between villages – a process that is far from transparent. A thorough structural revision is needed in order to improve services, something that is highly unlikely given the fact that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is far from being resolved, and neither side wants to appear to have made any concessions on an issue as sensitive as water if it is not part of a final peace agreement.

Policy evaluation addresses questions of authority, justice and efficiency. The current situation in water policy in the West Bank fails on all three counts. The division of authority is such that no one can actually carry out a comprehensive policy change that will improve the water supply. The PA has the responsibility to provide water, but lacks authority to implement a comprehensive plan; and Israel does not have control over the entire West Bank, and is not responsible for providing water to all of its residents. The current water system is anything but efficient – old pipes with large water losses, a need for Israeli authorization of every little pipeline that is repaired and no central authority making water policy decisions, in a system where no one really holds authority from water source to tap, lead to a dead-end situation but also to one that is very difficult to repair because no one wants to invest in a partial solution.  The current situation is unjust and the residents of the West Bank are the ones paying the price, with allocations of water below the recommended minimum and an unreliable supply of water for many months during the year.

Naama Baumgarten-Sharon is a 2016 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds an MA in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Before coming to Toronto Naama worked for 4.5 years as a researcher at B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, focusing on a wide variety of human rights issues, among them detention of minors, water distribution, family rights, the right to demonstrate and gender mainstreaming.

[IMAGE]: ‘Water tanks on rooftops in Ramallah.’ Photographed by Sharon Arzan, March 6, 2014.

*The content of this post is the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the positions of B’Tselem.