Water Rights of West Bank Palestinians
On May 17, 2013 I posted a blog on Palestinian property rights: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013/05/property-rights-of-west-bank.html. I was interested in this question because of my research on malnutrition in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), comprised of the West Bank and Gaza. This is part of a larger research project on malnutrition which also includes North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. I’ve also posted a blog explaining my position on criticizing Israel: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013/06/on-criticizing-israel.html I believe that Israel is a state that has the right to exist in peace, but that it must also obey international law. From what I’ve learned, Israel is not obeying international human rights and humanitarian laws that require that Palestinians enjoy their right to clean water. Some of what I’ve written in this post is based on a 2009 report by Amnesty International, “Troubled Waters-Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water: Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories https://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE15/027/2009/en/e9892ce4-7fba-469b-96b9-c1e1084c620c/mde150272009en.pdf. I’ve also used other sources that I can provide to interested readers.
The United Nations has proposed a human right to water, referring especially to the right to “an adequate standard of living” mentioned in Article 11, 1 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the right to the “highest attainable standard of physical…health” mentioned in Article 12. Israel ratified this Covenant in 1991.The right to water is most clearly elaborated in the 2002 General Comment 15 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” International humanitarian law also states that an occupying power must ensure that the occupied population has sufficient water. Israel is also obliged under international law to ensure equitable distribution of groundwater between itself (as occupier) and the inhabitants of the area it occupies.
Access to clean water is a major problem for Palestinians in the West Bank. While Israelis in 2009 consumed about 300 liters of water per day, Palestinians consumed about 70 (Amnesty International 2009, 3). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the percentage of people with access to improved water sources in the OPT as a whole declined from 97 in 1991 to 85 in 2010.
Israel has expropriated much of the water in the West Bank for its own use. The main source of water in the West Bank is the Mountain Aquifer, but Palestinians in 2009 had access to only 20 per cent of the water it produces, while Israel used the rest. The right to water also includes protection from arbitrary interference in the water supply, yet Israelis authorities frequently cut off water from Palestinians. Individual Israeli soldiers often destroy private water cisterns and other traditional means by which Palestinians collect and conserve water. The Israeli military requires that Palestinians obtain permits to build new cisterns, yet often does not grant them.
States are also obliged by international law to “prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water,” yet Israel permits Jewish settlers in the West Bank to draw on water supplies traditionally used by Palestinians, even permitting individual Jewish households to have swimming pools while nearby Palestinians endure severe water shortages. Many Palestinians rely on water brought in by tankers, yet segregated roadways often make it difficult for the tankers to reach Palestinian villages. Palestinians also have to tolerate deliberate contamination of their water supply by Jewish settlers who, for example, throw garbage or even dirty baby diapers into Palestinians’ water containers. Lack of water for agriculture means Palestinian farmers must rely on purchased food. As one farmer told Amnesty International (p. 23 of the AI report), “We can’t keep more goats because we can’t afford the water, and we can’t grow food for us and fodder for the animals, so we have to buy it and this is too expensive.”
As of 2008 Israel obtained almost 50 per cent of its drinking water and 40 per cent of its agricultural water from the West Bank. As early as 1990 the Israeli Agriculture Minister warned that Israel would lose nearly 60 per cent of its water if it relinquished control of the West Bank (Amnesty International 2009, 47). This strategic need for water may explain the desire to occupy the West Bank even more than does the desire for Jewish settlements. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require a detailed agreement on water resources, but Israel may not be willing to give up its access to West Bank water.
I used to be impressed when I heard people say that the Israelis have “made the desert bloom.” Yet I now realize they’ve done so by using stolen water.