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 CNS Story:

WATER-SHORTAGE Jul-30-2008 (990 words) With photos. xxxi

Politics, drought contribute to Palestinian, Israeli water shortage

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

BEIT JALLA, West Bank (CNS) -- The picturesque skyline of Beit Jalla, with its church towers, traditional stone homes and modern apartment buildings, is marred by the slew of square water tanks dotting the rooftops like little metal soldiers.

People buy the extra storage tanks to stock up on water when it is provided. But there comes a point when a roof can no longer support the weight of any more tanks.

Sometimes people must purchase water from private companies, which is expensive. Recently even the private companies have not had water to sell, some Beit Jalla residents said in mid-July.

Beit Jalla residents are lucky, said Musa Abu Hashhash, a field worker for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. Some 200,000 other West Bank residents must buy water regularly despite its steep cost, because they only have running water about once every six months.

In the dry Middle East, rain falls only during the winter months of December, January and February, and after four years of almost droughtlike winter weather, the water supply is dangerously low.

"Every summer we have this water problem," said Beit Jalla Mayor Raji Zeidan. He said the city receives from Israel just over half of the 28,600 cubic yards of water it needs daily.

"We are facing a real problem. The population of the Bethlehem area is expanding and so is the population of the surrounding settlements," he said.

He said every new building in Beit Jalla is now required to build a well in order to receive a construction permit, but the more efficient solution is to construct a water reservoir. The city has given approval for such a project, but it needs land and money.

Alfred Abed Rabbo, a professor of chemistry at the Catholic-run Bethlehem University and a member of its water and soil environmental research unit, said 14 of the wells in the Bethlehem area -- which the Oslo II agreement says should provide Palestinians with water -- are not functioning. The wells are located in an area under Israeli control, but the Israeli national water company Mekorot does not send out technicians to fix them, he said.

In the past, Israeli technicians who have been sent out to repair infrastructure in the West Bank have come under Palestinian attack.

"There is a water crisis in the whole region," said Abed Rabbo. "Even in Jordan they have a shortage but the problem in Palestine is political. There are also other issues involved, such as the need for a better system of distribution by the Palestinians."

Israel receives water from three sources: the Sea of Galilee, the coastal aquifer and the mountain aquifer that straddles the Green Line, which separates Israel and the Palestinian territories. Palestinians accuse Israel of stealing water from the mountain aquifer, which they say belongs to them.

But Alon Tal, a professor of environmental policy at Ben Gurion University, said that while the rain for the aquifier lands in the West Bank it has a natural flow to the west and ends up for storage on the Israeli side.

"Does each side have rights to it? Of course," he said.

Clearly the situation is a difficult one, Tal said. While Israel is undergoing a water scarcity, Palestinians face a water crisis, he said.

He said more innovative ways of facing the problem are needed but scoffed at the notion that the next war will be over water -- something often quoted by pundits in the region when discussing the water issue. He advocated more desalination of seawater.

Currently 7 percent of the water Israel uses is desalinated, he said. Optimally it should be up to 20 percent, said Tal, but the Israeli Ministry of Finance has been "dragging its feet."

"We need to share the water with Palestinians. Palestinians need to get more water, and we need to desalinate more," he said. "The challenge is to make it in an environmentally sustainable way where the desalination plants are fueled by renewable energy sources."

Abed Rabbo was less enthusiastic about the feasibility of desalination.

"The West Bank doesn't have access to the sea, and if we want to put a pipeline through Israel from Gaza then it becomes a political issue," he said. Only when there is cooperation between the two governments can something like that even be contemplated, he said.

Tal said when it comes to water Israelis are "blessed by ingenuity."

For example, he said, all toilets have two levels of flushing, sprinklers are used only in the evening, car washes use recycled water, agriculture depends on drip irrigation, and architects and urban planners are becoming more interested in the use of recycled water.

"We have to find resources and at the same time continue efforts to be as efficient as possible in our use of water," he said.

Although Abed Rabbo maintained that Palestinians are watchful in their use of agricultural water, Tal said much of Palestinian agricultural water use is wasteful and needs to be more efficient.

Over the past decade Israeli environmentalists have become more emphatic in trying to spread the message of the need to be frugal with water usage.

The government also has jumped into the water problem. The State Control Committee of the Israeli parliament decided July 29 to establish a commission of inquiry into the crisis. It will look into why numerous local governments failed to implement earlier recommendations and draft recommendations to ensure a regular water supply.

State Control Committee Chairman Zevulun Orlev said the water crisis was "not a decree from heaven but an act of man." He said the shortage represented a "concrete and immediate danger" to the supply of drinking water and blamed previous governments for giving priority to economic considerations rather than investing in various programs such as the establishment of desalination plants, the rehabilitation of aquifers and wells, and recycling wastewater.

END


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