Water as a weapon of mass destruction

More water falls on the West Bank annually than on London. Not many people know that. Why, then, are Palestinians desperately short of water?

In this semi-arid region, water has always been in short supply but today, it is dwindling because of over-extraction. Israel has controlled water resources in the West Bank since it seized the land from Jordan in 1967, and continues to exercise total control over Palestinian use of water. Even the level of the Dead Sea is dropping by one meter every year.

Israel provides Jewish settlers with access to water that it denies to Palestinians. Jewish settlements use enormous amounts of water to produce agricultural goods for export by Agrexco, a government-run private company. Settlers are supplied from wells in the West Bank (mainly in the Jordan Valley) and by the Israeli national water network Mekorot, which extracts water from aquifers lying beneath the occupied West Bank. Many illegal settlements are connected to the national water network.

According to Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Human Rights Watch, 2010):

“Israel’s policy of exploiting the occupied territory’s natural resources to benefit its own citizens violates its obligations under customary international law… The effects of Israel’s discriminatory restrictions on access to water, including prohibitions on well drilling, access to the Jordan River, and the destruction of water pipes, tanks, and cisterns, have been so severe that they have forcibly displaced residents of several Palestinian communities, which also amounts to a serious violation of the prohibition against involuntarily transferring residents of an occupied territory from their homes.”

PalestineWater was high on the agenda of the Oslo Accords – a process begun in 1993 and intended to secure a peace-treaty that would ensure the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”. The issue goes back to 1948 when Israel began blocking the development of new wells and springs while exploiting existing resources for the benefit of Israeli settlers – all at the expense of Palestinians. In the mid-1960s, Israel diverted the water of the Jordan River basin that feeds into the Dead Sea and drained parts of Lake Hula in northern Palestine causing considerable ecological damage.

In 1967, after Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel consolidated its control over water resources. Today, nearly 90% of Gaza’s main water supply is unfit for drinking and unsuitable for agricultural use. The besieged territory’s main water supply, the coastal aquifer, is over-pumped, and a crippling Egyptian-Israeli blockade on Gaza has exacerbated the problem. Today:

  • Palestinians purchase more than a quarter of their water supply from the Israeli company Mekorot, which sells Gaza 4.2 million cubic metres of water a year.
  • Palestinians in Gaza have access to approx. 27 litres of water per person per day – far less than the 100 litres recommended by the World Health Organisation.
  • More than 30% of households in Gaza only have access to running water for six to eight hours once every four days.
  • Water in Gaza contains high nitrate and chloride levels and causes numerous health problems.

Israel is not alone in punishing people through water deprivation. In “‘Islamic State’ using water as a weapon” (3 March 2016), Deutsche Welle reported that IS controls six of the eight large dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and is now continuously attacking a seventh. Quoting Tobias von Lossow of Berlin’s Institute for International and Security Affairs, the article says:

“In May 2015, IS took the Euphrates dam in Ramadi. IS then cut back half the water in the downstream flow of the Euphrates and thus limited the water supply in five provinces. In 2014, IS was able to use a dam on the Euphrates near the Iraqi city of Fallujah to defend and attack: First, the terrorist organization retained water to repel Iraqi troops on the upstream side. Then, it drained water and caused massive damage downstream and as a consequence, 60,000 people had to flee.”

In 2002 the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirmed that, “The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” Yet, as Israel has demonstrated, control the land, control the water, and you control the people. Water as a weapon of mass destruction.

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