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Written By : ANJULI BEDI MediaGlobal. Homeowners cram as many water tanks as affordable onto their rooftops to store enough water – which runs just a few hours each week during good times – to survive until it flows again.
In refugee camps, residents often go without water for 30 days at a time.
“I risk my life and my family’s lives by having so many extra water tanks on my roof,” says Yasser, who declined to give his last name, from Dheisheh camp. “But it ensures I have water, and the neighbors also come for water. But one of these days the roof might collapse over our heads and then what?”
Daily water access plunges below international standards for the nearly 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, and water resource strategies are nascent. Despite a recent international investment in the water sector, technical problems, mismanagement and theft prevail. Contentious politics of land ownership also create conflict over key wells.
According to the World Bank, minimum daily water needs are 100 cubic metres per person. The average person uses 500 cubic meters in California and 240 cubic meters in Israel daily. But in the West Bank, average daily use is just 75 cubic metres per person, thanks to population increases and poor water management strategies.
“The amount of water available is much lower than the needs of the people,” confirmed a researcher and water negotiator from the House of Water and Environment in Ramallah who requested anonymity because of political circumstances. “The gap is estimated at nearly 400 million cubic metres per year.”
The water manager says plans are underway to use treated wastewater for agriculture, which claims 60 per cent of the water supply here, creating more fresh water for household use.
But there are no wastewater treatment plants in the West Bank. Municipalities constructed some sewage systems, but many were built by local people in areas where neither the Palestinian Water Authority, PWA, nor municipal water authorities operate. But waste from hilltop areas often flows down into the towns and villages below, polluting their land and water sources.
In January 2010, Kreditanstalt Fur Wiederaufbau BankenGruppe, KFW Bank, a German company, invested in the creation of several treatment plants in the West Bank. Two are under construction and should be completed by 2012.
“On behalf of the German Government, KFW is actively helping to improve the living conditions of the people in the [Palestinian Territories],” according to KFW’s website.
But technical issues and mismanagement continue to plague water supply and distribution systems.
More than 30 percent of all water is stolen here. Particularly in Gaza, illegally tapping pipes and wells is a source of income and survival for many.
Refugee camp representatives say water is unaffordable and current debt to the Nablus Municipality water authority from three camps in Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank, exceeds 33m shekels, approximately $8.5m USD. Mahmoud Subuh, a representative from Balata refugee camp, says unemployment is high and people are extremely poor. The water authority established monthly payment plans based on individual earnings, but many refuse to pay.
“They think that if their neighbor doesn’t pay, then why should I?” Subuh says.
The 40-year-old pipelines have become susceptible to leaks and illegal tapping. The PWA cites loss of income due to theft as the primary reason it can’t afford to renovate the old system.
In January 2010, Nablus secured a KFW-funded development contract with Arabtec Construction to increase domestic water connections and reduce consumers’ water costs.
Additionally, Imad Masri, Nablus water authority head engineer, says he has designed a system specifically for Nablus’ hilly topography to reduce leakage and provide water to the city every three days instead of once a week. Masri says he’s also working to establish high-pressure zones to increase water pressure in high-elevation areas and potentially reduce water leakages to below 20 per cent. Leakage estimates were 55 percent in 1990.
But the political nature of the borders here has created conflict over key wells and pipelines.
The PWA, charged with maintaining wells, has just one maintenance rig and six trained workers. If there’s a problem with a well in Hebron, Palestine’s largest city, a problem in Jenin, the third largest Palestinian city, must wait months for the rig.
Disputes over well ownership are also common. In 2009, the PWA took control of a new well in Sebastia, a village just outside Nablus, though Nablus owns the land. The well also straddles Area B – controlled by both the Palestinians and Israelis – and Area C – controlled solely by the Israelis. Only a pipe separates the areas.
Thanks to political turbulence, lack of infrastructure, droughts and the likelihood of increased water contamination, water has become the second most contested commodity in the region.
“It is going to be a very tough 20 years,” Masri says.
n This article was first published by the Global Press Institute. Adapted for MediaGlobal readers.
MediaGlobal is an independent international media organisation, based in the United Nations, creating awareness in the global media on social justice and development issues in the world’s least developed countries.