The Right to Water has been recognised as a human right and legal obligation under international law many times within UN documentation. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11 and 12, General Comment 15, for example, states that:
Water is a major issue for Palestinians. As rains are seasonal, falling only during winter months, water engineering and irrigations projects are essential to ensuring access to water for all Palestinians. In the internationally recognised state of Israel, water usage massively outstrips conventional water resources, so large desalination projects and water reclaimed from sewage provide around half of all water used. Water is essential for economic development; a lack of access to clean water is a major cause of health problems, and it is essential for use in farming, which informally employs 90% of Palestinians of working age. Because of this, lack of access to water has a devastating effect on the economy and wellbeing of Palestine and its citizens.
According to many analysts, the Oslo Accords caused significant damage to access to water for Palestinians, as the Joint Water Management Committee, designed for “keeping water infrastructure out of the cycle of violence”, actually granted Israel veto power over water resources and infrastructure in the West Bank. Because of this unbalanced agreement, Israelis take four-fifths of scarce water supplies in the West Bank from the tapped West Bank aquifer, and Palestinians must therefore rely on buying back their own water from Israel’s state-owned water company, Mekorot. The problems really began in 1982, when Ariel Sharon, then Israeli defence minister, transferred all of the water systems in the West Bank to Mekorot for the princely sum of one shekel.
Israel systematically restricts access to water in the Occupied Territories to prevent economic growth and stifle Palestinian agriculture. A cross-party group of MPs in the United Kingdom, for example, stated in their assessment that a series of conditions, including those placed on access to water, imposed by Israel on Palestinians, caused “very real suffering and often without real security justification”. The report went on to conclude, “we challenge the assertion that restrictions which curtail economic development in the OPTs (Occupied Palestinian Territories) are based on Israel’s security needs and can be justified on security grounds… there is no way to justify the present restrictions on Palestinians… which affect their livelihoods, economic development and security”.
One of the major obstacles to the Palestinian agriculture industry is a lack of access to water in Area C. Area C, established under the Oslo Accords, is under full control of Israel. Palestinians must apply to build on their own land to the Israeli authorities, including simple water storage facilities such as storage tanks; these permits are declined in 97% of cases (conversely, major Israeli settlement projects are approved, despite being in contravention of international law). Because of this, 60,000 of Area C’s 297,000 Palestinian residents aren’t even connected to a water network. Even worse, if farmland in Area C goes unused for 3 years, it automatically becomes Israeli land under Israeli law. This creates a Catch-22 for Palestinian farmers in Area C; if they obey the law they cannot use their farmland because they lack access to water, but if they fail to water their land, they will lose it to Israel anyway.
Because the construction of water storage in Area C is essentially illegal, Palestinians who build water storage see it repeatedly destroyed by the IDF, and also by settlers. According to an article in the UK’s The Guardian, villager Mohammed Ahmad Jabor’s water cistern was attacked three times in 2011, twice by the Israeli military and once by settlers. When settlers cannot destroy the cisterns, they poison them by throwing chicken carcasses into the water. The Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group (EWASH), a multinational consortium of NGOs funded by the European commission, has repeatedly accused Israel of violating the water agreement made under the Oslo Accord, as well as its other obligations as an occupying power under international law. From 2011 to 2013, the Israeli military destroyed 205 Palestinian WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) structures, including 92 cisterns, 46 toilets/sanitary units, 33 water tanks, 22 wells, 8 pipelines and 4 springs.
There are many things that can be done to correct this situation, even aside from the ultimate goal of a Palestine free from occupation. The easiest and least controversial thing to do would be to exempt water storage facilities from the permit requirements for Area C, allowing Palestinian farmers to use their farmland. This would also end the IDF’s destruction of water resources, and ease the impunity with which settlers can attack Palestinian water storage. Thinking more in the long term, the goal should be for Palestine to take control of its own water and to be able to construct more water resources, ending its reliance on Israeli water so that the country can become more self-sustaining. This would also mean the 60,000 Palestinians without water could finally be connected to the grid.
Nobody should play politics with water. Access to water is a human right, and it must be recognised as such by the Israeli authorities.