Water drives Palestinians, Israelis apart

Marketplace Staff Sep 3, 2009

Water drives Palestinians, Israelis apart

Marketplace Staff Sep 3, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: There are dozens of issues underlying the often tense relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Many of them are incredibly complicated — like land use, security arrangements, and settlement rights. All of those play a role in the region’s economic development. And then there’s water. Michael May reports from the West Bank.

MICHAEL MAY: In the West Bank village of Qarawat Bani Zeid, some two dozen people line up at a water tanker parked on the main street.

Back in April, faucets in the village went dry. Many homes haven’t had water since. One resident, Fahed Obed, says water from the tankers costs three times as much as tap water.

FAHED OBED: I need not less than 600 sheckles every month for water, and my salary not more than 1,480 sheckles [a month]. What can I do?

But today in Qarawat Bani Zeid, the mood is festive. These tankers are distributing free water, provided by a coalition of Israeli and Palestinian nonprofit agencies.

Children jump about to music blaring from loudspeakers and dance in the spray. It’s a rare moment of solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians. But Palestinians are very frustrated.

According to the World Bank, Israelis get four times as much water per capita as the Palestinians. This village sits on top of a huge mountain aquifer, but like 45 percent of people in the West Bank, residents have to get water through the Israeli water company Mekorot.

Saleh Rabi is with the Palestinian Water Training Institute.

SALEH RABI: If we could not have full control over our water sources, we could not establish our Palestinian state. Because, without water you could not build your economy, you could build your industry and agriculture, and we could not have any refugees who could come back.

In 1993, the Israelis and Palestinians came to an agreement. The Palestinians were guaranteed a certain amount of water, and the two sides set up a Joint Water Committee.

But a recent study by the World Bank says the committee has stymied development by giving Israel veto power over Palestinian water projects. And it says the Palestinian Authority has made matters worse by letting sewage run untreated into the groundwater.

Gidon Bromberg is the director of Israel’s Friends of the Earth. He says both sides are at fault.

GIDON BROMBERG: The Israeli side, by not understanding that more water to Palestine means a greater commitment for those shared water resources, and a lack of understanding from the Palestinian side, that short-term thinking — failure to treat sewage — in the end harms Palestine as well.

Israeli Alon Tal, a researcher at Ben Gurion University, and Palestinian Alfred Abed-Rabbo, a chemist at Bethlehem University, are writing a book together about possible solutions to the water conflict.

Abed-Rabbo says a number of small Israeli and Palestinian cities along the border are already collaborating.

ALFRED ABED-RABBO: Amet Heffer and Tu Korum, for example, they are trying to solve the problem of the sewage that goes into the Alexander River, because it touches both of them. The environment has no boundaries as we always say.

Alon Tal says water shortages could become a thing of the past. Israel has been investing heavily in desalination plants along its coast.

ALON TAL: That bottle of water we are drinking right now on the table, I don’t what we’ll end up paying for it, but it’s probably a dollar-and-a-half for a liter of water. Here we can make a thousand liters of water for little more than 50 cents. So when, all of a sudden, you have this ability to produce more water, then we can talk about these things more dispassionately. We can maybe be a little more creative by expanding the pie altogether.

Tal and Abed-Rabbo say its hard to overstate the importance of solving the water problem. A resolution would let Palestinian agriculture thrive and so grow the West Bank’s economy.

Israel would benefit from greater peace and stability in the region. And both sides could demonstrate that they can successfully work together.

I’m Michael May for Marketplace.

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