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Palestinians deprived of clean water, an essential human right

The 6th reflection of the Seven Weeks for Water 2016 is by Ms Simona Abderhalden, advocacy officer for the Emergency, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (EWASH) group, a coordinating body of more than 20 organizations that work in the occupied Palestinian territory to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene. Relevant biblical references in this reflection have been added by the Ecumenical Water Network. In this reflection Simona Abderhalden highlights the importance of water as an essential element to fulfill other human rights. Inspired by the God of justice, she encourages us to take a stand in solidarity with the Palestinians who are deprived of this essential human right due to Israeli occupation.
Palestinians deprived of clean water, an essential human right

Deir Al Balah sea water desalination plant, Gaza. © EWN-WCC/Asa Elsfström

Reflection for the first of the Seven Weeks for Water 2016

Week 6

Please note: Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections or background resources do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy.

By Simona Abderhalden*

Click here for Arabic translation (pdf)

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. (Isaiah 1:17)

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come (Isaiah 55:1)

Access to water and sanitation is a human right. This human right is in itself essential for life and dignity, but it is also the foundation for achieving a wealth of other human rights, including the right to health and the right to development.”

(Navanethem Pillay[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014)

Biblical affirmation of justice and peace

Justice is a key element in many religious scriptures, particularly in the Bible. The God of justice spoke through God’s prophets, always standing by the suffering and oppressed, and delivering justice to those who were deprived. Therefore, justice and peace are basic tenets of the Christian faith.

If people of faith do not respond to issues of justice and peace, we are not truly God’s followers. While spiritual nurturing is important for one’s personal peace, we all are called to be the spokespeople for those who are weak and cannot speak for themselves or defend their rights. We are called to be proponents of justice and peace, or else, as Prophet Amos reminds us, God will not accept our prayers and rituals. (Amos 5:21-24).

While there are many factors which affect the fullness of life enjoyed by people, water, food and shelter are some of the basic necessities for survival.

Water is an essential element in our lives. There would be no life without water. Every person on earth should have access to it, irrespective of their background and economic status.

On 28 July 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation, and also acknowledged that clean water and sanitation are  essential to the realization of all human rights[2].

However, despite this achievement, the real challenge of our day is to translate this human right into reality on the ground: 700 million people around the world still lack access to improved water sources[3]. But still today, many people struggle to get the water they need to cover their basic needs. And all too often, it is a question of human-induced water scarcity: while some are dying of thirst, others are wasting and abusing water.

Violation of human right to water: A case study

The full achievement of the right to water is often hindered not only by natural causes (e.g., droughts and water scarcity) but mainly by human-induced causes. Water, in fact, is often used and abused as a tool of hegemony. Palestine represents a good example of this: Palestinians’ access to water, in fact, is severely restricted — both in the West Bank and in Gaza — by discriminatory policies put in place by Israel in violation of international humanitarian law.

The 1995 Oslo II Accord aimed to establish an agreement that included  access to water in the West Bank by Israelis and Palestinians. As it stands today, the Palestinians are clearly denied of their “right to water”.[4] This unequal water sharing, and subsequent violation of the agreement, in fact, has granted Israel control over almost all shared water resources, including 80% of the water from the Mountain Aquifer which represents the sole significant freshwater resource in the West Bank besides the Jordan River. Palestinian access to the latter is denied since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967. Today, more than 20 years since the Oslo II Accord, Palestinian official water allocation from the shared resources have remained capped at 1995 levels, despite the fact that the Palestinian population has doubled. The situation on the ground is even worse: Palestinians, in fact, are currently extracting 10-20% less water than the Oslo agreed-upon rates as Israel hinders the development of essential water infrastructure, including the construction of wells, in the West Bank[5].

As a result, the average domestic water consumption rate among Palestinians in the West Bank is around 70 litres per capita per day (l/c/d), far lower than the 100 l/c/d recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). On the contrary, in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the average water consumption lies around 300 l/c/d/7.

Moreover, in Area C (more than 60% of the West Bank which is under full Israeli civil and military control) an additional restriction is in place, as a permit from the Israeli Civil Administration is also required for any type of construction or maintenance intervention. Only 1.5% of the Palestinian applications for building permits in Area C submitted between 2010 and 2014 were approved[6].

The discriminatory permit regime in place forces Palestinians’ in Area C to develop the essential WASH infrastructure without the required permits and to live with the constant threat of demolition. In violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law (IHRL), the demolition of essential Palestinian WASH infrastructure – such as wells, cisterns, rainwater tanks, latrines and sewage treatment units – has been a consistent feature of Israel’s occupation, and remains a primary cause of Palestinian displacement especially from Area C. About 113,000 people living in 70 communities across the West Bank have no access to the water network, and therefore rely on rainwater or on expensive private vendors. They end up living on 20 l/p/d of water, which is the minimum amount recommended by the WHO for “short-term survival” in emergency and disaster situations[7].

The water situation in the Gaza Strip does not look any brighter. Gaza’s share of the Coastal Aquifer, the only available fresh water source, is not enough to serve the needs of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the strip. As there are no alternative water resources available, the aquifer is being over-exploited by up to four times its sustainable yearly yield. Decades of over-pumping and the contamination of the Aquifer resulting from the infiltration of wastewater, agrochemicals and saline water have severely and irremediably damaged the aquifer. Gaza is facing a crisis as up to 95% percent of the water extracted from the Coastal Aquifer is unfit for human consumption[8].

As a result, 60% of Gaza’s population relies on desalinated water sold by private vendors for drinking and most domestic uses[9]. Besides the fact that the quality of such water is not regulated, it is much more expensive than the water from the networks: as a result, the most vulnerable households in Gaza end up spending up to one-third of their income on water.

Gaza is also affected by frequent electricity shortages, which negatively affect the running of water and wastewater facilities in Gaza. This results, for example, in up to 90 million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage being released into the Mediterranean Sea every day[10].

The already critical WASH situation has been worsened by the 2014 war on Gaza, which caused severe damage (US $34 million) to essential water and sanitation infrastructure. The post-war reconstruction and the development of the WASH sector are delayed and/or hindered by the almost decade long Israeli blockade on Gaza: as needed materials are not sufficiently allowed into Gaza, projects are delayed for years if not cancelled or not functioning. As a result, 100,000 people across the Gaza Strip are still disconnected from the water network and are relying on humanitarian assistance[11], and 23% of the Gaza population is not connected to the sewage networks due to the damages to the wastewater facilities[12].

Access to water is a basic need and right of every single person across the world.

Israel clearly abuses this essential and limited natural resource to exert its hegemony on the Palestinians and to achieve its goals. The limited access to water in Palestine prevents its people from developing sustainable livelihoods. Palestinians living in Area C, in particular, are often forced to leave their homes and land because of the lack of water for their basic needs and livestock (usually their main source of income) and because of the lack of essential water and sanitation infrastructure. The demolition of water and sanitation infrastructure results in forcible transfer, which is a grave breach of international humanitarian law. People being forced to leave their lands also leave room for the expansion of settlements, further hindering the possibility of justice and peace.

In Gaza, besides the negative impact on the livelihood development, the water situation, especially the poor quality of the water and the lack of proper sanitation infrastructure, poses serious health risks to the population.

There is no doubt that water issues are at  the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that equal water policies are a prerequisite for the achievement of any lasting improvement in this decades-long conflict. Palestine is certainly a significant example of how the human right to water is essential to the achievement of all the other human rights.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).

 



* Ms Simona Abderhalden is the advocacy officer for the Emergency, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (EWASH) group, a coordinating body of more than 20 organizations that work in the occupied Palestinian territory to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene. Relevant biblical references in this reflection have been added by the Ecumenical Water Network.

[1] Realising the human rights to water and sanitation: A Handbook by the UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque Introduction, 2014, UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation

[2] Resolution 64/292

[3] Water for a Sustainable World, The United Nations World Water Development Report 2015

[4] The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Annex III Protocol Concerning Civil Affairs, 1995

[5] Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), Status Report of the Water Resources in the Occupied State of Palestine, 2012

[6] OCHA, Under threat: Demolition orders in Area C of the West Bank, In the spotlight September 2015

[7] http://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20140212_discrimination_in_water_allocation

[8] http://www.unicef.org/oPt/UNICEF_State_of_Palestine_-_WASH_News_update_-_December_2013.pdf

[9] Data provided by the CMWU, Gaza, in 2014

[10] PWA factsheet, Water Crisis Deepens: Without Sustainable Solutions, Future at Stake, 2015

[11] Data provided by the CMWU, Gaza, in 2014

[12] Data provided by the WASH Cluster in Gaza, 2015