The collection, treatment and reuse of wastewater in the oPt are rather limited. Most communities that are not connected to sanitation network are typically serviced by either septic tanks or cesspits. A septic tank is an underground receptacle for household sewage where the solid decay and the liquid is drained off and released into a leaching bed. A cesspit on the other hand is a pit, controversy tank or covered cistern which collects raw effluent and has to be emptied when full. Today, only 44% of the population, 30% in the West Bank and 65% in Gaza Strip, is served with wastewater networks leaving more than 2 million people without proper sanitation facilities. Gaza Strip enjoys considerably higher wastewater network coverage from its fellow national in the WB. The installation of networks was mainly prompted by the urgent humanitarian needs in the Strip, among which sanitation services were given a top priority. For a more graphical image, the Gaza Strip is a small geographic territory holding over 1.5 million people living on top of a heavily contaminated aquifer that would not be able to withstand any further wastewater flow. On a national level, the wastewater network falls short of insuring the basic sanitation needs of most communities in the oPt, especially in rural WB areas.
In the mean time Palestinians only have one properly functioning treatment plant in Al Bireh and three poorly functioning in Hebron, Jenin, and Tulkarem while the Ramallah treatment plant is moderately efficient. World Bank report (09) indicated that the efficiency rates of most of the wastewater treatment plants do not surpass 10-30%. Consequently, the predominant majority of the Palestinian communities rely on cesspits and septic tank coverage has not necessarily secured the basic needs of the Palestinian communities for sanitation. The wastewater threatens nearby water sources, cisterns, crops and marine life.
This situation has been mainly caused by several Israeli policies restricting the development of a Palestinian sanitation infrastructure. Palestinians have been prohibited from developing wastewater treatment plants that could potentially contain the environmental catastrophe occurring in the WB.
- Delays on Palestinian projects by the Civil Administration, in many cases extending for over a decade.
- Israel requires Palestinians to deploy high tech plants that are not even utilized in Israel and go far beyond the standards set by the WHO. This runs up the costs for any potential project.
- Approved treatment plants are in many cases required to serve the nearby settlements, which is highly problematic due to the large quantities of sewage produced by these settlements and the elevated operational costs.
- As a result of Israeli delays, many funders have cut off their funding of numerous Palestinian projects.
- The ongoing Israeli siege on Gaza has prevented the entry of necessary material needed to develop infrastructure.
The oPt hosts a considerable amount of fresh water resources, predominantly found in the form of surface water and groundwater. The bulk of surface water is supplied by the Jordan River, while the rest is distributed amongst numerous wadis seasonal lakes and springs. Groundwater resources are supplied by two major aquifers: The Coastal Aquifer in Gaza and the Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank, the later consisting of three main sub-aquifer basins (Western, Eastern, and Northeastern) classified according to their different flow directions.
The Jordan River is a vital natural resource in the region that extends over 300 kilometers from the North of Israel flowing all the way to the Dead Sea. The Jordan River is the embodiment of three main tributaries originating in Lebanon and Syria. It descends southward pouring water into Lake Hula, Lake Tiberias, and finally the Dead Sea. Today, the recession of the Dead Sea attests to the human caused ecological catastrophe inflicted on the Jordan River due to the over-exploitation of its waters. Despite the fact that over 90% of the Jordan Basin falls within the borders of neighboring Arab countries, Israel currently abstracts around 58.3% of its water, leaving Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine with the following percentages: 25.76%, 12.12%, 0.38%, and finally 0% respectively (NWC, 2005).
The Mountain Aquifer is the main supplier of groundwater in the oPt. These aquifers share similar geological features by mainly consisting of karstic limestone. Despite the fact that the replenishment zones for these aquifers predominantly fall within the borders of the West Bank, Israel controls these aquifers granting Palestinian minimal allocation.
The Western Aquifer Basin is the most important aquifer in the West Bank. It’s annual replenishment capacity is estimated at 362 MCM. Almost 70% of the recharge area of the aquifer is located in the West Bank. Palestinians are only permitted to use a small portion of the aquifers water through wells drilled before the 1967 occupation. The total quantity that Palestinian wells use to abstract prior to the construction of the separation wall is estimated at 20 MCM.
According to the Oslo Interim Agreement, the Northeastern aquifer’s replenishment capacity is estimated at 145 MCM, of which Palestinians consume less than 37 MCM (World Bank, 2009). The exact yield of this aquifer is not fully known, however it is estimated that Palestinians consume no more than 17-20% of the aquifer’s water supply.
The Eastern Aquifer is a groundwater natural resource that constitutes the eastern portion of the Mountain Aquifer, where water flows eastward toward the Jordan Valley. This aquifer contributes by nearly 90% of total annual spring discharge in the West Bank. Unlike the Western aquifer, the Eastern aquifer is almost completely situated within the borders of the West Bank. In spite of this geographical location, Israel currently abstracts approximately over two-thirds of the water supply from the aquifer. Moreover, Israeli settlers in the West Bank exploit this aquifer by installing deep wells in the high hills of settlements to pump its water for their benefits. By 2004, Israel had managed to install over 32 deep wells exploiting the Eastern Aquifer. (PWC, 2005)
The Gaza Coastal Aquifer is a shallow aquifer extending along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea from Haifa all the way down to the Sinai. The over-exploitation of the aquifer has caused its depletion and deterioration. Apart from the fact that the Gaza Coastal Aquifer receives insufficient rainwater quantities for recharge, Israeli water policies have aimed at further reducing the aquifer’s renewable yield through the impediment of surface and groundwater from flowing westwards to the coastal aquifer from the West Bank and Israel. The water embargo was applied by surrounding the borders of the Gaza Strip with a large number of deep wells as well as the diversion of Wadi Ghaza waters (around 30 MCM/Yr) to agricultural fields prior to its arrival to Gaza.
Although the Oslo agreement handed the Palestinian Authority certain jurisdictions over water management in the oPt, they ultimately never granted entitlement over the natural resources. As mentioned, groundwater aquifers both nourished or stored in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under absolute Israeli control since 1967. Further complicated by the lack of permits issued for water and sanitation projects especially in communities situated in Area C and the siege on Gaza that has prohibited the free flow of necessary equipment and material for more than four years preventing the repair and development of WASH facilities and infrastructure. Both the Western and Northeastern Aquifers are mainly replenished in West Bank mountains, yet Israel consumes almost 90% of their yield. Furthermore, the Eastern Aquifer is fully recognized as national Palestinian Aquifer, yet Israel currently utilizes nearly 70% of its waters.
It is revealed that even though Palestinians living in the WBGS constitute over 35% of the general population of historical Palestine (Israel and WBGS), they are granted less than 10% of the shared water resources. The dissimilarity of water rights between Israelis and Palestinians is further illustrated through comparing the rates of per capita consumption among the two populations. According to WHO, 100 liters per capita per day (l/c/d) constitutes the minimum water amount needed for a healthy person. The current Israeli consumption average 350 l/c/d, while the average consumption of Palestinians does not exceed 76 l/c/d with many communities consuming no more than 30 l/c/d.
Breaching Agreements and International Law
The entirety of water extracted by Palestinians in the oPt is capped by Israeli quotas that cannot be exceeded even though these amounts have been insufficient. For the past forty years Israel’s handling of the available water resources has undermined Palestinian water rights in the oPt as well as the need for a proper management that resolves the problem of water scarcity in the region. Coupled with the long term neglect of the sanitation sector by Israel and the obstacles laid out in the development of the WASH sectors in oPt not only poses as a potential risk to the environment and public health but is a clear violation of mutually signed agreements, international law and international humanitarian law. As an occupying power, international humanitarian law requires Israel to ensure the wellbeing of the occupied population including access to adequate safe water quantities and a safe environment.
Through Israeli policies and actions defined mutually agreed upon principles to coordinate the management of water and sewage resources and systems in the West Bank have been breached specifically in the third annex: Protocol concerning Civil Affairs of the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, also called "Oslo II" signed September 28, 1995 Article 40.
Several other International Laws and Protocols have been violated including:
The interpretation of the provisions of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) explains in the General Comment No. 15: the right to water states that:
“The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, reduce the risk of water-related diseases and provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements”.
“In accordance with the rights to health and adequate housing (see General Comments No. 4 (1991) and 14 (2000)) States parties have an obligation to progressively extend safe sanitation services, particularly to rural and deprived urban areas, taking into account the needs of women and children”.”. Further clarified by the provision of safe, affordable and accessible water and sanitation services.
The right to adequate sanitation conditions is also mentioned in Article 24 of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child the duty of states to take into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution moving on to explicitly mention that environmental sanitation must be ensured to all segments of the society.
In the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women also highlights the right of women to enjoy adequate water and sanitation:
“State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in rural areas in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, that they participate in and benefit from rural development and, in particular, shall ensure to such women the right… (h) To enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications.”(Article (2)(h))
The application of these principles and agreements has deliberately been delayed or denied in all by the Israeli procedures that hinder the development of the sector putting both the public and the environment at an alarming risk that will only grow with time.
Through the deliberate target of water and sanitation infrastructure, Israel has also violated Article 53 of the IVth Geneva Convention:
“Any destruction by the occupying power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”