California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the state’s history, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to declare a water “state of emergency.”
Ordinary Californians are bearing the brunt of this disaster. While
the governor has imposed restrictions to reduce residential water
consumption, businesses in the fields of agriculture and hydraulic
fracturing have been largely exempt. Brown’s unwillingness to take on
these gargantuan corporate water-wasters lends a sharp political element
to an otherwise natural disaster.
There’s another region in the world, however, where access to water
isn’t just decided on the whims of politicians dealing with natural
disasters. In fact, the very existence of water crises is official state
policy for one country: Israel.
Dying of Thirst
Despite its location in a region thought to be perennially dry, the
Holy Land actually has ample natural freshwater resources — namely in
the form of underwater aquifers and the Jordan River. Palestinians in
the West Bank and Israeli settlers live in roughly equal proximity to
these resources, which theoretically would allow for equal consumption.
Israeli water policy, however, has made this prospect virtually impossible. In fact, there’s a shocking disparity.
from the United Nations found that the average Israeli settler consumes
300 liters of water per day — a figure surpassing even the average
Californian’s 290. But thanks to Israeli military action and legal
restrictions on access, the average Palestinian in the occupied West
Bank only gets about 70. And for the tens of thousands of Palestinians
who live off the water grid altogether, daily consumption hovers at
around 30. That’s just 10 percent of the Israeli figure.
Both figures are well below the minimum 100 liters per day
recommended by the World Health Organization. While Israelis are
watering their lawns and swimming in Olympic-sized pools, Palestinians a
few kilometers away are literally dying of thirst.
This inequality has deep roots — and it’s no accident.
Almost immediately after the creation of Israel in 1948, the
fledgling country took comprehensive action to secure control of the
region’s water. These policies were ramped up again following the 1967
Arab-Israeli war, when Israel first assumed control of the Palestinian
That year, the Israeli armed forces issued Military Order 92 — an
initiative that put Palestinian water resources under Israel’s military
jurisdiction. This was shortly followed by Military Order 158, which
required Palestinians to obtain permits from the military in order to
build new water infrastructure. If they built new wells, springs, or
even rain-collecting containers without Israeli permission, soldiers
would confiscate or destroy them, often without prior notification.
These orders, among others, remain on the books to this day. They
form the basis for the administration of water access for nearly 4.4
million Palestinians. Although control of water resources is now
officially the domain of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company,
Israeli forces routinely perform operations with the explicit intent of
destroying Palestinian water infrastructure.
A Veneer of Legality
Decades of peace negotiations have done little to grant Palestinians sovereign control over their resources.
Even after the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, which were supposed
to grant the Palestinians some semblance of political agency in the
territories, water access remains limited. In fact, the accords simply
codified the unfair distribution of water in the region, imbuing these
flagrantly harmful practices with a veneer of legality.
Even in Palestinian-administered portions of the West Bank, Israeli
troops regularly demolish rain cisterns, pipelines, and agricultural
water structures. The Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq has
meticulously documented a number of these instances, compiling them in a
report examining the extent of the hardship these operations cause to West Bank residents.
One case study detailed the destruction of a farmer’s well in a
village east of Jenin. His well, along with five others in the area, was
destroyed by the military under the pretext that it had been built
without proper authorization by Israel — despite the fact that an
Israeli permit is supposedly not needed in the Palestinian-administered
Area B of the West Bank, where these villages are located.
These operations showcase the coordination between civil and military
channels to restrict Palestinian access to water, a system that’s been
startlingly effective in its goal.
Even when Palestinians attempt to go through the “proper” Israeli
channels, they’re met with innumerable obstacles. Two regulatory
organizations — the Joint Water Commission (JWC) and the Israeli Civil
Administration — have created a bureaucratic nightmare for West Bank
residents attempting to acquire permits to either build new
instillations or repair the region’s floundering infrastructure. Both
organizations are capable of vetoing petitions without explanation,
creating a system that prevents Palestinians from maintaining consistent
and comprehensive water access.
Meanwhile, access is severely curtailed even where Palestinians have
permission to pump water. The most striking inequality lies in the
division of the Mountain Aquifer, the only underground aquifer that
Palestinians in the West Bank are allowed to access. Despite being the
sole source for the territory, Palestinian extraction is limited to 20
percent of the aquifer’s total capacity. Israel, on the other hand, has
access to 80 percent of the aquifer’s water — a stunningly unequal
distribution, considering it also has unfettered access to the region’s
remaining aquifers and the Jordan River.
A Worsening Crisis
California’s drought has captivated U.S. audiences, sparking concern
and calls to action to prevent ecological disaster in the face of
natural causes. On the subject of Israel’s deliberate drought, however,
media attention has been virtually nonexistent.
This crisis has become the norm for Palestinians for decades now,
though its severity continues to increase as water becomes more scarce.
The UN estimates that due to Israel’s siege, the Gaza Strip will be
uninhabitable by the year 2020. Though the West Bank is relatively
well-off in comparison, the water crisis there has resulted in severe
economic hardship for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, a situation
that’s not conducive to long-term stability in the region.
This water disparity is emblematic of the power disparity between
Israel and Palestine — a gulf that seems wholly unrecognized during
regional peace talks.