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Analysis: The ‘apolitical’ approach to Palestine’s water crisis (Part II)

Aug. 1, 2017 9:57 A.M. (Updated: Aug. 1, 2017 3:45 P.M.)
Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law. This is the second of a three-part analysis on water rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, written by Al-Shabaka policy member Muna Dajani. The first part was published on Ma’an News on Monday, and the third and final section will be published on Wednesday. The full report can be read here.

How Donor Funding Shores Up Israel’s Status Quo

The international donor community, in its eagerness to establish evidence of the usefulness of its million-dollar investments, exacerbates this system of water inequality between Israel and Palestine. Though donors’ approach has been to increase water availability and protect the health of people and the environment, under occupation this is achieved through acquiescence to the status quo. Aid is not supposed to be a long-term intervention, but rather should provide support to local actors and communities so they can develop sustainable resource reclamation and ownership. Considering the decades-long interventions and millions of dollars channeled to the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) in the water sector, the failure of donor communities to enhance the living conditions of Palestinians demonstrates how aid has harmed the recognition of Palestinian rights.

Since the 1990s, international donor agencies have increased investment in the Palestinian water sector by constructing small- and large-scale wastewater treatment plants, water networks, sewage lines, and even a desalination plant in Gaza. Most of these projects are conducted under the terms of the Oslo Accords, which dictate that the Joint Water Committee plans the projects before any money is given to the PA. As such, the development of the water sector outside the narrow scope of Oslo is restricted.

International investments have generally focused on the construction of wastewater treatment plants in the West Bank, with increasing donor interest in the development of six major plants in Nablus West, Jenin, Jericho, Al-Bireh, Ramallah, and Tulkarem. Yet a significant number of these projects do not come to fruition. The Salfit wastewater treatment plant, for example, secured funding in the 1990s but has never been operational. The JWC has taken the project through a labyrinth of bureaucracy, from changing its approved location to making its operation conditional on linking it to the Ariel settlement, one of the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank that channels its untreated wastewater into Palestinian villages nearby.

The official framing of these projects obfuscates underlying political issues. In 2015, for instance, the European Union and the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) signed an agreement to construct a $20.5 million wastewater treatment plant in Tubas governorate in the northeastern West Bank. The Head of the PWA, Mazen Ghneim, said:

“Untreated wastewater remains a major challenge in Palestine and has serious implications on health, environment, and agriculture. This project will significantly reduce health risks for the population of North Tubas governorate and the contamination of the environment. It will also allow the reuse of treated wastewater in agriculture hence conserving the limited groundwater resources in Palestine.”

Such convictions of the need for wastewater infrastructure to replace a “limited” resource is echoed by many PA officials, donor agencies, and civil society organizations.

While wastewater treatment is necessary, its framing as an additional water source for agriculture strengthens the notion of finding alternative means of achieving water rights in Palestine. In other words, the focus on the potential of wastewater rather than Palestinians’ lack of water rights couches water as a natural crisis that needs a technological solution -- rather than a man-made problem that deliberately deprives Palestinians of a vital resource.

As for the Gaza Strip, over the last decade news articles, reports, and international campaigns have described its water scarcity as “catastrophic,” “alarming,” and constituting a “humanitarian crisis.” Indeed, the population is forced to make do with a main water source -- a coastal aquifer -- that is 96 percent unfit for human consumption. This is due to decades of over-extraction, sewage contamination, and seawater intrusion. Israel’s blockade and offensives have exponentially exacerbated this problem and solidified water de-development, in large part due to the destruction of vital wastewater treatment plants, reservoirs, and power stations.

The international community as well as the PA have since the 1990s framed Gaza’s water crisis as solvable via a desalination plant. The Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean, a body bringing together 28 EU countries and 15 nations from the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, has particularly pushed for the project. The union argues:

“With no alternative existing source of fresh water, a large-scale desalination plant is an absolute requirement to address the water deficit in Gaza. The urgency for the Desalination Facility for Gaza has increased with the rising level of humanitarian crisis in Gaza related to inadequate water resources with related impacts on human health.”

Such an approach strengthens the narrative of the geographical and political separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, treating Gaza as a standalone entity requiring its own energy-intensive facility for water. These claims ignore the fact that the water of the West Bank -- almost entirely controlled by Israel -- can provide relief to Gaza. As Clemens Messerschmid, a German hydrologist working in the Palestinian water sector, contends:

“Under international water law, Gaza has a right to a fair share of the Coastal Aquifer Basin. Gaza cannot be separated from the rest of Palestine. Gaza must be supplied from outside, just like New York, London, Paris, or Munich. The water-rich West Bank purchases ever-increasing amounts of water from Mekorot Company (Israel), while Gaza should look after itself? This is pure and 100-percent Israeli long-standing logic and hydro-political rationale. The historical Palestinian struggle for water rights, for an ‘equitable and reasonable share of transboundary water resources,’ which is enshrined in international water law, is abandoned under this new paradigm. The Israeli Negev has a surplus of water because the entire upper Jordan River is transferred at Lake Tiberias into the National Water Carrier, which passes Gaza at its doorstep. Huge amounts of surplus water are literally flowing past Gaza, while the Strip keeps drying up.”

Similar to the wastewater treatment plants in the West Bank, Gaza’s desalination plant, though constructed, is not fully operational. UNICEF, after decades of raising funds from the EU and others, inaugurated the plant in January 2017. However, by the end of February the plant was only running on a partial basis, powered by emergency fuel. Desalination plants also require continuous maintenance and spare parts and materials, which is now facilitated under the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. Designed to “facilitate urgently needed reconstruction,” the Mechanism made the blockade its starting point, a move that Oxfam criticized as normalizing the siege and “giving the appearance of legitimizing an extensive control regime.” Moreover, Oxfam reiterated the danger of separating economic and technological solutions from political conditions.

When Palestinian and international policymakers flag desalination as the only solution to Gaza’s water situation, this shores up the narrative that technological advancement saves the day, without addressing the underlying political realities and restrictions on the ground.

It also exemplifies donors’ naive approach to water in Gaza and the West Bank. Essentially, these projects fail to challenge -- and thus, even unwittingly, underwrite -- Israel’s international law violations, namely its continued occupation and expropriation of Palestinian land and natural resources.

Moreover, the main donors, namely the EU, the UK, and the US, not only fund problematic projects, but actively promote Israeli technology and scientific advancement while ignoring the potential for Palestinian water research.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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