In the past natural resources have usually referred to oil and gas, now water is becoming one of the most precious and increasingly rare commodities. In the Middle East, in particular, oil has been the source of great conflict. There are oil reserves off the coast of Gaza and some consider Israel’s response to Gaza has much to do with its desire for those resources. But water has become the much greater issue for those living there.
While at the Sabeel Conference I went on a field trip to visit Solomon’s Pools close to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Despite my frequent visits I have never been there before and their story was a real eye opener.
It seems that the pools were part of a complex ancient water system, initially built between 100 BC and 30 AD designed to provide water to Jerusalem and especially the Temple. The pools were fed by two aqueducts and several springs, as well as by rainwater descending from the overlooking hills. The pools are named after King Solomon (around 950 BC), because of the connection to the verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes 2.6: “I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.”
This water system provided water to Jerusalem, on and off, for two millennia until 1947. After the creation of Israel it was no longer used and Israel destroyed the connecting pipework.
Today the Solomon Pools are a sad sight. They have a high fence around them and, although full of water, are actually completely out of use even to the Bethlehem area. Even swimming has now been banned as there are dangerous weeds growing in them, which have entangled and drowned children. Israel will not allow Palestinians to use their own water. Instead they have to purchase water from Israel; water that is taken from aquifers beneath Palestinian land.
We also visited the Israeli occupied and annexed Golan Heights. Israel has always had its eye on this area as it is rich in water resources and currently provides Israel with 35% of its water. Israel will certainly not return the Golan Heights to Syria without a struggle.
We were taken to see a water fall near Banias, except there was very little water to be seen. We were told that the rains had failed this year and that there would be a water shortage because of it. Unfortunately, a water shortage for Israel, where even in the West Bank the illegal settlements have swimming pools and constant running water, means a real drought for the Palestinians who, as said above, have to purchase their own water back from Israel at exorbitant prices. In some cases Palestinians are deprived of water altogether, especially for animals and agriculture during the hottest weather and occasionally even in the larger populated areas where the water can be simply cut off from them.
As for Gaza, we had a briefing from Catherine Cook, the Head of OCHA’s Advocacy and Communications Section (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) on the Humanitarian Situation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Catherine started with some simple facts: 70% of those living in Gaza are registered refugees. 50% of them are under 18 and 70% to 80% require food assistance because the 40% unemployment rate means that they are too poor to purchase the food available. She also explained that there had been a partial closure on Gaza from as early as the 1990s and many of the present blockade policies existed prior to 2007, so have little to do with the election of Hamas. It was more a policy of separation of one section of Palestinians from another – divide and rule.
Currently only one of 4 goods crossing points is open and that is often closed for ‘security’ reasons or Jewish holidays. This leads to fuel shortages, especially as Israel has destroyed the main fuel storage tanks, leading to a chronic electricity shortage, which in turn affects businesses and and the development and repair of the water and sewage treatment works. This means that partially treated sewage leaks into the ground water. Irreversible damage has already been done to parts of the coastal aquifer in the Gaza Strip as a result of over pumping and seawater seepage.
Only 10 percent of the 2 million or so inhabitants of Gaza have water piped into their homes, much of which cannot be used for drinking. The other 90 percent do not have the luxury of running water and what they do have is saline and polluted. The aquifers that supported 270,000 people in 1949, now have to support over 2 million. Israel does sell water to Gaza, though not enough and expensively. Desalination plants are costly to build and the lack of the necessary building materials makes building them difficult. They also require a reliable electricity source, and the water produced is even more expensive.
This only touches on the issue of water for the Palestinians and I may add to this subject in due course.