04 December 2011


by Dr Philip Church

A few days ago I paid my water bill. It was relatively expensive, but I am pleased to have clean, good quality water piped into my home 24/7. I think Watercare do a great job in Auckland. My mind went back to the recent tragic explosion in a water-pipe not far from my home when a Watercare employee lost her life and her colleague was left with a serious disability. My mind also went back to my visit to the West Bank in 2010.

About two and a half million people live in the West Bank, and there is good quality water there in subterranean aquifers, although as elsewhere in the Middle East it is a scarce and valuable resource. But there is another issue that is not widely known outside the West Bank.

Three groups of people live in the West bank. Some are Palestinian Arabs. The majority of these are Muslims, maybe two million. About fifty percent live in refugee camps. About 5,000 live in one camp I visited, with a total area of about 1 square km. The children used to play in the olive grove across the road, but now there is a 9 metre high wall between them and the olive grove. They play in the streets. The refugees formerly lived in what is now the State of Israel, but are prevented from returning to their homes, some of them for over 60 years. Interestingly, I can travel to Jerusalem from the ends of the earth, but a Palestinian refugee in the Aida Refugee Camp just 7.4 km away, cannot.

Some of the Palestinians are Christians. There was formerly quite a large Christian population in the West Bank, but it has dwindled in previous years, and now numbers less than 200,000. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. The other people who live in the West Bank are Jewish settlers. I have met some. The ones I met had American accents and they live in what resembles an up-market Western style North American suburb. It has shopping malls, fast food chains, gyms and playgrounds for the children. There may be 300,000 of these people, Jewish immigrants from the diaspora who feel such a strong attachment to what they believe to be their land that they uproot and settle there.

But I said that there is an issue with the water. A good look at the rooves of the houses highlights the issue. Palestinian houses have tanks on the roof. Black PVC tanks collect rainwater and grey steel tanks store water delivered through the pipes, maybe once every three or four weeks. It works this way in many countries in the Middle East, although elsewhere you can count on a regular delivery once or twice a week. Water deliveries in the West bank are less frequent and are quite irregular. They never quite know when the next one will come. Then there are the houses in the Jewish settlements. They don’t have any tanks. They don’t need them. Like my home these homes have water on tap 24/7. Some of them even have swimming pools. And all this water comes from aquifers in the West Bank, in the territories allocated to the Palestinians. Not only that. If you are a Palestinian you pay four times as much for water as the settlers in the settlement on the hill.

Of course, if the water delivered to Palestinian homes was more frequent they may not be able to afford it, since 46% of the people live below the poverty line. But that is not all. The NZ Herald reported this week (29 Nov 2011) that Israel has imposed sanctions on the Palestinians because they had the temerity to seek recognition at the UN. These sanctions mean that the Palestinian Authority, which supports about one third of the Palestinian population, will be unable to pay employee salaries next month. Israel suggests that the path to recognition should be by negotiation rather than by unilateral action at the UN. The Palestinian Authority suggests that an important negotiation point is the settlement of Jewish immigrants in the West Bank. But that won’t happen any time soon. The settlers will continue to come from America and elsewhere and will continue to drink the water. The Palestinians will continue to live there, and will continue to be thirsty.

When you next pay your water bill, spare a thought for the people who live in the West Bank and the issues surrounding the allocation of their water.

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