RAMALLAH, October 6 (JMCC) - The Zomar river, flowing through the north of the West Bank
, was once a pristine source of clean water. Today it is thick with sewage. With no nearby treatment plants, dangerous waste is poisoning wells and aquifers, polluting fields and spreading diseases.
“There is no real life there - it is just waste water,” said Iyad Aburdeieneh, Palestinian Deputy Director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.
The rancid Zomar is just the tip of a noxious iceberg. Twenty-five million cubic meters of untreated sewage - or five Zomar rivers - leak into the West Bank’s environment every year, according to the World Bank. Israel
has allowed the Palestinians to build only one wastewater treatment facility in the West Bank - and let others deteriorate.
“To even dig and line a septic tank, you need a construction permit at a household level. To dig and put in a cistern to get water, you need a construction permit,” said Michael Talhami, consultant for the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). “There is an actual policy here resulting in actions taken by the Israelis over the past fifteen years to make the Palestinians more dependent.”
One in five families are connected to sewage systems, and more than 90 percent of all West Bank waste water is untreated, according to the B’Tselem report Foul Play.
This is an environmental calamity - especially the poor and marginalized. Over 200,000 West Bank Palestinians rely on easily-contaminated surface water, as they do not have a private supply. Old wells have dried up, fields are tainted, and underground cisterns fester.
A World Bank report found 450 cases of Hepatitis A in the town of Burin
. Amoebas caused diseases in one-fifth of the population of nearby Jurish village. In 2006, 12 percent of children in the West Bank had diarrhea related to poor water quality.
Cara Flowers, an officer with the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Group (EWASH), saw the effects of Israel’s waste-water freeze while visiting Salfit.
“It was disgusting - industrial waste and lots of pollutants,” Flowers said. “You can see a lot of children playing in the river - there’s not a lot of spots they can go to. It’s having a huge, negative impact on their lives. People have been sick from eating crops grown in that area.”
The polluted Zomar flows west from Nablus
, converges on the border town of Tulkarem
, before crossing the Green Line into Israel and becoming the Alexander near Emek Hafer. There, the modern waste water treatment plant of Yad Hana sanitizes the water for use in Israel. Yad Hana sends a treatment bill to the Palestinian Authority.
“The amount Israel is charging is economically unjustifiable,” Talhami said. “The Palestine National Authority
is being charged for additional wastewater flows that do not originate in Palestinian communities but, in some cases, from Israeli colonies.” Over 200 million shekels, or $53 million, are deducted annually by Israel from Palestinian tax revenues.
The PWA doesn’t want to pay Israel or stay beholden to their treatment facilities. They’d rather do it themselves and keep the cleaned water. But Israel continually denies the necessary permits to do so, for financial as much as political reasons.
The West Bank buys 52 percent of its water from the Israeli company Mekorot - but this official statistic is misleading, according to Flowers. In southern Hebron
, Palestinians purchase, at inflated prices, most of their water through private, proxy companies supplied by Mekorot.
The West Bank desperately needs water as access to sources is strictly limited by the occupation. Historical water sources like the Jordan River are off-limits to Palestinians and drying up. Construction of the Wall
through the occupied West Bank has cut off seventeen springs and twenty wells. Few new wells are approved and old ones are left to rot, denied maintenance permits. While 80 percent of the recharge area of the enormous aquifer that lies under the West Bank is Palestinian, Palestinians get just 12 percent of its water.
POWER & CONTROL
Palestinians’ capacity to treat waste water has been systematically retarded by Israel. Through managing agency the Joint Water Commission (JWC) and the Civil Administration, the Israeli government has consistently blocked Palestinian projects for treatment facilities, even though these projects have secured independent funding.
Continual bids to clean the Zomar river with a Palestinian-built, operated and controlled plant have been denied since 1996. Despite nine JWC-approved projects, only one facility functions today in the West Bank, reflecting Israel’s use of Oslo’s JWC to apply political pressure.
“What we typically see in the JWC is Israel trying to leverage their projects over Palestinian projects. Israel tries to reduce the process down to horse-trading,” Talhami said. Israel targets specific lands for settlement expansion, stunts local Palestinian development there, and use its veto power in the JWC to force the Palestinian Authority to approve the construction.
“We must not forget that these settlements
are illegal under international law,” Talhami said, “but the coercion still exists to have Israeli projects approved.”
Downstream in Israel, the Zomar still reeks. Government officials blame the Arab communities upstream, not the JWC’s documented obstruction. In July, managing director of the Alexander River Authority Nissam Almog told the Jerusalem Post that Palestinian fiscal ineptitude keeps the flow foul, claiming their neighbors “don’t seem to mind that their waste is being sent in our direction.”
The sewage isn’t all Palestinian. Of the West Bank’s yearly discharge of 91 million cubic meters of waste water, 38 percent comes from Israeli sources. According to B’Tselem, Jerusalem and illegal settlements channel 35 million cubic meters of waste water into the West Bank.
Forty settlements east of the Green Line are not connected to any waste water facility at all. The settlements of Kfar Adumim
, and Kiryat Arba
don’t treat any of their water. Instead, they fill cesspits, pollute the aquifer, and dump into the Hebron river, which flows through Israel to Gaza.
Settlements with treatment facilities still pose a threat. When the treatment plant broke down at the Elon Moreh, it leaked toxic water from meat processors down to the neighboring village of Azmut. Acidic enough to burn skin, local accounts reported water “flowed to the olive orchards and continued along an open trench in the center of the village, a few meters from homes and alongside the school.”
The Israelis have offered to treat the water. But their price is double-edged: in shekels and independence.
An already cash-strapped Palestinian Authority would pay Israel for treatment and lose control of West Bank water sources. Talhami believes it is a common strategy to “pit humanitarian needs against permanent status issues.”
If the contamination continues, any future Palestinian state will inherit a network of sullied water sources. Aburdeieneh feels the deterioration is close to becoming irreversible. “A deep column of waste water is slowly, slowly going down. If we continue like this, we won’t be able to use the [Zomar] basin.”