Discuss as:

Water access spurs resentment in West Bank

After years of drought, water is flowing in the Jordan Valley. Who owns and controls that water continues to be a cause of friction. NBC's Duncan Golestani reports. 

By Duncan Golestani
NBC News

JORDAN VALLEY -- Faisel Njoom undoubtedly has the best house in Auja. Drinking iced tea in the shade of his garden he talks with pride at being the biggest land owner in the village and the oranges and bananas that he once grew on his farm. Only later, standing in one of his dry and dusty fields in the Jordan Valley, does he become angry.

“Life without water is not a life,” he said as the sun began to set. “This land without water is like all the other deserts. We were born working this land.”

He says he couldn’t keep farming because the irrigation channels to his land began drying up in 2000. He, and many charities, blame the digging of a new well near the Auja Spring, designed to serve a nearby Israeli settlement.

For first time in many years there is water flowing in the spring long after winter has finished because rainfall has increased by a fifth over the last year. Otherwise, the spring would now be dry. Almotaz Abadi, a consultant to the Palestinian Water Authority, explained that, rainfall is the biggest factor contributing to water availability, but the Auja Spring has been adversely affected by other factors, principally the new well.

The reminder of how plentiful water used to be in Auja has reignited resentment -- a feeling shared widely among Palestinians in the occupied territories. The World Bank and international charities accuse Israel of denying enough water to the Palestinians. Ironically, it’s a situation made worse by the Oslo Peace Accords.

The Oslo II agreement in 1995 set up a joint water committee to oversee management of the aquifers in the West Bank. It was supposed to encourage consensus, but a World Bank report in 2009 concluded Israel dominated the process, taking 80 percent of the water resources.  (In recognizing that the Palestinian Water Authority’s powers were severely limited, the report also criticized its management abilities).

Agriculture is key to the Palestinian economy and its third largest employer. But it could be much bigger. The World Bank found that problems with irrigation are holding the sector back, especially when combined with the Separation Barrier cutting off land and access to wells.

Many Palestinians see this water divide as a way of increasing their dependency on Israel. Amnesty International estimates some 180,000 to 200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities have no access to running water. It means many have to buy water from Israeli tankers at high prices.

Israelis complain of water scarcity too. After much persuasion with an armed guard, NBC News was allowed to film inside Yitav, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. It is indeed a green outpost in the desert, but the settlers say it comes at a high price – which they pay with their utility bills.

Israel’s Water Authority disputes the claims made by the World Bank and other charities. At their offices in Tel Aviv we were shown a map of locations where licenses have been granted for Palestinian wells, but never pumped. “You have to know most of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank have better access to water than residents in Amman, the capital of Jordan,” said Baruch Nager, Head of Water Administration for the West Bank.

Both sides have hydrological data to support their side of the argument, which makes it particularly hard to resolve.

Water is a ‘final status issue’ in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. No decisions will be taken on how control of the water is divided until there is a peace agreement. That, of course, has never looked further away.