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A War Over Water Dries Up Good Will Between Jews, Arabs

First Posted: 06/30/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:20 PM ET

Palestine Water

By Sarah Grooters
Religion News Service

JERUSALEM (RNS) Given the choice, Fatmeh Kawasmi has put her guests ahead of her flowers.

With a limited supply of water, it's comes down to giving a drink to her flowers or serving tea to her guests. So Kawasmi, as a good Middle Eastern host, pours water into the little cups instead of the soil, and hopes her flowers hang on for another week.

"I consider the flowers and plants my friends," said Kawasmi, a 69-year-old grandmother who lives in Qalandia, a West Bank town about 7 miles north of Jerusalem. "I watch them die because of the lack of water."

Kawasmi and about 1,000 other Arabs in her town make daily decisions when it comes to water -- there's just not enough to go around. Kawasmi and her family only have running water one day a week, twice if they're lucky.

"In summer, we stay without water for two weeks. We depend on buying water that is not healthy, and not examined (for contamination). But still it's expensive," she said.

Palestinians are facing a real crisis when it comes to water.

"Israelis have 4.5 times more water than Palestinians," said Dr. David Phillips, a water engineering consultant who's worked in the region for more than 11 years. "Even in the Palestinian community, there's huge variation from top to bottom. The guys at the bottom are thirsty, so thirsty they hurt."

According to Amnesty International, the average Palestinian gets less than 70 liters of water a day. People living in some communities, like Qalandia, get even less. Compare that to the average American, who uses about 380 liters a day, and the average Israeli, who uses 315
liters.

For people like Kawasmi, that means a shower is rare and flowers wither and die.

"Last summer, some villages got running water once a month," Phillips said. "Some villages just get water on Saturdays, and sometimes they just get seasonal water."

While Phillips says the Middle Eastern climate makes it difficult to get and keep water even under the best circumstances, there is no reason for the Palestinian water crisis. In recent years, several nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International have accused the Israeli government of essentially using water as a weapon. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Gaza and the West Bank, where Kawasmi lives.

There, Arab villages and Jewish settlers can live only a mile or two apart, but get far different allocations of water. The settlers, who are subsidized by the Israeli government, are encouraged to plant crops and have gardens, while the Palestinians try to collect enough to survive.

"Numbering about 450,000, the (Israeli West Bank) settlers use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3 million," according to an Amnesty report from October 2009.

In a statement posted on their website, the Israel Water Authority refutes the claim that they are treating the Palestinians unfairly. They say the Amnesty International report was biased and did not present the facts accurately.

"(T)he information presented in the report is distorted, giving inaccurate and misleading presentations of the water supply situations in the region," said Uri Shani, the director general of the Israel Water Authority.

Phillips, however, says the problem is only getting worse. He claims the Israeli government is causing a systematic water shortage amongst the Palestinians to further weaken their morale and pocketbooks.

When Kawasmi doesn't have enough water, she is forced to buy it from expensive tanker trucks that drive around with water from unknown locations. She says the water tastes bad, and Phillips said most Americans would "spit it out."

Sometimes, residents can see particles floating in the water that shouldn't be there, according to Phillips. But, bad water is better than no water at all, at least in the short term.

"In Gaza, 30 to 40 percent of all disease-related deaths are caused by bad water. Kidney and liver diseases are common there which has to do with salts and minerals in the water. Kids get it worst because adults can build up immunity," Phillips said.

Phillips said the decades-old crisis shows no sign of improving as long as the political situation remains unstable. He added that if the Israelis continue doling out such limited supplies of water, Palestinians will continue to drain aquifers in unsustainable -- and unsafe -- ways. Some Palestinians, he said, pump their own water through illegal wells, with no regulations in place to prevent sewage from seeping into the water source.

"I've faced this problem for 30 years since I moved into this home, and each year, it's getting worse year by year," said Kawasmi. "Imagine what it's like when you have guests over and you don't have water in your bathroom."

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Filed by Clay Chiles  |