Ever since the Jordan River became inaccessible in 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank have depended on water resources from the Mountain Aquifer, a large groundwater basin situated beneath the West Bank and Israel. The Aquifer discharges at several natural springs on its eastern edge, including Auja Spring and Ein As-Sultan. Urban centres across Palestine and Israel compete for the Aquifer’s resources, which has become endangered due to over extraction and pollution.
Between the 19th and 22nd of December, I visited Nablus, Bethlehem, Jericho and Majdal Bani Fadil (Majdal) to develop a greater understanding of water management in urban centres (Figure 1). My conversations with municipal officials are analysed alongside presentations delivered at the 2016 Union of Palestinian Water Service Providers Conference, which I attended in early December.
The main issues confronting Palestinian urban water sector are aging infrastructure, overconsumption and an inability to recover the costs of providing water. In addition, Palestine’s urban water sector is vulnerable to extreme weather events and its dependence on too few sources of water.
Ageing water infrastructure consistently emerged as a major issue in all urban centres. Insufficient funding and a lack of technical expertise has left municipalities unable to efficiently maintain their water networks, leading to the deterioration of pipes and water meters. Outdated infrastructure has led to inefficient water use and pricing inconsistencies, reducing confidence in the country’s institutional capacity to manage water effectively.
Unsustainable levels of water consumption are a significant problem in most urban centres, the main drivers of which are the restrictions on developing new water sources; unsustainable water consumption attitudes and practices; population growth, which is projected to increase by almost 50% in the next 20 years (Figure 2); and a cost recovery rate of approximately 50% nationwide.
A municipal official in Nablus explained that the greatest consumers of domestic water are the city’s wealthiest residents, who use most of their water to maintain household gardens. The city’s thriftiest water users are its poorest residents, who have no alternative water sources and are forced to conserve water through necessity. In Bethlehem, water theft is prevalent among poorer citizens who steal to cope during times of water scarcity. It was difficult to understand why theft was more prominent in Bethlehem, but not Nablus. However, in both cities, non-payment exacerbated overconsumption as no financial incentive existed to encourage water conservation.
The inability to recover costs and enforce payment for water services affects municipalities’ ability to fund water management practices. Weak institutional capacity to monitor and enforce payment has created the conditions for water theft to thrive. In some cases, incidents of theft are known by Palestinian authorities, but they are powerless to stop them in time because they are required to obtain permissions from various departments and committees.
Non-payment is especially common in Palestinian refugee camps. Municipal officials in Bethlehem, Nablus and Jericho explained that many refugees believe they pay their water fees to Palestinian authorities indirectly through their municipality. The uncertainty over who does and doesn’t pay for water has led to refugee and non-refugee communities accusing each other of non-payment and free riding.
The low rate of payment for water services has been attributed to high costs and poor service. In addition, municipal officials explained a common belief among some residents that government bodies should provide free water to citizens. Through discussions over recent weeks, willingness to pay for water may originate from traditional perceptions of water as a communal resource and lack of central authority in Palestine until 1967, when Israel commenced its occupation. This cultural legacy may be at odds with modern, centralised water networks.
Palestine’s urban centres remain vulnerable due to their reliance on limited sources of water. An official from Jericho Municipality explained that having only one source of water has left the city highly vulnerable to any changes in water quality, which forces the spring’s supply to be suspended for days at a time (Figure 3). While all urban centres visited experienced water shortages during summer months due to increased consumption, cold weather in mountainous towns such as Majdal has led to damaged pipes due to below freezing temperatures.
Municipalities have had mixed success when attempting to address these challenges. The head of Salfeet Municipality’s Technical Department explained how network losses due to ageing infrastructure have decreased substantially in four years by prioritising the repair of broken meters and replacing speed-based meters with sturdier volume-based meters. Smaller towns such as Majdal, have had difficulty attracting attention to their infrastructure challenges, with government departments prioritising larger urban centres.
With municipalities struggling to meet consumer demand for water during summer, many have sought new ways to ensure water is available. Jericho Municipality currently applies a nine-hour water consumption window during summer when consumption levels increase. It is considering shortening this window to four hours if unsustainable consumption patterns persist.
In an effort to encourage higher rates of payment, Nablus Municipality recently entered bill-paying residents into a draw to win prizes. However, the initiative only drew interest from those already paying their bills and failed to persuade those who weren’t paying. Salfeet Municipality successfully reduced theft by fining and shaming residents who were discovered to be stealing water. If fines were not paid, the municipality would disconnect the resident’s electricity (though not their water, which was considered an essential utility). Some efforts to conserve water have conflicted with cultural values. Jericho Municipality recently decided to close its open water channels to prevent evaporation. Some of the municipality’s members opposed this decision due to the ancient channels being a feature of Jericho’s identity (Figure 4).
Receptiveness to public awareness campaigns that promote sustainable water consumption habits has been mixed. Information that was delivered entertainingly or as part of a story were amongst the most effective strategies, whereas written material such as brochures were often disposed of. A predominant barrier to changing consumer attitudes through public awareness is the propensity to blame water scarcity on Israel’s control of Palestinian water resources, rather than domestic consumption. Others were unwilling to engage with municipalities on water conservation initiatives while their water supply was intermittent and unreliable. Given these reactions, children are seen consistently among all organisations and departments as the most effective audience to promote smart domestic water use. Nablus Municipality recently distributed workbooks and diaries to students that included illustrations of water conservation behaviour (Figure 5).
From my observations and discussions over recent weeks, it is evident that municipalities in the West Bank must persist with public education campaigns – a low-cost strategy that can shape social norms towards domestic water use. While the ability for Palestinians to implement water reform is restricted in many ways, successful initiatives that make users accountable for water use and explain the vulnerability of the Mountain Aquifer should be replicated across other urban centres.
Caponera, DA 1992, Principles of Water Law and Administration: National and International. A.A. Balkema Publishers, Rotterdam.
FoEME, see Friends of the Earth Middle East
Friends of the Earth Middle East 2010, Why Cooperate Over Water? Shared Waters of Palestine, Israel and Jordan: Cross-border crises and the need for trans-national solutions, Friends of the Earth Middle East, viewed 15 May 2016, <http://foeme.org/uploads/12893974031~%5E$%5E~Why_Cooperate_Over_Water.pdf>.”
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics 2007, ‘Population Projections 2007-2016’, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, viewed 26 December 2016, < http://www.pcbs.gov.ps/site/lang__en/803/default.aspx>
Trottier J 1999, Hydropolitics in the West Bank and Gaza strip. PASSIA, Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Jerusalem.
World Bank 2009, West Bank and Gaza—Assessment of restrictions on Palestinian water sector development, World Bank, viewed 26 December 2016, < http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWESTBANKGAZA/Resources/WaterRestrictionsReport18Apr2009.pdf>.
Zeitoun, M 2008, Power and water in the Middle East: The hidden politics of the Palestinian-Israeli water conflict. I.B. Tauris, London.