The causes are political and hydrological, but the consequences for people's lives are tremendous
With the arrival of the dog days of summer, there also comes an insatiable desire for water—not just for water for swimming in a pool or the ocean, but also simply fresh water for drinking. While in a city like Rome, “sor’aqua” (sister water)—as St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182-1226) called it in the Canticle of the Sun — generally isn’t lacking, in some parts of the planet it is scarce or is distributed unjustly, to the point where a critical lack of water is a fixture in the daily lives of residents.
One of these regions is the Holy Land. In the city where Jesus was born, Bethlehem, the water system seems more like a sieve, because it loses approximately 40% of the water that it distributes—water which is also polluted, according to an article published last June 5 by SIR (Religious Information Service, a news agency of the Italian Episcopal Conference) about the solidarity campaign “Voglia di acqua” (“Desire for water”). Not only that, but the Israeli authorities supply water to the city almost literally with an eyedropper: the houses get water every 25-30 days.
The goal of the project launched several years ago by the Association Pro Terra Sancta (ATS, and NGO at the service of the Custody of the Holy Land) is to “guarantee and improve water access and supply for Christian families most in need in Bethlehem,” explains Vincenzo Bellomo, who is in charge of ATS’s social projects in Bethlehem.
The help given to Christians in Bethlehem consists in simple but concrete gestures that allow them to face the drought with greater tranquility, through the installation of solar panels (to help power pumps) or new cisterns, or through the donation of new tanks to substitute old rusted (and therefore dangerous) ones, says Bellomo.
Various Italian parishes are lending a hand to ATS, such as Santa Maria del Suffragio in Milan, which has donated it’s 2018 Lenten collection, €10,000, to the campaign. “With this initiative, we want to make our community more aware of the daily hardships of Christians in the Holy Land,” explained the pastor, Fr. Claudio Nora, to SIR.
Agreement between Israel and the PNA
The water situation should improve in coming years. In June 2017, the State of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) reached an agreement under which Israel will sell the PNA 32 million cubic meters (1 cubic meter = 264 gallons) of water a year at controlled prices, according to an article on the Custodia’s website, Terrasanta.net. Of this volume of water, approximately two thirds—22 million cubic meters—are destined for the West Back, and another 10 million to the Gaza Strip, reveals The Times of Israel.
The water will come from the ambitious Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, which is an initiative of Jordan, Israel, and the PNA to save the Dead Sea—where the water level is dropping by more than a meter per year, and which is at risk of disappearing if nothing is done.
The plan, which has received support from the World Bank, provides for the construction of a desalination plant at Aqaba, Jordan, and a series of pipelines to bring hundreds of millions of cubic meters of saline water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Jordan announced last November that it will move forward with the project even if Israel were eventually to pull out.
The River Jordan
One of the causes of the drying up of the Dead Sea, which stretches from Jordan to Israel, is that the lake, famous for its extremely high level of salinity—ten times that of normal sea water—is receiving less and less water from the River Jordan.
The biblical river, which, after a path of more than 200km through Lake Tiberias (also called the Lake of Gennesaret, Kinnereth, or the Sea of Galilea), Palestine, Israel, Syria, the West bank, and Jordan, flows into the Dead Sea, is the only permanent source of surface water in the region, and is therefore subject to intensive depletion.
The Jordan’s water is potable up to Lake Tiberias—where the National Water Carrier (NWC) begins, bringing water to the great coastal cities and as far as the Negev desert—but is polluted by the tine it leaves the lake.
The Jordan originates in the Golan Heights (a plateau consisting of the slopes of Mount Hermon and by Golan strictly speaking, which is also very significantly nicknamed the “water tower”) from the confluence of three rivers, two of which, the Baniyas and the Dad, are since the Six-Day War (1967) found on land controlled by Israel .
This explains why returning the Golan Heights to Syria would mean giving Damascus control over a significant amount of Israel’s water supply, and also why the Israeli State considers water to be a “matter of national security.”
The situation on the ground
In addition to the Jordan, there are also two subterranean water basins: the mountain aquifers, and the aquifer under Gaza, also known as the Coastal Aquifer, the waters of which are not suitable for human consumption in the Gaza Strip and are problematic for agricultural use because they are contaminated by seawater seeping in and by saline groundwater, as well as by sewage, as explained by the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem.
In the Gaza Strip, desalinated brackish water has become a fundamental source of water supply. In the region, where nearly 1.7 million people life in an area of just 360 km2 (139 square miles), of whom nearly 400,000 live in Gaza City, many families have installed domestic reverse osmosis purification systems so they can have potable water. In 2014, the Gaza Strip had 18 neighborhood desalination plants, of which 13 are administrated by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The mountain aquifers—on the east, the west, and the northeast—run predominantly through the subsurface of the West Bank, but it is under the control of Israel. The quota for Palestinians under the Oslo II Peace Accord (1995) was later reduced, and today, instead of 20%, it has gone down to close to 10%, whereas Israel has increased its quota to nearly 90% instead of the prescribed 80%, according to information supplied by the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).
Regarding the West Bank, we must mention the infamous protective (and separating) wall built by Israel. The barrier doesn’t always follow the Green Line—that is, the demarcation line of 1949—but instead, often moves east and runs a sort of obstacle course, surrounding and de facto confiscating many Palestinian wells, especially near Israeli settlements, where nearly 400,000 settlers currently live, according to Peace Now.
According to data form the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), referred to by Agnese Carlini, a researcher at the University of Perugia, the population of the Palestinian Occupied Territories has access to nearly 300 million cubic meters of water a year, an amount far inferior to that to which the Israeli population has access: approximately 2 billion cubic meters.
Although many accuse the State of Israel of obstructionism (blocked paperwork or denied permissions), of drying up Palestinian wells, of water grabbing, and even of “water genocide” against the Palestinians, others point their finger at the Palestinian elite in Ramallah, who are “reaping abundant profits from the water crisis. They are selling purified water at a high price, often from an Israeli utility provider,” writes Emanuele Bompan.
Every year, 77.3 million cubic meters of water are lost in Palestinian pipelines (in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip); that is, more than half the amount of what is consumed (122.6 billion cubic meters), according to the data for 2012 provided by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. A sieve that invites you to reflect.
1] The third river, the Hasbani, has its source in Lebanon, on the western side of Mount Hermon.