Testing the waters: Did EU visitor get his numbers right?

Martin Schulz had his figures way off and his ratios close, says a leading environmentalist, stressing that complex factors play into the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian water use

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A worker at the Eshkol water filtration plant in northern Israel, operated by Israel's national water company, Mekorot (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
A worker at the Eshkol water filtration plant in northern Israel, operated by Israel's national water company, Mekorot (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

European Parliament President Martin Schulz’s allegation regarding Israeli and Palestinian water usage was wrong quantitatively, closer to the truth in terms of ratio, but left out central factors that go to the heart of the difference, a leading Israeli environmentalist said Wednesday.

The average Israeli uses up to 260 liters of water per day, per person; Palestinians on average use 70, said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental organization that promotes cooperation between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, particularly on water usage. (Mekorot, Israel’s National Water Company, puts the Israeli per capita average at between 100 and 230.)

Much of the Israeli-Palestinian gulf stems from the fact that while the Palestinians rely overwhelmingly on water from natural rainfall and underground aquifers — pumped at levels governed by agreements with Israel — Israel has massively supplemented those resources over the years with major investment in recycling and desalination, Bromberg noted. The calculations for average Palestinian water use also rely on West Bank population figures that most Israeli estimates consider to be too high; if there are fewer Palestinians, then average water use is higher.

Schulz, who spoke before Knesset in his mother tongue of German, was reassuring about the European Union’s friendship toward Israel, but critical of Israel’s settlement policy, its blockade of Gaza, and its allegedly unjust distribution of water.

“One of the questions from these young men that moved me the most,” he said of a recent conversation with Palestinians, “was: How can it be that Israelis are allowed to use 70 liters [of water] per day and Palestinians only 17?”

President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz adressess the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on February 12, 2014.  (photo credit: Flash 90)
President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz addresses the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on February 12, 2014. (photo credit: Flash 90)

Members of Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party left the plenum in protest at that passage of the speech, after shouting out that Schulz was parroting Palestinian lies, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu panned Schulz for failing to check his facts.

“The words that were heard in the Knesset are very grave,” Bennett stated. “Silence in the face of false propaganda legitimizes actions against Israelis. I will not accept false moralizing against the people of Israel, in Israel’s Knesset. Certainly not in German.” Later he wrote on Facebook that, “Israel’s mistake is that it has always been silent in the face of lies. No longer.”

Bennett cited a 2006 Israel National Water Company report that put the average Palestinian use of water per day at 165 liters. The Israeli human rights group B’tselem said usage among Palestinians in the West Bank ranged, among those connected to the water system, from 169 liters per day in Jericho to 38 liters per day in Jenin. The average, the organization said, was 73 liters, which is well below the WHO’s recommended 100 liters per day per person. (A 2012 Bar Ilan University report, looking exclusively at natural water source allocation — excluding treated and desalinated water — put Israeli per capita use, in 2006, at 170 cubic meters a year and Palestinian use at 129.)

Bromberg focused not so much on the quantitative disparity but on the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian water agreement, signed as part of the Oslo Accords, was meant to be temporary and has not been altered since. “Water,” he said, “has been held hostage to the failure to progress on the peace process.”

West Bank water use is governed by Article 40 of the Oslo Accords. Since September 1995, though, Israel has reduced its reliance on ground and rain water, drastically cutting down on the amount it draws from the West Bank mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee.

Today, Israel uses three billion cubic meters of water per year total, including agriculture and industry, Bromberg said. Of the 700 million cubic meters used in a domestic setting, a full 600 million is met by desalination. 

Gidon Bromberg (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Gidon Bromberg (photo credit: Wikicommons)

Palestinians in the West Bank, though, live under a water regime drafted before Israel began its mass desalination efforts.

According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians were given permission to drill for an additional 28 million cubic meters of water per year, on top of the 118 million cubic meters they already drilled for at the time of the signing. Naama Baumgarten-Sharon, a researcher at B’tselem, said that in actuality Palestinians in the West Bank are able to drill for only 100 million cubic meters per year today, for a variety of reasons, and buy an additional 53 MCM from Israel’s National Water Company. Of the total 153 million cubic meters of water, 90 million are slated for personal use. If one puts the Palestinian population in the West Bank at 2.3 million, which, it should be noted, is considerably higher than most Israeli estimates, then each person would receive 100 liters a day. Baumgarten-Sharon said that some 30 percent of the water, though, is lost to leakage in the old transport pipes, bringing the per-capita allocation down to 73.

Palestinians connected to the water grid (some 100,000 are not) keep their water in black tanks on the roofs of their homes. The tanks are filled once a week in some parts of the West Bank and, in the less accessible areas, once every two to three weeks. “This means you have to use your water very wisely in order to meet your needs,” Bromberg said, adding that few Palestinians can afford to shower daily in the summer.

Once a Palestinian has run out of the water supplied by the local municipality, he said, they can order water privately “for approximately 20 times the cost.”

With reporting by Raphael Ahren

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