Tapped Out

Tuesday, 14 Feb 2006

Kibbutz Ketura, Israel

Nader El Khatib is the Palestinian director of Friends of the Earth Middle East. During most of the year, he meets with his Israeli and Jordanian counterparts to promote environmental protection of the region. During the summer, however, he is a dictator.

Nader lives with his two brothers in a house on the West Bank. There are 35 water tanks on the roof, but inside there is no running water. Speaking softly, he told the participants at this week’s NATO institute, “I become a dictator in my family during the summer, when no rain falls for six or seven months. I am constantly checking that no one in the household is wasting water.”

Nader El Khatib.

Photo: Eric Pallant.

In Amman, Jordan, there are water shortages, but at least there is a schedule: water comes every Wednesday. “But in Palestine,” continued Nader, “it could be weeks or months, because Israel controls water allocations to Palestinians on the West Bank. When we were under curfew for 40 days in Bethlehem [during the worst of the intifada], we were constantly worried about water supplies.” The only predictable increase in water provisions on the West Bank comes on Saturday, when religious Jews observe the Sabbath in their West Bank settlement communities and do no work.

To Nader and his fellow citizens, this is the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the peaceful 1990s, Palestinian children were out in the street handing olive branches to Israeli soldiers. After seeing their hopes for an independent Palestine dashed, Nader says it is very hard to tell kids to conserve. “They tell me to get lost, because they do not have enough water to use.”

Nader once participated in a study of water supply to Palestinian cities on the West Bank. In 1997 in Hebron, a city of approximately 110,000, he found most people got water from the piped system only once a week from May to October. This was only enough for 27 liters per day — a little more than six gallons. Picture that many Coke bottles, and imagine using just that amount for cooking, cleaning, washing, and toilet activities. “People have to buy water from suppliers, tanker trucks, and this is an economic burden,” Nader says.

Evgeni Levner, a gray-haired Israeli scientist from the Holon Academic Institute of Technology, listened to Nader’s stories with quiet intensity before finally speaking up. “First of all, I want to say that I never knew any of what Nader just told us. I also want to say that I don’t think we should generalize, we should not create an image of a monster of Israel, nor should we aim to praise it. We should do our very best to find a solution.”

Susana Neto, an urban and regional planner from the Technical University of Lisbon, could not believe Israelis were unaware of Palestinian water shortages. Other Israeli participants confirmed Evgeni’s observation. Israelis don’t know how hard it is. The same can be said for most residents of the developed world.

The participants produced one example of “consciousness raising” from Jordan. A few months ago, there was a campaign in Jordan called “Right to Water.” It was designed to raise awareness among the privileged part of the country’s population about scarcity and lack of water experienced by its poor residents. Participants wondered why there couldn’t be something similar throughout the Middle East.

Jonathon Chenowith from the Center for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, England, put his finger on the problem of conferences like these. “The thing is, we are sitting in a small room in a small kibbutz in the middle of the Arava Desert. How can we get the message out beyond our bubble to the rest of the world?”

Now you know.