July 9, 2008 / 1:59 PM / 9 years ago

West Bank taps run dry due to drought and Israeli controls

<p>A Palestinian boy rides a bicycle on an empty street in the West Bank city of Nablus July 9, 2008.Abed Omar Qusini</p>

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Taps have run dry in West Bank towns and Palestinians face acute water shortages as dry weather strains supplies already restricted by Israel, residents and the water authority said.

Parts of major West Bank cities such as Jenin, Hebron and Bethlehem have had no running water for about a month and even faucets in parts of Ramallah, the occupied West Bank's political hub which rarely experiences cuts, have been dry for days at a time in recent weeks, residents said.

"We have had no pumped water for 40 days," said Mahmoud Ibrahim from Jenin in the northern West Bank. "We have to buy water from vendors in the street."

Water is an increasingly scarce resource in the Middle East and is one of the core issues for any Palestinian-Israeli peace accord. Arguments around the issue are complex.

"Israel controls our water supply -- this year is even worse as there is a shortage in rainfall," Shaddad Attili, director of the Palestinian Water Authority, told Reuters, predicting severe shortages across the West Bank and Gaza Strip this summer.

While parts of the West Bank often experience summer shortages, residents said the dry spells had been longer this year due to sharply reduced rainfall.

Israel controls much of the occupied West Bank's supplies, pumping water from an aquifer that bridges Israel and the West Bank and then selling some back to the Palestinians, quotas agreed under the 1993 Oslo Accords which rights groups say have not been increased in line with Palestinian population growth.

Israel also restricts the drilling of new Palestinian wells, arguing it needs to protect shared resources from over-pumping.

"We can't just allow drilling wherever they want," said Israeli Water Authority spokesman Uri Shore. He said Israel had kept its obligations under the Oslo agreement while Palestinians had failed to meet their own requirements to recycle water and were not distributing water efficiently.

CRISIS

Israeli officials warned this week the country faced unprecedented shortages of its own.

"We have never had such a crisis," Uri Shani, director of the Israel Water Authority, told a news conference this week, as he announced price hikes and water-saving measures.

The Jewish state, which is two thirds arid, said the Sea of Galilee, Israel's biggest reservoir and a strategic asset that will likely play a key role in peace talks with Syria, had been sharply depleted due to dry weather.

Attili said Palestinians get about 105 million cubic meters from their own West Bank wells which were built before Israel occupied the territory in 1967. They buy up to 50 million cubic meters annually from Israel and have asked for an additional 8 million cubic meters.

Dry weather means the Palestinian wells, which are not as deep as the Israeli-controlled ones, are drying up quickly.

Israel's Water Authority said on its website average daily per capita water consumption, including household and industrial use, was about 770 liters (203 gallons) in 2005 -- over 10 times the 60 liters (16 gallons) Attili said Palestinians consumed last year.

Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said a drought -- which has this year deprived parts of the West Bank of almost half its normal rainfall -- and "unfair" distribution of water resources would cause severe shortages in Palestinian areas this year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross last month started trucking in water for about 1,000 people and 50,000 animals in the worst affected areas of the southern West Bank.

"We have water under our feet," Attili said. "But people are thirsty and we aren't allowed to use it while settlers and Israelis in general are enjoying swimming pools and irrigation."

Additional reporting by Rebecca Harrison, Ori Lewis and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Rebecca Harrison; Editing by Dominic Evans

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