Whenever I travel abroad, I become especially grateful for the free, clean tap water we have in most (but, of course, not all) parts of the United States. Unsolicited drinking water at restaurants, water fountains at airports or museums, the quick refill at the kitchen sink. In many other parts of the world, this accessibility typically doesn’t exist—maybe for cultural reasons, maybe because bottled water is an easy way to make money, maybe because the water filtration can’t guarantee it’s safe, maybe for something else entirely.
But my appreciation for and love of water have never been more salient than during my time in Palestine. Here, water is not a guarantee. And it’s not just drinking water that’s at risk—water to shower, cook and, perhaps most importantly, to irrigate farmland is all threatened on a daily basis.
Prior to the 1967 War, many Palestinian farmers had property in the large swath of land between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, their farms nestled among the mountains that facilitated water flow down into the many wells and natural springs littered across the region. After Israel’s decisive victory, it took control of much of the West Bank and its resources, including these reliable water supplies. The Oslo Accords in the mid 1990s solidified Israeli-preferred access to the water, giving the settlements access to 80 percent of the water from the aquifers and leaving the Palestinians with the remaining 20 percent. It also subjected Palestinians to a fixed amount of water—partly from new and existent drilling and partly from purchases from the Israelis—while their settlement neighbors would get unlimited access. According to a report from Btselem, an Israeli human rights organization that focuses on Palestine, the West Bank today only gets 75 percent of the water it was promised, an already miniscule amount, especially when talking about agricultural communities.
The result? A de facto manmade water shortage that spreads across the entire West Bank. Almost every farmer I spoke to told me lack of water is the biggest threat to their livelihood.
“Water is life. Without it, we have no agriculture, we don’t have anything,” one man in the Makhrour Valley told me. He wishes to remain anonymous.
Doha, who lives in Borin, a small village outside of Nablus, had just gotten water back that morning after two weeks without it. They had no water to wash or to irrigate her plants. Ziad, who lives in nearby Burqin, has to pay inflated prices to buy back water from the Israelis, all coming from sources that his family once had free and open access to, just to be able to water his plants. Mohammed, who lives in Hebron, said you can always tell a Palestinian house from an Israeli house because Palestinians keep black buckets on the roof to collect extra rain to use for irrigation. As I began to look at the hillsides on long, windy drives throughout the West Bank, Mohammed’s point became the easiest way to distinguish between the two.