When it comes to discussing politics, there is no objective perception; however, when it comes to discussing the environment and scientific findings, the findings are objective. When environmentalists argue that waste management facilities need to be sited far from population centres, no one disagrees. When environmentalists argue that cesspits, an unlined hole in the ground, filled with untreated wastewater from households is a direct threat to underground fresh water aquifers, it is difficult to counter-argue as scientific findings exist that support such statements.

In the West Bank, the majority of freshwater comes from the Mountain Aquifer, yet according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2015, 60.4% of households in Palestine use cesspits for wastewater disposal. Additionally, in 2010, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 463 localities and 1.6 million people in the Palestinian territories do not have access to a wastewater network. The harsh reality, is that on a daily basis, these cesspits are a direct threat to the only freshwater source in the West Bank, used by Palestinians, and Israelis alike. While there are some wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), that service major Palestinian cities, such plants are inadequate to service all of the West Bank. Even though some sewage is being treated, Palestinian farmers are not using the recycled water to irrigate their crops. In Israel this is a common practice, however Palestinian farmers lack the knowledge and adequate infrastructure to perform such a task. It is obvious that water is being mismanaged in the West Bank. The question becomes, what projects are being implemented to address this grave issue?

Dr. Clive Lipchin, the Director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute, an environmental research and academic NGO, focuses on cooperatively solving the regional and global environmental challenges of our time. This piece reflects the personal views of Dr. Lipchin, and by no means endorses the views of the Arava Institute.

Dr. Lipchin initiated a project to address the wastewater management concerns in the West Bank.

The project involved implementing “decentralized” wastewater facilities using affordable “low tech” infrastructure that would be user friendly for Palestinian farmers to use autonomously due to the lack of access to a sewage grid. This approach is an inexpensive version of what currently exists in Israel. In Israel, the technology and education is in place for Israeli farmers to use treated wastewater for irrigation. The project would not only address the environmental threat that cesspits cause, but would also give Palestinian farmers additional water to irrigate their crops, which will directly boost their economy.

The project was approved and partially funded by the Israel Ministry for Regional Cooperation, a Ministry whose very raison d’être is to improve living conditions of the Palestinians residing in the West Bank. The Ministry was enthusiastic about the idea as wastewater would be treated before it flows downstream into Israel avoiding costly cleanup of the sewage by Israel. Scientifically, it is more efficient to treat wastewater at the source, instead of downstream.

The first step was to conduct a pilot project located in the Palestinian village of Khibert Zachariah, a Palestinian village of 200-300 people with adjacent agricultural land. Unlike the usual distance between Palestinian villages and Jewish Settlements, Khibert Zachariah is unique as it is located in the center of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Dr. Lipchin drank tea with residents of Khibert Zachariah, and expressed his excitement about initiating the project. However, Dr. Lipchin’s enthusiasm was met with guarded optimism from the Palestinians as this was not the first time they had heard about development projects to assist them, but that then failed to materialize.  Dr. Lipchin also met with representatives of the Gush Etzion regional council, not because he needed their approval, but to inform them of the proposed project that will take place in their midst. The regional council, acknowledging the need to protect the underground aquifer, and wanting their Palestinian neighbors to prosper, enthusiastically welcomed the project.

Dr. Lipchin then contracted an Israeli company responsible for building the technology, all the while believing that this project was going to be a success. However, this is when Dr. Lipchin was informed that both Israeli settlers and Palestinians cannot build or develop anything in Area C of the West Bank without first obtaining permits from the Civil Administration of the Israel Defence Force (IDF). The Civil Administration is the de facto authority for all development plans in the West Bank territory of Area C, that is, the area of the West Bank under full Israeli control. When Dr. Lipchin and his colleagues met with the Civil Administration, they were cordially received, and were told that environmental security was also a concern of the IDF. However, they were unable to provide a permit for the project as Khibert Zachariah did not have a master plan. A master plan entails basic urban planning, that includes sewage and wastewater infrastructure.

Dr. Lipchin and his colleagues decided to investigate further, to discover that Khibert Zachariah does indeed have a master plan, but it was never approved. Approving the master plan for Khibert Zachariah would give it legal jurisdiction over the agricultural land used by the village, which could inhibit Gush Etzion to expand in the future. Without such an approved master plan, the state of Israel sets up a grey zone for possible settlement expansion. It was at this point that Dr. Lipchin realized that this project would not succeed, and was in fact doomed from the very start. The bureaucracy of the Civil Administration and the competing interests of settlers and Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank unfortunately take precedence over environmental concerns.

The tragedy of this project raises several troubling questions. Why is the Ministry for Regional Cooperation approving and allocating funds to projects that they do not even have authority to approve? What success has this Ministry even had? In addition, how come the Ministry for Regional Cooperation did not advocate to the Civil Administration of the IDF that is responsible for the livelihood of Palestinians and environmental security to ensure that this project will succeed?

The reality is that there are many villages like Khibert Zachariah that are without wastewater treatment and access to sewage lines, and are on a daily basis, causing a direct threat to the only fresh water source in the West Bank.  The West Bank is deeply fragmented, both geographically and legally, as a result of the Oslo Accords of 1993. Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) for administration and security purposes. Area A is also where around 80% of Palestinians live as it encompasses the major Palestinian urban centers. Area B is administrated by the PA, while Israel is responsible for security. Area C, as mentioned above, is fully controlled by Israel. Initially, Dr. Lipchin only wanted to work in Area A, where through past experience he knew that permits from the Civil Administration are not required but the Ministry for Regional Cooperation would only allocate funds if a village in Area C could be chosen, leading him to select Khirbert Zachariah. The cancellation of the project devastated Dr. Lipchin and his colleagues as a lot of energy was invested into a project that seemed to have no chance of succeeding in the first place. Now, Dr. Lipchin only works in Area A, but without being able to work in the entire West Bank to eliminate all cesspits, the underground fresh water remains at risk of being contaminated.

Those familiar with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and other conflicts world wide acknowledge that things will only get worse, before they get better. That means that violence and tensions will continue to rise, and Israel will literally need to be put in a corner before the military occupation is lifted, and another solution is proposed. Currently, the Israeli government is not concerned with lifting the military occupation of nearly three million Palestinians. Will it be the complete contamination of the only clean drinking water in the West Bank that encourages Israel to change the status quo? The current knife intifada that has plagued the region demonstrates that tensions are high in the Palestinian territories. The military occupation of the West Bank is unsustainable for many reasons, but what should take precedence is the proper treatment and allocation of the world’s most valuable resource; water.

Now, Dr. Lipchin has the unenviable task of having to return to the residents of Khibert Zachariah, look them in the eye and tell them that they will not receive the means to boost their economic livelihoods and that they were right to be suspicious from the beginning.  Dr. Lipchin, related this story to me with such emotion, as he felt that he personally failed. The reality is that, He did not fail; the IDF military occupation, and the Israel bureaucratic leviathan set up to manage the fragmented West Bank set him up for failure. When it comes to the environment, governments need to work alongside practitioners, and give them the means to succeed, as threats to environmental security are threats to the very existence of human life.