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Pumping water in Bardala: A game of cat and mouse

A water crisis is on the way for the Jordan Valley – and it’s not caused by climate change.

Jerusalem24 – “Real danger is just around the corner and waiting to knock on people’s doors,” Rashid Khudiri says grimly.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Khudiri – an activist with the Jordan Valley Solidarity network – is talking about the threat of forcible displacement, or armed settler attacks, or Israeli military firing drills on private agricultural lands, amongst myriad other challenges faced by Palestinians in Area C of the Jordan Valley (the 94% of the occupied Jordan Valley under full Israeli civil and military control).

But what Khudiri is talking about is simultaneously a more mundane and much more critical concern: the ability to flush one’s toilet, or to grow crops and feed one’s family.

“Bardala is heading towards a water crisis and it’s going to be huge, and impact the agriculture and livestock in the village,” Khudiri tells Jerusalem24.

Forbidden from collecting rainwater

The village of Bardala is a farming community located at the very tip of the northern Jordan Valley, sitting around 2km from the Green Line. Israel has confiscated and restricted access to some 3,000 dunums of the village’s 18,000 dunums total surface area, in order to build bypass roads for Israeli settlers as well as the separation wall that encroaches on the village’s lands.

Over 90% of the village’s lands fall under Area C’s jurisdiction, as per the Oslo Accords, while 5% remain nominally under the Palestinian Authority’s control in Area B.

Bardala is home to around 2,500 people, with over 90% of the residents depending on irrigated and rainfed agriculture while others depend on livestock.

The village is just one of the dozens of Palestinian farming communities in the Jordan Valley that have struggled to maintain their basic right to access their water supply since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

While Israeli settlers living in illegal settlements in the Jordan Valley enjoy around 320 liters per person per day, Palestinians in Area C only have access to between 30 and 50 liters daily – well under the minimum 100 liters per person per day recommended by the World Health Organization.

WATER ACCESS IN OCCUPIED PALESTINE

Under the 1995 Interim Agreement (Oslo II), Israel controls all water resources in occupied Palestine. The agreement stipulates that 80% of the water in the occupied West Bank that is pumped from the mountain aquifer be allocated for Israeli use, and the remaining 20% for Palestinian use. It also provides Israelis with an unlimited water supply, while restricting Palestinian supply to a predetermined amount of fewer than 200 million cubic meters. It further stipulates that Israel sell the Palestinians another 31 million cubic meters a year.

In reality, Palestinians extract less water than specified in the agreement. This is the result of various technical difficulties as well as obstacles introduced by Israel, such as lengthy delays and not processing approval for projects. The Palestinian population in the West Bank, which has nearly doubled since 1995, currently receives only 75% of the agreed amount of water, while Israelis enjoy an unlimited supply. This forces the Palestinian Authority to purchase much more water from Mekorot (Israel’s national water company) than originally agreed. According to Israeli Water Authority figures, in 2019, the PA purchased an additional 93 million cubic meters from Mekorot.

Source: B’Tselem, ‘Water Crisis

As Israeli authorities require of Palestinians in Area C impossible-to-obtain construction permits to dig wells or install any kind of water infrastructure, the farming communities of the Jordan Valley rely for their domestic and agricultural needs on an aging network of pipes – insufficient for the growing needs of the population – and water truck deliveries, whose inflated prices (up to five times the cost of water in Israel) exacerbate the crisis for farmers who can’t compete with Israeli settlement produce which benefits from subsidized water prices.

Distribution of sources of water for Palestinians in Area C. [Source: OCHA, ‘Palestinians strive to access water in the Jordan Valley’]
Israeli settlement authorities, backed by the Israeli military, have also been stepping up confiscations of water tanks and even the trucks carrying them in recent months.

Israeli authorities further forbid Palestinians in Area C from collecting rainwater, which they say belongs “to the state”.

All of the farming communities in the Jordan Valley are familiar with these and other impediments to their right to water, but “the reason we are talking about Bardala specifically,” says Khudiri, “is because it is a prime example of the kind of Israeli embroilment in what is happening: they literally have their wells dug in the middle of the village.”

An agreement to shut down the well

After the main source of water for the people of the village dried up in 1960, the villagers dug a well that produced around 240 cubic meters an hour. In 1973, six years after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Israeli public water company Mekorot dug three wells in the village to cater to Israeli settler needs based on the understanding that Mekorot would supply the village with the same amount they used to consume. In response the villagers would shut down their well.

WHO ARE MEKOROT?

Government-owned Mekorot are the official water authority in Area C, including for water drawn by Palestinians. They have jurisdiction to check Palestinian wells and gauge Palestinian consumption.

In 1982  the West Bank water infrastructure controlled by the Israeli army was handed over to Mekorot by a military order. Mekorot operates some 42 wells in the West Bank, mainly in the Jordan Valley region, which mostly supply the Israeli settlements.

Source: Stop the Wall, ‘Israel’s water company Mekorot: Nurturing Water Apartheid in Palestine

The quota in the 1973 agreement was reached on the needs of the 300 residents of Bardala at the time – a quota that doesn’t begin to cover the domestic and agricultural consumption of Bardala’s 2,500 residents today.

“Things have changed now,” says Khudiri. “Instead of growing crops for a season, now people are able to grow almost all year long, which means their water needs have increased even more.”

The three wells Mekorot operates can produce up to 3,000 cubic meters an hour, he says. But in the years leading up to 2020, Mekorot reduced the promised supply of 240 cubic meters to just 60, compounding the water supply problem for the village.

“This is when the water crisis started manifesting,” says Khudiri, “when the gap between the amount of water supplied and the amount needed kept getting wider.”

This is also when the villagers began taking matters into their own hands.

The original well dug by Bardala residents in 1960. [Courtesy of Rashid Khudiri]

A game of cat and mouse

On 27 April 2017 the Israeli military and civil administration raided Bardala with 40 bulldozers and dozens of soldiers. They destroyed the main pipelines and water supply to the village farms, and confiscated 168 meters of steel pipes belonging to the village council and local farmers.

Following this incident and others, the residents looked yet again for alternative solutions. “Some people dug wells and the military destroyed them,” says Khudiri. “Others dug wells and they didn’t produce water.”

The farmers, whose livelihoods depend on crops and livestock, were then left with few options. They either left the Jordan Valley – or started resorting to water theft.

“They poke holes in the pipes that are connected to the Israeli wells in the middle of the village which redirect the water to the settlements and military outposts in the vicinity,” explains Khudiri.

That is when Mekorot comes in and seals the holes, explains Khudiri, the latest case of which happened on 31 August in a case documented by the Jordan Valley Solidarity network.

“Over the last four years, they sealed the holes over 40 times,” says Khudiri. “2018 was the most extreme: Mekorot would close down the holes and destroy or confiscate any pipes belonging to Palestinian farmers, so the farmers were forced to buy new equipment each time.”

And now, says Khudiri, Mekorot have taken an even more extreme measure.

“After 2018, Mekorot established a new water transfer line: 90% of this line is outside the village, and only 10% Is left inside the village. And they are building a new water tank that can store over 10,000 cubic meters.”

“Which means that they are trying to withhold water from Palestinians,” says Khudiri. “For example if the tank stores enough water for the settlements for four days, then the wells will stop pumping during those four days – preventing Palestinians from accessing any water during that time.”

“Imagine the effect this has on plants in the heat of the Valley with no water for four days,” he emphasizes.

A water engineer with the Palestinian Water Authority, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained the process to Jerusalem24: “So what happened was, the old water line used to go through the village itself. But due to Palestinians making holes in the pipes for water theft, the water the Israeli settlements were receiving became a lot less than usual. And therefore they decided to create this new water line that goes through a tunnel underground and bypasses the village.”

“The new line is of course an assault on the lands and purely for the benefit of the Israeli settlements. If they [the settlements] were receiving enough water, they wouldn’t have created this new line and tank.”

Palestinian versus Israeli consumption of water in the occupied Jordan Valley. [Source: OCHA, ‘Palestinians strive to access water in the Jordan Valley’]
“So now people who got their water through holes created in the pipes, can no longer do that,” explains the engineer, who is philosophical about the whole process.

“They do their thing; we do our thing; it’s a game of Tom and Jerry.”

What’s next for the farmers?

In Bardala, just over 2,000 farmers are busy preparing for the next season. But Khudiri says nothing is clear. The farmers expect that any minute, the water could be cut off, and that in the heat of the Jordan Valley, no plant will survive.

“We have an uncertain future ahead of us,” he says. “People are scared and unsure about what is going to happen.”

“We, as people – as people with human rights, as people with a cause, and as people who had their own well that was shut down with an agreement – we have a right to the water.”

Children in Bardala protest after Israeli forces raided the village on 27 April 2017 and informed the locals their water outlets were being closed. [Source: Stop the Wall]

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