Part II: ‘Down the Drain: The Obstruction of European-Funded Water Projects’ – The European Union and the Human Right to Water in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

A woman from the Tuba community in the West Bank watches as water is poured into a cisten funded by ECHO. March 22nd, 2013. Credit: Wikipedia CC

A woman from the Tuba community in the West Bank watches as water is poured into a cisten funded by ECHO (European Community Humanitarian Office). March 22nd, 2013. Credit: Wikipedia CC

Water is an essential resource in the daily life of all humankind. We need water to survive and to thrive. According to the United Nations, access to water is ‘indispensable for living a life of human dignity’. The human right to access clean and adequate water is enshrined in multiple international laws.

Background: Water in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

In the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), the Palestinian population lacks adequate access to safe and clean water (see Part 1: ‘Not a Drop to Drink’). The problems arise chiefly because of discriminatory water policies put in place by the Israeli government. Israel controls all sources of water in the West Bank, considerably restricting access to water for the Palestinian population. The Joint Water Authority is supposed to promote joint decision-making by both parties, but is used by the Israelis to block most Palestinian projects. With inconsistent access to water, many Palestinians resort to constructing shallow wells and using rainwater butts as coping mechanisms. These are often destroyed by the Israeli army (IDF) or vandalised by Israeli settlers. Consequently, Palestinians resort to purchasing water from Israel at high cost which they can ill afford as poverty in the OPT increases. Once Palestinians gain access to clean water, up to a third then face difficulty in safely disposing of the waste water as they are not connected to a sewage system. Many of those affected rely on septic tanks, but in some cases sewage flows into streets and valleys, posing a health risk to the local population. For example, residents in the neighborhood of Um Leisoon were forced to build a cistern to prevent sewage overflowing into the streets, despite the risk of demolition by the IDF.

European Union-Funded Water Projects

One of four water cisterns built by ECHO in the Tuba community, West Bank. March 22nd, 2013. Credit: Wikipedia CC

One of four water cisterns built by ECHO in the Tuba community, West Bank. March 22nd, 2013. Credit: Wikipedia CC

Currently, the European Union is the largest single donor to the OPT. On 18 September 2013, the European Union announced that it would be investing €20 million in a waste water treatment plant in East Nablus, joining with the German government and the Palestinian Authority to fund a budget of over €40 million. The waste water treatment plant is planned to reduce health risks to the population which are caused by 94% of all sewage in the West Bank flowing untreated into environment. European Union funding goes towards building water cisterns and sanitary facilities such as toilets.

Down the Drain: Israeli Destruction

A range of European-funded water projects have been damaged by the IDF, from small water cisterns to larger waste water projects. In 2012, 36 rainwater harvesting cisterns were destroyed in the OPT, some of which were funded by the EU or its member states. This damage was inflicted despite the fact that a rainwater harvesting cistern is a civilian object which enjoys special protection under international humanitarian law as it is considered ‘essential for the survival of the population’.

The destruction of European-funded projects by Israel, including those in the water sector, is not a new phenomenon. In May 2012, the European Commission published a list of EU-funded development projects in the OPT that were destroyed by the IDF between 2001 and 2011. The list was published in response to a written parliamentary question submitted by ALDE MEP Chris Davies. The total financial loss amounted to €49.15 million inflicted upon 82 projects. Amongst these 82 projects were a number of water sector developments:

  • In April 2002 the IDF damaged the ‘Water Supply Jenin and Waste Water Disposal Tulkarem’ project, in which Germany had invested €76,500.
  • In 2011, the IDF inflicted physical damage to 51 ancient cistern systems collecting seasonal rainwater in the Eastern Bethlehem Districts of Rshaydeh and Kisan. The rehabilitation of the cisterns had been funded by the European Commission.

Since the list was published in May 2012, 30 more EU-funded investments, including some in the water sector, have been demolished by the IDF.

European Union and Member State Responses

Responses by the European Union and its member states to the destruction of European-funded projects have lacked both coordination and strength. Despite calls from a variety of organisations including QCEA and Oxfam to ‘speak plainly’ and ask the Israeli government to account for its actions, no European donor has sought compensation or pressed for any other form of accountability since May 2012, when the European Commission published the list of EU-funded projects which has been destroyed by the IDF. On an individual level, some EU Member States have sought answers from Israel. In 2011, Poland called the Israeli ambassador to a meeting with the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the IDF repeatedly demolished cisterns which had been rehabilitated with Polish funds. In general, however, the European Union and its member states are seemingly unwilling to challenge Israeli destruction of European-funded water projects. As QCEA stated in 2012, the European Union is well within its rights to seek compensation for the destruction of its projects in the OPT. The IDF has been able to damage and demolish Palestinian property as well as projects funded by international donors with minimal consequences. In addressing the damage inflicted on their investments in the water sector and elsewhere, European donors would send a clear message to Israel and the IDF that their destructive approach to property in the occupied Palestinian territories will not be tolerated.

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About Rebecca Viney-Wood

Rebecca joined QCEA as a Programme Assistant in September 2013.

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