Settlers and Palestinians Alike Spew Sewage in Fragile West Bank

Environment Takes Back Seat to Conflict Over Occupation

Unfit for Consumption: Palestinian children in the West Bank village of Wadi Fuki swim in water considered too polluted to drink.
nathan jeffay
Unfit for Consumption: Palestinian children in the West Bank village of Wadi Fuki swim in water considered too polluted to drink.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 04, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.

It is a different type of Green Line.

On a West Bank hill just six miles south of Jerusalem, a row of olive trees looks far greener than anything else in the landscape. This is not thanks to a clever form of growing technology, but because for hours or days each month the trees have been awash in raw sewage.

The fastest growing of all the settlements, Beitar Illit, has expanded quicker than its sewage infrastructure, meaning that the pumping system that carries away its wastewater tends to become overwhelmed every few weeks. At that point, the system releases sewage onto the hillside for several hours — the natural outcome of the settlement’s natural growth.

The land below the super-green olive trees, part of the Palestinian village of Nahhalin, has been abandoned for much of the past half-decade since the sewage spills became frequent. “Here, it was always planted with vegetables and also used for recreation,” local taxi driver Ahmas Chakarneh recalled. “People brought umbrellas and sat here.”

This hill and valley aren’t one-offs in the West Bank. As Israel and the Palestinians profess their deep love and historic connection to this land, and as they compete for control, both are using it as disposal ground for their liquid waste — despite the important aquifers that lie below the ground.

A new report has found that some 13% of sewage from settlements flows, untreated, into the environment. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority compiled the report, commissioned and partly funde d by the Civil Administration, the Israeli body that governs the West Bank, and by Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Asked by the Forward for a response, Israel’s Water Authority said it believes that the figure is actually higher. Its figures suggest that a quarter of settlement sewage is released without satisfactory treatment, said spokesman Uri Shor, who explained that the two authorities calculate their figures differently. Within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, only around 5% of sewage is released untreated.

As settlement sewage flows, Palestinian sewage gushes. The Palestinian Authority’s development of sewage facilities has been exceedingly slow, and almost all its sewage — around 96%, according to both Israel and the Palestinians — is released, untreated, into the environment.

Environmentalists say that the rich groundwater supply, which Israel and the Palestinians expected to divide formally as part of a future two-state solution, is in danger. “The failure is actually shooting the interests of both sides in the foot,” commented Gidon Bromberg, director of the Israel division of Friends of the Earth Middle East. “There are seeping time bombs for the water resources of both peoples.”

An everyday scene for locals in Nahhalin looks strange to outsiders. A woman in modest attire and elegant shoes hitches up her dress as she gets into a car. She doesn’t want it to trail in the sewage that routinely runs down the street — overflow from Nahhalin households that don’t bother to empty their cesspits. Despite international aid to the P.A., outside the big cities, cesspits are the norm— and even when residents do empty them, this just means moving the waste, untreated, to a less populated spot of the West Bank.

In nearby Wadi Fuki, children play in the pools that collect spring water for farmers, but village elder Mohamed Rachad Manasarah acknowledged that because of pollution by the village, this spring water isn’t safe to drink. And when the sewage overflows from Beitar Illit, which stands above this village as well as above Nahhalin, “you can’t breathe because of the smell.”

Moshe Friedman, spokesman for the Beitar Illit municipality, acknowledged that there have been a “number of malfunctions” but said that repairs have been carried out which will prevent the problem from recurring.

The environment of the West Bank doesn’t only have its own sewage — around 75 million cubic meters a year altogether — to deal with. More liquid waste flows from East Jerusalem into the area. There, the Jerusalem municipality, which is responsible for disposing of it, just pumps the sewage out of the city into the surrounding area. Friends of the Earth estimates that 11 million cubic meters flow from Jerusalem and its surroundings, down the Kidron Valley and into the West Bank.

The Jerusalem municipality referred the Forward’s request for a comment on the flow of untreated sewage from Jerusalem to the company that manages its sewage, Hagihon. The company’s spokesman Kuti Fundaminski said: “We have hired a Dutch company to take care of it.” Once the Dutch company, which was engaged around six months ago, has finished its project, all Jerusalem sewage will be treated, he said. Fundaminski said that he did not know the timeline for that.

The Israelis and the Palestinians blame each other for their respective poor performances on sewage. The peace process of the 1990s required each to approve major water-related development in the West Bank. That hasn’t happened. And each group says it is being held back by the other’s obstinacy.

“We have a plan and a budget to take care of all this sewage, but we need Palestinian agreement,” said Shor, who stressed that Israeli plans would deal with sewage from Jerusalem as well as from settlements. But even though Palestinians have approved plans in the past, they say today that they won’t approve any sewage infrastructure for settlements.

“We will not be part of legalizing anything that relates to settlements. We won’t approve any project that will later benefit the settlements,” said Ashraf Khatib, adviser to the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

Khatib pointed his finger at Israel for the lack of Palestinian sewage infrastructure, saying, “Palestinians want to develop sewage facilities, but the Israelis are blocking any type of developments.” He added that Israel has given some indication that it will be more open to proposals involving Palestinians building sewage plants that accept some settler waste as well as Palestinian waste. But the Palestinians reject this idea on ideological grounds, said Khatib.

Asked to respond to the claim that Israel is holding back the Palestinians, Shor said that they are overstating the need for approvals. Several already approved Palestinian projects have not yet been built, Shor insisted, and Israel continues to consider Palestinian requests.

The Joint Water Committee, the mechanism established by the peace process of the 1990s to facilitate Israeli and Palestinian agreement for each other’s water-related projects, is hardly functioning today, as each side blocks most of the other’s proposals.

The blame claims don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes, as in the case of Palestinian projects that have been approved but are not in construction, there is no obvious reason for the holdup. Khatib could point only to “bureaucratic reasons.” And sometimes, the sticking point is financial, not political.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said that of the 1.5 million cubic meters of settler sewage that it believes is going to the environment, a little more than half could be rendered safe by small treatment facilities that currently are not fully functional or in use at all. Eli Dror, the official who oversaw the authority’s new report, told the Forward: “Some places don’t have the money for the electricity; in others they don’t have the money for new parts or systems.”

Yet, beyond fixing these anomalies, it’s clear that for real progress, political cooperation is needed. The prospects for that right now are bleak. Clive Lipchin, director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management, at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said: “It’s very difficult to be optimistic at this point. I don’t see a way out.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com



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