Palestinians hit by food and water crises

Three United Nations agencies have warned of a decline in Palestinian living standards, with a new report showing that high food prices and falling incomes are forcing families to manage with less and lower quality food.

The main driver of Palestinian food insecurity is political, the agencies say, “ rooted in the military and administrative measures imposed by the Israeli occupation” — including road closings, punitive permit regulations and destruction of homes and farmlands, as well as the expansion of settlements and related infrastructure, cutting off access to land and water.

Global food prices, combined with Israeli government actions in the occupied territories, are making Palestinians more dependent on relief aid. At the same time, rising food and fuel prices make it increasingly expensive to deliver that aid, the UN agencies say.

The report, giving findings of a food security survey conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Program, and Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), shows soaring prices, falling incomes and growing unemployment have brought Palestinian purchasing power to an all-time low this year, jeopardizing family livelihoods and leading to heavy debt. All Palestinians surveyed had reduced their consumption of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.

The UN agencies say the situation is especially desperate for the population of the Gaza Strip who have been heavily affected by Israel’s economic blockade.

As one indication, UNRWA reported in 2002 that 19 percent of Palestinians in Gaza suffered from anemia. The agency now estimates that figure at 77.5 percent.

The report says closed areas of the West Bank are equally affected due to “high unemployment rates, wage depreciation, declining business opportunities and increased restrictions on movement and access.”

A third of Palestinians have reported a fall in income this year, and the poor suffered most heavily with a 40 percent drop. Thirty-seven percent of breadwinners in Gaza are now unemployed and 27 percent in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem is warning of grave water shortage in the West Bank this summer.

The chronic water shortage in the West Bank, resulting from an unfair distribution of water resources shared by the Palestinians and Israel, will be much graver this summer because of this year’s drought, the group says. In the northern West Bank, water consumption has fallen to one-third of the minimal amount needed.

Israel holds complete control of the water sources and prohibits Palestinian drilling of wells without a permit. At the same time, Israel draws water from the West Bank but allocates to Palestinians only a fraction of that water to the Palestinians, and prevents the Palestinian Water Authority from developing additional water.

This year’s drought, the most serious in the area in the past decade, aggravates the situation. The Palestinian Water Authority has asked Mekorot – the Israel Water Company – for an emergency supply.

Some 20 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank are not connected to a water network. Even for those that are, water supply is irregular and sometimes may be disconnected for days or weeks. Communities report that the Israeli company discriminates against them, reducing water supply to Palestinian residents to enable it to meet the increased demand in the settlements.

Many Palestinians have to buy water on the private market. Last year water prices were three to six times higher than Israelis pay, and they are expected to be even higher this year. High unemployment and poverty rates in the West Bank have made water purchases an economic burden for a substantial portion of the population, B’Tselem says.

According to the World Health Organization, the per capita minimal amount of water needed for household and urban needs is 100 liters a day. Due to the chronic water shortage, average per capita water consumption throughout the West Bank is 66 liters, two-thirds of the minimal amount needed. Average daily water consumption in Israel is over 200 liters.

The Israeli group points out that, under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified, it is obligated as the occupying power to ensure access to clean drinking water without discrimination.

B'Tselem has called on Israel to “ensure, immediately and without discrimination, adequate, regular water supply to all residents of the West Bank.”