The Jordan Valley, which encompasses modern day Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, has long been considered the region’s food basket. But the once cascading waters of the Jordan River – the lifeblood of its fertile grounds – have been reduced in many places to a mere trickle, victim of transboundary squabbling over water rights that is devastating the traditional livelihoods of the region’s Palestinian farmers.
Now it’s climate change that is exacting a heavy toll.
Captured by the Israelis from Jordan in 1967, the valley has become a central issue in recent peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To Israel, it’s as a critical piece of their defense and intelligence capabilities, while many Palestinians say the occupation isn’t about security, but access to resources. According to World Bank estimates, tight Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to agricultural land and water resources in the Jordan Valley is costing the Palestinian economy more than $700 million per year.
But historically low rainfall rates and warming temperatures are placing additional pressure on disputed water resources. In recent years, dozens of aquifers have dried up and many fear the Jordan Valley, which lies 100 to 450 meters below sea level, will turn into an arid desert if water is eventually depleted.
According to a recent report issued by the Palestinian Environmental Center, this past summer was the hottest in decades. Temperatures rose 10 degrees Celsius over monthly averages in Jericho and other parts of the Jordan Valley, in some cases surpassing 50ºC (about 122ºF).
For the valley’s Palestinian farmers, water is already a scarce commodity. Many say there is often not enough water for basic necessities, let alone enough for their livestock or to practice traditional year-round cultivation.
“About 20 years ago, agriculture flourished in my village and we were self-sufficient,” says Mahmoud Saleh Suleiman, a 64-year-old farmer. “But during the past few years, water started to gradually dry up for many reasons.” One of those reasons, he believes, is climate change. “Especially in summer,” he says, “the temperature has increased, drying up water aquifers.”
The head of the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority, Adalah Atiri, says that prevailing drought conditions are having a major impact in the West Bank, in turn affecting the food and agricultural sector. “We assume the worst possibilities to enable us to tackle issues such as a fall in rainfall of 10-20 percent by 2020 as a result of climate change,” Atiri says, “Work is needed to find solutions and adapt to these changes.”
Challenging political environment
But any solutions that ignore the complex political realities on the ground are insufficient.
Approximately 80,000 Palestinians live in the Jordan Valley, but strict Israeli measures restrict them from accessing 94 percent of available land, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. Instead, Israel has allocated the majority of the valley’s land, about 86 percent, to regional councils who protect the interests of its 9,500 Israeli settlers. According to World Bank estimates, each settler receives an average of 300 liters per capita per day, about four times the amount available to Palestinians across the West Bank.
Villages that used to sustainably produce crops have seen their once abundant supplies of water dry up, much of it diverted to the nearby farms of Israeli settlers. Wells are often antiquated and in desperate need of repair, but it’s difficult to get the necessary permits to fix them as many lie in Area C – a security zone where Israel maintains full control.
In Suleiman’s hometown of Fasayel, more than 95 percent of the village’s 2,000 residents are farmers, but due to chronic water shortages, local agricultural production has ceased completely. Many now work for Israeli farms along the outskirts of the town, an industry that has been sharply criticized by human rights groups for labor violations.
“While the village population has doubled during the last twenty years,” Suleiman says, “our share of water has remained the same and we are obliged to buy water to meet our daily needs, as well as needs for cultivation.” But this resource comes at a steep price.
Dr. Abdel Rahman Tamimi, director of the Palestinian Hydology Group, says that continuous reductions in water supplies have forced Palestinians to buy water from the Israeli authorities at inflated prices. The price of one cubic meter of treated water is 5 shekels, Tamimi says, “but the Israelis take advantage of Palestinian demand for water and sell it at 25 shekels for one cubic meter, especially in Hebron and the Jordan Valley area, where people spend around 12 percent of their monthly income on water.”
According to Tamimi, factors such as climate change and Israeli control over supply have restricted daily individual consumption from an average of 80 liters to only 40. In some cases it’s much less, but each is below the 100 liters per day recommended by the World Health Organization. “In southern Hebron,” he says, “the per capita share of water is only 10 liters and people in that area are obliged to buy water.”
Farmer Youself Sawafta owns several dunums of land in Bardala (each dunum is equal to 100 square meters), the lowest agricultural strip on earth. The last three years, he says, have been some of the most difficult due to the adverse effects of hot weather on agriculture and water supplies. Despite his best efforts to reduce reliance on water-intensive crops, his output remains meager. “For more than a year, we have been trying to cultivate crops that do not need much water, such as barley,” he says. “We barely have sufficient water for our daily use, let alone cultivation.”
Sawafta says that tight restrictions on what little water is available for agriculture only makes things worse. “In the past, we were allowed to extract 400 cubic meters per hour,” he says. “The occupation allocated us only 80 cubic meters per hour, which is insufficient to cultivate any type of vegetable.”
What does remain is cost prohibitive for most Palestinian farmers. Sawafta says his annual water bill is more than 100 thousand shekels (approximately $26,000) and he depends on help from international aid organizations to cover the bill. But it’s a high sum for the poor agricultural region, where the average annual per capita income is $2,000.
According to Sawafta, Israeli authorities have reduced the volume of water allocated to Bardala since 2000 in order to supply nearby settlements. Two wells built before 1967 to provide the village with water are fitted with meters to monitor use. A guard, he says, prevents anyone from approaching them. Deeper wells dug by Israel’s National Water Company, Mekorot, are close by.
A region-wide problem?
Mekorot director Ori Shani disputes the notion that Israel is the cause of water shortages faced by Palestinians. Severe drought, he says, is putting pressure not only on the West Bank, but also Israel and other neighboring countries. “Climate change has affected the volume of water and the seasons,” says Shani, “some seasons have become longer than others, causing drought in certain areas and less water in springs, a phenomenon that did not previously exist.”
He says visible impacts such as reduced water levels in the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias Lake) have prompted both sides to seek solutions, but the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been negligent in its approach to solving the crisis.
“The PA has not attempted to reduce water consumption by the public and has also failed to implement any projects to tackle the water shortage, such as the treatment of wastewater for cultivation purposes,” he says. “This can reduce the water shortage by 30 percent, exactly as it has done in Israel.”
Reduced water to villages is therefore not a problem with supply, he says, but with demand. “We supply Palestinians with double the quantity of water stipulated in agreements signed between Palestinians and Israelis,” says Shani, “the quantity of water supplied to areas inside the Green Line is much higher than that supplied to settlements.”
Humanitarian organizations estimate that 100,000 dunums of agricultural land in the Jordan Valley is affected by water shortages, forcing many farmers each year to pack up and leave. Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) head Mazen Ghneim acknowledges that climate change has played a role in reducing underground aquifers and increasing drought, but says the crisis would be greatly reduced if Israel ceased control over the valley’s water supply. According to PWA estimates, the average Palestinian in the Jordan Valley receives an average daily share of 30 liters, compared to the daily per capita share of 500 liters for an Israeli settler.
The way Ghneim sees it, Palestinians face few choices – either buy water back from Israel at inflated prices or attempt to renovate outdated wells. The second option is difficult and requires approval from the Israeli government, he says, which comes few and far between. But Mekorot’s Ori Shani says that it’s the Palestinian Authority government that’s been slow to begin approved renovations. “In the Joint Palestinian-Israeli Water Committee,” he says, “we Israelis agreed to renovate 60 wells in the West Bank, but the PA has not yet started the implementation of these projects.”
It’s clear that there is no simple solution to easing water woes in the Jordan Valley. Despite their low carbon footprint, Palestinians also have little control over emissions that climate scientists say are warming the planet and contributing to the warmer temperatures and prolonged drought, conditions that Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority head Atir says makes them doubly victimized.
“Emissions produced by Palestine are almost zero as Palestine does not have factories,” she says. “Israel also does not allow Palestinians to exploit underground water aquifers located within their land, which is a double blow.”