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The Complications Of Getting Running Water In The West Bank

Aug 12, 2013
Originally published on August 12, 2013 12:10 pm

Four enormous water tanks sit high on a hill in the West Bank. These hold the lifeblood for Rawabi, the first planned, privately developed Palestinian community, about 25 miles north of Jerusalem.

After five years, the first neighborhood is nearly built. But developer Bashar al-Masri is worried, because when it comes to water, Israel controls the spigot in the occupied West Bank.

"We're about to have people move into the city," he says, "and we still do not have a solid solution for the water."

Right now, a 2-inch temporary pipe brings in less than half the water needed for construction and to run the offices. The rest is trucked in to those storage tanks, an extra expense and hassle. Rawabi's first residents are due to move in at the end of this year. Eventually, developers hope, 40,000 people will call Rawabi home.

They also hope this will be a new kind of living experience. Rawabi is designed to offer an environmentally friendly, middle-class lifestyle. There will be walking and biking paths.

Like in Israel, but unlike in any other Palestinian city, wastewater here will be cleaned and reused to irrigate landscaping. Homes will have meters to help monitor water use and instant hot water to reduce waste.

Amir Dajani, the deputy managing director of the project, says these are big cultural changes. Most Palestinian homes have their own water tanks on the roof, because in the West Bank water comes through the pipes erratically. Some places get it several times a week; some places less than once a month.

"People hug their tanks in the summer," Dajani says. "If they go up on the roof and feel the tank, they know that there is enough water to keep them going."

Seeking Israeli Approval

To get enough water to keep Rawabi going, a new pipe needs to be laid. And because that pipe would run across territory entirely controlled by Israel, in what's called "Area C" in the West Bank, the community needs Israeli permission.

An application is in to a joint Israeli-Palestinian commission. But Israeli water expert professor Alon Tal says it's a lopsided relationship.

"Israel doesn't need Palestinian permission to undertake any number of water development projects," he says. "Palestinians are required to get Israeli permission to do so."

But he says he believes Rawabi will get its pipe.

"I think all the major decision-makers, including our prime minister, see Rawabi as a good thing," says Tal, who supports the idea himself. "It sends a message to the world that Israel's not trying to sabotage Palestinian development. It sends a message to the Palestinians: It pays to cooperate; we're going to let you guys develop new cities.

"It's the first city in the West Bank in what, 100 years?"

Developer Masri is not so sure.

"We have had positive feedback from the Israeli authorities since day one," he says. "But the delivery is very slow and always incomplete. Always incomplete."

Political Pressure

As an example, he points to Rawabi's attempt to get a road built to the city big enough to handle, first, construction traffic, then residents. The road also crosses part of Area C.

Israel eventually permitted a temporary road. A Western official told NPR that Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who now serves as the official envoy of the Mideast Quartet, had raised the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tal, the Israeli professor, says the question of Rawabi's water could also get caught up in politics — even in peace negotiations, if they begin.

"Israel grants a certain amount of water, under agreement, to the Palestinians," he says, noting that the amount Israel provides the West Bank has grown since figures were first worked out under the Oslo Accords two decades ago.

"It's very easy for us to increase that. But that's a concession. What are they going to do for us? At least this is the thinking of Israeli politicians," Tal says.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing a $4 billion economic investment plan for the West Bank, to parallel potential political negotiations with Israel. No details have been made public, but Kerry has spoken about removing "bottlenecks and barriers" to business in the West Bank. Experts in the West Bank economy say allowing development in Area C could be an important piece of that.

Rawabi's developer says even if Israel gave the green light for a water line right now, he would expect to continue hauling water even as early residents move in.

"But whether we haul it for three or four months or three or four years — that's the big question," he says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now, a story about construction of the first planned, privately developed Palestinian community in the West Bank. The Rawabi Project aims to offer 40,000 future residents a modern, middle-class, environmentally-friendly lifestyle. The billion-dollar development has faced lots of hurdles.

And as NPR's Emily Harris reports, one of the last is the most critical: securing access to water.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The idea is alluring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Amid the ancient hills of Palestine, a new vision is becoming a reality.

HARRIS: Over the past five years, Rawabi has gone from a high hill covered in low scrub to a city close to completion. Schools, shops and offices are all being built from scratch. Apartments are selling. But developer Bashar al-Masri is worried about water.

BASHAR AL-MASRI: We're about to have people move into the city December and January and February of next year. Those three months, we will deliver the first several hundred units, and we still do not have a solid solution for the water.

HARRIS: A temporary pipe brings in less than half of what Rawabi uses now for construction. A lot feeds concrete mixers on the site.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCRETE MIXER)

HARRIS: Deputy managing director of the project Amir Dajani says they are trucking in water to meet current needs.

AMIR DAJANI: Without water, you cannot mix concrete. Without water, you cannot operate the offices. Without water, you can't plant the trees. Without water, you cannot cure the concrete on the site, etcetera, etcetera.

HARRIS: Rawabi is not in a good location to tap into one of the West Bank aquifers. It needs a new pipe. And the proposed route for a water line to Rawabi goes across land in the West Bank that Israel fully controls. Dajani says the politics are simple.

DAJANI: Politics is Israeli approval. They control the water. They have to release this control, and they have to approve for the connection point allowing for water to arrive to the city of Rawabi.

HARRIS: An application is in to a joint Israeli-Palestinian commission. But Israeli water expert Professor Alon Tal says it's a lopsided relationship.

ALON TAL: Israel doesn't need Palestinian permission to undertake any number of water development projects. Palestinians are required to get Israeli permission to do so. And in that sense, the Palestinian dissatisfaction is justified.

HARRIS: Still, he thinks for Rawabi, permission will be granted.

TAL: I think all of the major decision-makers - including our prime minister - see Rawabi as a good thing. It sends a message to the world that Israel's not trying to sabotage Palestinian development. It sends a message to the Palestinians it pays to cooperate. We're going to let you guys develop new cities. It's the first city in the West Bank in, what, 100 years. And I think it's a wonderful development.

HARRIS: But stated support doesn't necessarily make a difference on the ground. Rawabi developers have experience with this. Permission for a road to Rawabi that crosses Israeli controlled West Bank land was granted on only a temporary basis, even - says developer Masri - with top-level political pressure.

AL-MASRI: My understanding is President Obama raised it twice with Netanyahu. Of course, I know this second-hand, but I know it from credible sources. It was raised by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. It was raised by their own president, President Peres. And I'm certain that it is a political decision.

HARRIS: Israeli professor Tal says the question of Rawabi's water could also get caught up in politics, even in peace negotiations.

TAL: Israel grants a certain amount of water, under agreement, to the Palestinians. We could increase that. It's very easy for us to increase that. But that's a concession. What are they going to do for us? At least this is the thinking of Israeli politicians.

HARRIS: For the developers, Rawabi is a symbol of what a Palestinian nation could be.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAG LINES CLANKING )

HARRIS: A huge Palestinian flag flies from Rawabi's highest hill. As a model city, Rawabi's plan for water is to use it well. Like Israel - but unlike any other Palestinian city - wastewater here will be cleaned for irrigation. Homes will have meters to help monitor water use and instant hot water to reduce waste. Developer Masri says he has to believe a water pipe will be allowed.

AL-MASRI: It's just hard for me to imagine that all of what we've done here and all the investments will be ruined because we cannot bring the water in.

HARRIS: Until there is a pipe, he says he'll keep on trucking in water as necessary for a few months or a few years.

Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.