If politics is dirty, this is about as low as it gets. Sewage from autonomous areas is being allowed to flow untreated into water sources, streams and underground reservoirs because the Palestinian Authority is reluctant to cooperate with Israel in building waste-water treatment plants.
This was the conclusion of Environment Minister Rafael Eitan, who toured Samaria last week to examine the problem, and Knesset member Sallah Tarif, chairman of the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee, who made a similar tour of Judea. The issue was also raised in the Knesset plenum by members from parties on both the left and right.
Eitan stopped short of the definition of "environmental intifada," saying he hopes the health hazards are not being caused intentionally, but Tarif declared the situation to be "pollution politics." Tarif was speaking at a spot just east of Beit Sahur, next to a tributary of Nahal Dragot. The view was pastoral: green grass along the banks of a bubbling stream, olive trees, houses, and an attractive mosque in the background. The smell, however, left no doubt that the flowing waters came from prosaic sources.
Micha Blum, staff officer for environmental affairs in the Civil Administration, notes that neither the problem nor the solutions are new. The greatest problem from an environmental point of view are the large towns which have facilities to collect the sewage but not to treat it. In these cases, large quantities of effluent pour out of pipelines directly into wadis and, from there, reach rivers and underground water supplies.
The population almost doubles every 15 years, which leads to a tremendous increase in sewage, Blum says. When this is combined with new plumbing and sewage systems which also increase water consumption, the output is more than the plants can handle.
"Over the years, the Civil Administration built several facilities and created a master plan for the whole of Judea and Samaria, but most of the facilities need renovations. In some cases, the renovations have been carried out but the plants are not operated." Blum says. He cites Jenin as an example. Although a plant there was renovated at a cost of some NIS 3 million nearly two years ago, it remains unused and sewage from the town flows in the direction of the Kishon River.
Even the newer facilities find it difficult to cope with the sewage they need to handle, and the overflow spills out. The recent massive fish poisonings in Nahal Alexander are a result of sewage spills from the autonomous areas.
Objective problems aside, environmentalists say there is definitely a political hurdle. "Our feeling - in fact it's more than a feeling - is that the Palestinian Authority is not interested in cooperating," says Nitzan Levy, director of the Judea Region Towns Association for the Environment. Eitan made the same accusation in the Knesset, calling on Nabil Shaath, in charge of environmental affairs for the PA, to resume joint projects in the spirit of the Oslo Accords. Eitan, Levy and Blum all cite several examples of lack of cooperation.
In Nablus, a research survey on sewage was completed but the recommendations, by an Israeli planner, were not accepted by the Palestinian Authority. It says it is studying the issue afresh, but meantime the sewage is flowing into Nahal Alexander.
Ramallah has facilities which are about 15 years old and cannot cope with the current quantities of sewage, but the local municipality has rejected suggestions that it link up with the Jerusalem system to solve the problem.
As usual, Hebron is an extreme example of the inability to reach an agreement. The Civil Administration was in the process of establishing a plant to treat wastewater - and had invested NIS 3 million in the project - when the Hebron municipality stopped cooperating, Blum says. The pumping station has been built, but the second stage, which would pipe the sewage to a treatment plant in Yatir, is stalled.
Levy says the reason for the stalling is the objections by Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe to Jewish farmers in the Yatir area receiving treated water. "The funds for the project exist, but the whole business is at a full stop. We can't further it because they won't agree to it. Even if we build it ourselves with our own money, they won't let us take the sewage," Levy said. "Meantime, the sewage continues to pollute Nahal Hebron, pollute the aquifer, and probably also the water wells. The situation is critical. We're talking about sewage from some 150,000 residents."
Blum notes that the municipality would not even agree to an equal distribution of the treated sewage.
Another example of stalling has resulted in the sewage flow that is reaching Nahal Dragot from east Bethlehem. Beit Sahur and Beit Jalla. With German aid, the towns were connected to a sewage system which increased the quantities of waste water. Germany is also willing to finance a project, costing between $70m. and $100m., to establish a treatment plant - on condition it involves both Israel and the Palestinians. Former environment minister Yossi Sarid signed the necessary forms nearly two years ago, but the Palestinians have yet to sign. Without their signature, the aid cannot be utilized.
The wastewater is intended to be treated and used in agriculture in the Kidron area. Unfortunately, today they exploit the waters as they are," says Blum. "It's difficult to make demands when there is no money, but here it has been clearly stated that the money exists. All they have to do is submit the joint request form."
The urgent need for action is clear. Villagers in the area suffer from mosquitoes and diarrhea from the sewage flowing through, and by, their homes. But the real health hazard stems from the amount of sewage entering the underground water resources. Tahal (the water planning company) examined the aquifer in the Herodian area just over a year ago and found clear indications that pollutants had entered it, Blum says. "This should light up a red light for both the Palestinian Authority and us.
"In Judea and Samaria alone there are some 1,250,000 residents who each produce some 40 cubic meters of sewage a year. The Yarkon-Taninim aquifer is refilled by some 350 million cubic meters a year, of which 10% is wastewater. And that's very worrying," says Blum.
Levy notes that the sewage also affects popular hiking routes and nature reserves, and could affect tourism. Looking at the sewage flowing freely out of Beit Sahur, he says: "It's a sensitive spot. The untreated wastewater is definitely entering the underground water sources. This is one of the most sensitive areas for water reserves in the whole of Israel. When there is a breakdown in pipes, you can actually see the sewage coming out of the natural springs a few days later.
The Israelis agree that the only solution is joint action with the Palestinians, but they are waiting for Shaath to take action. Eitan told the Knesset plenum: "If the Palestinian Authority doesn't answer our request for cooperation, we will carry out the projects essential to protect the environment in Israel and the residents of the territories ourselves, and I will deduct the costs from the money forwarded to the authority."
"It's a political act," says Tarif. "This is political pollution. They are using sewage as ammunition." He says the damage to health from the untreated sewage is potentially as damaging as terror attacks." Blum is more reticent, but has an important message for the Palestinians, noting that the environmental and health hazards do not recognize artificial borders: "Perhaps they are playing politics with pollution," he says, "but they're scoring an own goal."
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