Question for Short Debate
My Lords, although it is not a formal interest, I want to say that I am a member of the Watford Friends of Salfeet, an informal gathering of concerned residents in and around Watford, who have been working with the Salfeet municipality on the West Bank for the last five years.
I am grateful for the scheduling of this debate, on a vital issue, but one that is not well publicised. Access to water is a fundamental human right. Without it, people cannot survive; they cannot grow crops or livestock; they cannot dispose of sanitation and effluent safely. We in the West take water for granted, rarely thinking about how it is provided: merely turning on a tap, even when we have a hosepipe ban.
In 2010, for the first time ever, the UN Human Rights Committee addressed the difficult area of denial of access to water and sanitation in Palestine. The report found that Israel was in violation of its commitments under international law—which included denying Palestinians access to safe drinking water and sanitation—and said that this was a violation of the right to life and the right to equal protection under the law.
Specifically, the most serious water and sanitation problems lie in Area C, controlled by the Israelis, but where services are provided by the Palestinian Authority. However, the Palestinian Authority has such limited control over water in the West Bank that it cannot fulfil its duty. This is important, because Israel frequently tries to lay the blame at the door of the Palestinian Authority, without recognising that its job is impossible without access to the water that the Israeli state holds back for its own use.
I want to illustrate the problem with reference to two villages that I visited in the West Bank in February this year. The first is the village of Faqu’a, on a hill, right on the edge of the north-eastern line of the 1948 green line, south-east of Nazareth. Faqu’a means “bubbles”, and the village is rightly named. It has more than 50 natural water springs and wells, and sits on an aquifer. It is part of the beautiful area of citrus groves and wheat fields that are key to the local economy.
Despite its name, Faqu’a is a community in crisis. It no longer has the right to access its own natural resource. Their water is siphoned off by the Israeli Government over the boundary—or, I should say, under the boundary—and locals are not permitted to use the natural wells. Any attempt to do so results in the wells being filled with cement, and the farmers or users punished. Farming citrus crops without irrigation is fruitless—literally—so family incomes have dropped.
With no natural access to water, this village has to rely on buying back its own water from Israel. The nearest tap standpoint is kilometres away and transporting it by tanker to the villages increases the cost to the villagers. Worse than that, contamination of water increases the more it is handled, and the children of Faqu’a now have a high incidence of water-borne disease, such as dysentery. A recent research study showed that there are now a number of hospital cases of infection caused by faecal contamination.
The World Health Organisation says that water resources for communities must be within one kilometre of the village. Faqu’a has been fighting in the Israeli courts for five years to have a standpoint brought to within seven kilometres. The result of this is that the average use of water per capita per day in Faqu’a is a shocking 25 litres, brought to the village every day by tanker.
In Palestine the average use per capita per day is 80 to 90 litres. For Israel it is 250 litres. I stood beside the 1948 line, and saw arid fields on my left in Faqu’a, beside the lush green fields, on the right, of Israeli farmers, just the other side of the wire fence: a very strong visual image that demonstrates the inequality that these West Bank residents face every day. The residents of Faqu’a are among nearly 200,000 Palestinians who live without running water.
Other West Bank communities face a range of difficulties. The illegal industrial area of Broqeen sits above Kefra Diq and other villages that make up part of the Salfeet area. The plastics factory there—which proudly advertises that it makes goods for Pilkington glass—puts its chemical waste directly into the local water source, polluting the only access to water that the Palestinian villages below them have.
The pollution of water is one of the subtler mechanisms used to cow the Palestinians, and sits alongside the better publicised confiscation of land, demolition of houses, cutting down of olive trees, and settler and army incursions into the villages. Residents also suffer from toxic fumes as the polluted water travels through their villages in the river, causing concern about birth deformities and other illnesses following long-term exposure to chemical effluent.
The Ariel settlement stretches across the hillside above these Salfeet villages, housing 30,000 people. This very large illegal settlement takes first access of the water resources, and their sanitation effluent goes into the water before it goes down the hill to the Palestinian villages.
In a report published this March, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it had surveyed 530 springs in the West Bank and found that 30, mostly in areas where Israel retains military control, were taken over by settlers. It added that Palestinians currently had limited access to 26 other springs where settlers had moved in and threatened to take control. The area round Kefra Diq is one such. The olive groves have been there for thousands of years, but without clean water to irrigate them, the chances of the trees being able to produce a good crop are reduced. So, reduction in access to water becomes tool of economic oppression.
Of the water available from the West Bank aquifers, Israel uses 73%, the West Bank 17%, and illegal settlers 10%. While staying with families in the Salfeet area, we saw how they manage to survive day to day with very little water. Their cooking practices, flushing of toilets and turning on of taps are all severely curtailed and carefully thought about.
Finally, as if all these examples of unfair practices were not enough, the state water company has differing charging levels for water. It will come as no surprise, given what I have said, that the Palestinians on the West Bank are expected to pay a significantly higher unit price for water than are Israeli citizens, even though much of the water comes from natural wells and aquifers in Palestine.
I welcome the Government’s clear message to the Israeli Government about illegal settlements and other illegal acts such as house and olive tree demolition. Will they make strong representations to the Israeli Government to address these issues and accept the findings of the UN Human Rights Committee; immediately cease these violations under international law; end the differential level of water charging between Israel and Palestine; prevent the poisoning of water sources on the West Bank, whether industrial or domestic, by settler communities; give the people of Faqu’a access to a tap standpoint within one kilometre of the village rather than seven kilometres; and allow them to use their own water resources? Will the UK Government also raise this abuse of water provision and access to water with the United Nations, the United States of America and other countries that are able to help influence Mr Netanyahu and his Government?
Access to water is one of the most fundamental human rights. Now is the time for the United Kingdom, the EU and the UN to put pressure on Israel to ensure that all the people of the West Bank are given access to their own clean water, at a fair price, and that those who oppress them through polluting or restricting water are brought to justice.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on securing this debate. I will use my six minutes to speak about the related and linked issue of access to water in Gaza, where there is a very similar situation and lack of water is being used as an oppressive measure. In doing so, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Council for European Palestinian Relations.
I have been to Gaza twice in the past two years and seen at first hand the parlous state of the water and sewerage systems, and the impact on people’s health and on an already totally inadequate healthcare system. More than 90% of water from Gaza’s taps is unfit to drink, according to the World Health Organisation. This is in a population half of whom are children and young people aged under 18.
However, I will not speak from my own experience but will use the recent report by Save the Children and Medical Aid for Palestinians, the launch of which I had the privilege to chair last week. This report reveals some devastating things about water and its pollution in Gaza today. It found that Gaza is not a safe environment for children or adults because its water supply and land are contaminated with pollutants. A September 2010 assessment found that, “1.1 million Gazans”, out of a population of 1.6 million,
“are at high risk of consuming biologically contaminated drinking water from private vendors, the source of water for most Gaza residents”.
Concentrations of chloride and nitrates are as much as 10 times the safe levels established by the World Health Organisation. According to the WHO, ingestion of nitrates in drinking water has been linked to anaemia and some cancers. Some 70% of Gaza’s children are anaemic. The new report states:
“The most recent studies from 1998 and 2002 of infants and children indicated 48% prevalence of nitrate poisoning. Many more children are thought to be at risk today”.
A UNICEF report of March 2011 suggested that in five to 10 years’ time, Gaza’s already depleted aquifer, the sole water source, will stop producing water suitable for human consumption. Seawater has already penetrated the aquifer and the pollution has been compounded by Gaza’s inability to dispose properly of its sewage. Much of the sewerage network has been destroyed or is in a state of acute disrepair. According to the new report, 60 million to 90 million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage have been dumped in the sea every day since 2008. This has an impact not just on Gaza but on neighbouring areas. The report also points out that air strikes in 2011 destroyed $1.3 million- worth of water and sanitation structure, including a new sewage pumping station connecting 130,000 residents of Gaza.
Despite this appalling situation, the new report points out that.
“Sixteen internationally-led projects to address Gaza’s water and sanitation needs, valued at $75 million, continue to await facilitation following the easing of the blockade in June 2010. Only one-fifth of the materials required for these projects have been allowed to enter Gaza, with the remainder sitting in warehouses. No progress has been made on large-scale desalination projects addressing the lack of drinkable water”.
In conclusion, I will mention one of the five key recommendations of the Save the Children and MAP report. It states:
“Given the direct relationship between a supply of clean water and deteriorating water and sanitation systems, on one hand, and child mortality on the other, all planned water and sanitation projects should be implemented immediately, and a clear timetable provided by the Israeli authorities for their completion”.
What action will the Government take, in conjunction with EU partners, to press the Israeli Government vigorously to implement this very sensible recommendation?
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Warner, in expressing appreciation to my noble friend Lady Brinton for securing this debate and for the knowledgeable, passionate and well informed way in which she presented a very moving case. It did not come merely from other people’s understanding; she has been involved. She has gone to the places she speaks about and met the people she talks about, and therefore can speak with great knowledge and passion.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, in speaking about the situation in Gaza, also outlined the urgency of this appalling situation. I recall that in Northern Ireland, while we disagreed on many things, one thing on which all communities came together was the question of water. This is true everywhere; we simply cannot live without it. It is a fundamental human right. For it to be used in any way as a source of political pressure is not only morally wrong but profoundly dangerous, because people will not only react but remember. Some things involving water that are happening in the region concern me deeply.
In October 2011 I brought to your Lordships’ House a debate on the question of water in the Middle East, and how it might be turned from a potential source of great conflict to one of co-operation. I thank my noble friend the Minister, who responded to the debate. She ensured in her preparation for it that there was a constructive and positive response from the Foreign Office. That work continued and continues still, and I hope that a little later in the year it will be possible to have a round-table conference addressing those questions. It is not easy to put these things together, particularly from a distance. We often press our Ministers to do things, and when they are done it is very much appreciated.
This area will not be easily resolved. First, there is a profound difference in the standing of the Israeli and Palestinian water commissioners in the Joint Water Commission. The Palestinian water commissioner does not have the power to implement almost any of the decisions that he may take, whereas the Israeli water commissioner must be consulted and has the final say on all these matters. There are considerable differences in understanding some fundamental data in regard to water and water distribution, and almost endless arguments about pollution, its distribution and so on.
I was a little encouraged in February of this year when I spent some time in Israel and talked to both sides about this question, including the Israeli water commissioner’s office. An appreciation is beginning to develop, among not just NGOs but technical experts, that it is simply not possible for Israelis—Jewish or Palestinian—to isolate themselves from issues of pollution of the aquifers, for example. The disturbing question is whether this is being done to drive Palestinians off the land in order to have a one-state solution that excludes them. As someone who has supported the two-state solution for some time, there is a real question in my mind as to whether the two-state solution is becoming a non-viable proposition. We have to understand the dilemmas we are talking about in that wider political context.
I have to say that the Palestinians have not always reacted wisely in their handling of some of these issues. For example, some young Palestinians told me when I was there this year that one of the mistakes was that Israelis changed the facts on the ground and argued about the politics subsequently, while the Palestinians wanted to solve the political questions while the facts on the ground were changing all around them. I think that many young Palestinians realise that strategic mistake and want to engage in changing the infrastructure to the benefit of their people and discuss the politics subsequently.
If I said positive things about the Minister, I also want to say that I think our ambassador in Israel has also understood the importance of this question and has been pressing it and trying to get people to the discussions. Through the medium of your Lordships’ House, it would be appropriate to indicate our support for what he is doing to enable those in politics, in government and in NGOs on both sides to get together and address these questions. Whatever we say in your Lordships’ House, and whatever the Government try to do, unless we can engage those in the Israeli Government and in the Palestinian Authority, we will not achieve the kind of outcome that we all want to see in your Lordships’ House. We must therefore encourage those initiatives that are taking place, properly funded and properly encouraged, as best we can, and not simply make demands that we all know will not be achieved in the next six, 12 or 20 months.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House is deeply grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for introducing this debate on a most important subject. It is good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, praising Matthew Gould, the British ambassador, for his work in Israel and for his trying to cement relationships and do good diplomatic things for our country.
There is a huge amount of vilification of Israel, and often that vilification is expressed in the way certain statistics are presented. Sadly, we have heard some pretty misleading statistics this evening. It turns out that the Palestinians have 125 cubic metres of water per year, which is 351 litres per head per day. Given that the average American family needs between 200 and 300 litres, that is quite a lot of water. It is slightly higher in Israel at about 421 litres per day. More water will be used where there is industry and increasing agriculture, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out, will also increase water usage.
Israel has had a legal agreement with the Palestinians since 1995. It was signed in Washington and was also signed by the European Union, Norway, Russia and the United States. It is interesting to point out that on 13 June Alex Kushner, the representative of the Israeli water authority, met with Dr Shaddad Attili, the Palestinian representative. The meeting was held in a very co-operative, pleasant and agreeable fashion and it was clear there was a lot of agreement between them. The problem is that, whatever might be said at this level, the situation that we should like to see with the various authorities in Palestine does not always follow. Unfortunately, disorganisation means there are huge problems with water. For example, none of the speakers has mentioned that some 6,000 wells have been illegally drilled in the country, which has resulted in the sewage that is referred to.
I find it difficult to understand how anybody could accept that Jews are poisoning wells. This almost sounds like the medieval blood libel. There is absolutely no reason for Israelis to poison wells and poison the aquifer; there is nothing to gain from that. The problem is that most of the sewage in Gaza certainly comes from Gaza. Israel has offered all sorts of help to Gaza, including pipes, technology and so on. Certainly, desalination would be expensive at around $400 million, and there is the issue of how you get that and continue it with the lack of power in Gaza. None the less, there is a total failure by anybody else to help the Gazans in their situation at present. It is shocking that the pollution that affects Israeli water by spilling over the border is so often seen as something that Israel has caused; it is something that is very much at the feet of the Palestinians.
I want to say only this in this very short debate. If we really want to see a peaceful solution, and a two-state solution to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has referred as being one that we can promulgate and support, it is crucial that we make certain that we do not vilify one side or the other. While we allow ourselves to be persuaded by inaccurate and often misleading statistics, we reduce the cause of peace. We make it more difficult for there to be an accommodation between the two sides. It is extremely important at this time that we are careful and accurate in our assessments of what is happening in the Middle East.
I was in Israel only a few weeks ago; I will be there again this coming weekend. I am there rather more frequently than my noble friend Lord Warner. I have been on both sides of the divide, and I have to say that Israel is trying very hard to make certain that the water supplies are kept intact, that the sewerage issues are controlled and that the damage is repaired.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing this important debate and I thank her for her very moving personal account of her visit to Palestine.
I first point out that access to water in this part of the Middle East, as elsewhere in many parts of the world, is a critical issue for all the countries of the region, and has been the subject of dispute between many of them for years. For instance, there are problems between Turkey and its Iraqi and Syrian neighbours, let alone the problems around access to water for Israel and Palestine, much of it flowing from countries that are still at war with Israel. Indeed, it has often been said that water may be the cause of the next serious conflagration in the region. One of the tragic consequences of the present crisis in Syria and the so-called Arab spring is that it has diverted the world’s attention from the problem of water supplies.
I turn to the subject of this debate and, in stark contrast to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, the statistics available to me from international sources are truly horrendous. At the risk of repeating some of the points that have already been made, one crucial fact behind many aspects of this problem is the continuing illegal settlement of the West Bank by the Israeli occupying power. The settler population continues to grow, in spite of ineffective attempts by the Government of the United States and the European Union to persuade the Israeli Government at least to freeze their growth, if not to reverse it. At approximately 500,000, the growth rate of Israeli settlers on the West Bank and in east Jerusalem has averaged 5.1% a year, compared with an Israeli population growth as a whole of only 1.9%. What is called the mountain aquifer on the West Bank is hugely overexploited by the Israelis, who take 80% of the water, thus leaving only 20% for the Palestinians. More than 190,000 Palestinians live in 134 West Bank villages without any running water. In recent years during the summer months, the Israeli army has stepped up pressure on Palestinian border communities to force them out of the Jordan valley by confiscating their water tankers and depriving the villagers and their flocks of water at the height of the hot season.
Others will no doubt disagree with these facts and figures, but surely we cannot dispute the illegality of the Israeli settlement policy on the West Bank. What we have, in effect, is 500,000 Israelis who, under international law and the Geneva Convention, should not be there at all, using 80% of the available water and leaving only 20% for the indigenous population. For a Government who pride themselves on being not only the sole democracy in the Middle East but one who accept the rule of law, this is a shameful story. Even if, as it appears, the United States is unable or unwilling to do anything about it, surely the European Union should be doing something to correct this flagrant injustice. Mr Netanyahu may not have blood on his hands, to quote a frequent accusation against the Syrian regime next door, but he should certainly have water on his conscience.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for introducing this debate. I should express my interest as a member of the Labour Friends of Israel. It is obvious to anyone who has looked at the condition of the Palestinian water supply and the terrible state of the sewage disposal facilities, particularly in Gaza, that the situation there is increasingly intolerable. Noble Lords have spoken eloquently about these difficulties, and I resonate in particular to the analysis made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and not least that of the noble Lord, Lord Wright, who it always seems to be my problem and privilege to follow. I differ hardly at all in my recognition of the problems for the Palestinians, but I differ in my view of the causes and possible cures. The prime cause, of course, is the stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians, and the cure for the water conditions would follow a peace treaty, but we are where we are.
I shall start with Gaza because that is where the problems are undoubtedly most acute. According to the United Nations, Gaza has a desperate shortage of pure drinking water. Between 90% and 95% of Gazan water is polluted and a threat to health. If ever a place desperately needed a desalination plant, Gaza is it. Recently, UNICEF came in with a plan to do just that, but it came up against a Hamas Administration that, I am afraid, put their politics ahead of their population’s health. UNICEF wanted to purchase at favourable rates all the equipment that it would need from Israel because Israel has all the necessary expertise in desalination that could be wished for. Moreover, Israel was ready to help. But unfortunately all hell broke out. Hamas absolutely forbade any Israeli involvement. The Palestinian contractors’ union condemned UNICEF and announced a boycott of the agency, which then had to shut down its offices.
This episode is just one example of why it has been so difficult for Israel to influence the development of clean water and a proper sewage disposal system in Gaza, both of which have been Gaza’s own responsibility since 1995. Hamas just will not have anything to do with Israel, even when it offers to help. If it is said that Israel has prevented the transfer of necessary materials, while that may have been true, it is no longer the case. All the pipes, pumps and chemicals that are needed for water purification are now going across.
On the West Bank the situation is far from perfect, but it is much better than in Gaza. My figures—we all have different statistics, of course—suggest that 95% of the population is connected to a clean water supply and that the people have access to almost as much water as the Israelis. We can argue about the data. The problem in the West Bank is again one of a lack of willingness on the part of the Palestinians to collaborate on water and sewage projects with the Israelis. From what I hear, the relevant experts in water treatment meet and talk on friendly terms, but any agreements reached are quashed by the politicians. I fear that the Palestinian Authority is at least as much to blame as the Israelis. It does not want to be seen to be collaborating with the enemy in Israel.
A couple of years ago, Israel agreed to an American proposal to hold joint hydrological workshops with the Palestinians, but again that has been put on hold by the Palestinians. Water and sewage management in the small area of land in which Israel, the West Bank and Jordan sit closely together demands a co-ordinated approach on which they all work together. Placing all the blame on Israel or on any one of those countries is unhelpful. We in the UK must focus hard on how to get the parties together, if not in a total peace agreement —that is probably asking too much—at least on water, which is vital to them all.
In debates on the Middle East in your Lordships’ House I always try to bring out the possibility of what we in the UK might usefully do that is positive, rather than the usual constant carping and criticism. In that light, will the Minister consider inviting representatives with expertise in water management from those countries to meet on the neutral ground of the UK, where, perhaps, they can work something out far away from the scenes of conflict?
My Lords, on behalf of the opposition Front Bench, I would like to say how much we welcome the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has got us this debate. It is a vital but not very well publicised issue, and she is certainly right that questions of water supply are about human rights. She has pursued this with her typical determination, which I admire, as well as her personal diplomacy through her twinning efforts between Watford and the Palestinian territories. I therefore have the greatest respect for what she is trying to do in highlighting these issues.
All noble Lords who have spoken in this debate accept that there are serious issues at stake here. The noble Lords, Lord Warner, Lord Alderdice and Lord Wright of Richmond, also spoke passionately about the problems. I agree with my noble friends Lord Winston and Lord Turnberg that certainly we have no wish to vilify the Israelis, and I am sure that many ordinary Israelis are horrified by these facts as much as anyone in this House. I also fully accept that the politics of the Palestinian Authority and of Hamas are not always the most constructive.
However, when you research the reports written by a number of international organisations and reputable NGOs on these issues, as I did briefly for this debate, one can only come to the conclusion that the Israelis have a serious case to answer. The most recent report I looked at was produced by the World Health Organisation last month. In that report the WHO says that the average supply of water to the Palestinians is only 50% of what it regards as a reasonable daily requirement, and that it is much worse in some parts of the territories—in Gaza and the so-called Area C—than in the rest. It also says, as did the noble Lord, Lord Wright, that Israel dominates the take of water from the aquifer on the West Bank—over 80% of it is taken by the Israelis—and similarly of the underwater aquifer in Gaza. Settlement building has made the problem worse: they are building deep wells, the building of which affects the water table and makes life more difficult for the Palestinians. The greatest injustice of the lot, in a way, is that the Israelis then sell a lot of the water back to the Palestinians, at quite a hefty profit. One estimate is that 50% of water in those parts of the territories has to be bought from Israel.
What is the Government’s view of this? This is something on which the British Government ought to have its own independent assessment of how serious these problems are. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that at the conclusion of this debate. We ought also to know what representations and what action the Government are taking to pursue this issue. I picked up in my researches an interesting report on these issues produced by Amnesty International in 2009. One of its suggestions, which seems perfectly sensible, is that there should be much closer co-ordination between the international donors who are trying to help to resolve these problems; a system of transparent reporting of difficulties and obstacles that they encounter, whether they are on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side; and a proper mechanism for reporting what is going on. That transparency and reporting mechanism seems to me to be an important part of trying to resolve the difficulties. What are we doing through our own aid efforts and the EU to try to ensure that that is done?
I have been passionately pro-Israeli all my political life but when one hears about some of the problems that the Palestinians encounter, it makes one wonder about the seriousness of the present Israeli Government’s commitment to a two-state solution. There are steps that the Israelis could take. As the noble Lord, Lord Wright, eloquently said, if they do not want to have blood on their hands, they should not have water on their consciences.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate on this very important issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has noted, she and other noble Lords have spoken with passion and a great deal of knowledge about a challenge for the region that in itself reflects the huge political tensions of the area. We are indeed very concerned about the issue of access to water in the Occupied Territories and Gaza. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that we regard this as very serious indeed.
It is clearly very important that Palestinians have equitable access to the dwindling water resources in the area. The Palestinian population is allocated an average of 60 litres per capita per day, well below the World Health Organisation’s recommended level of 100 litres. In communities without water infrastructure, consumption dips to 20 litres per person per day. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, indicated, not having regular access to water has a serious impact on the daily life of Palestinians, including their ability to tend their crops and therefore to provide for their families.
As noble Lords have indicated, there are various factors at play. There has been a lack of rainfall in recent years, the population has grown and the management of water resources could be improved. However, the main reasons why the Palestinians have inadequate access to water are political: the inequitable distribution of water resources compounded by Israeli restrictions on building and movement.
Less than 1% of Area C has been planned for Palestinian development by the Israeli Civil Administration. This kind of restriction does not lend itself to the creation of infrastructure that makes it easy to tackle this issue. As scientists, the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Turnberg, are right about the misuse of statistics, which is why I am glad that we have independent analysis of this. Palestinians have access to only 20% of the West Bank’s water resources, the lowest access to fresh water in the region. The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has calculated that the average Palestinian receives 60 litres per capita per day. In comparison, Israeli settlers receive on average 280 litres per capita per day. This huge difference in allocation is unacceptable and indefensible. To help address this inequity, the UK is funding a project working with both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities to help improve co-operation on water issues to the benefit of all.
Of course, this is only one of the many problems associated with the illegal settlements, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, made so very clear. The Government’s policy on settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law and undermine the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those working for a sustainable peace. I can assure my noble friend Lady Brinton that we have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcements to accelerate settlement building in the Occupied Territories.
Another cause of the water shortage is the restrictions imposed on Palestinians, particularly in Area C, to develop their household and communal infrastructure. Based on the provisions of the Oslo agreement, both sides agree to co-ordinate the management of water and sewerage resources and systems during the interim period, as has been referred to by noble Lords. Development infrastructure projects in the water sector require the prior approval of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee and subsequent construction permits and licences from the Israeli Civil Administration. The complex Israeli requirements and approval processes are an obstacle to the tangible development of the Palestinian water sector and to the Palestinian economy as a whole.
The demolition of Palestinian properties continues in the West Bank. Cisterns and water wells have been demolished. This has meant the loss of primary coping mechanisms in times of water scarcity. Such demolitions cause unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians, are harmful to the peace process and, in all but the most limited circumstances, are contrary to international humanitarian law.
On 14 May this year, the EU Foreign Affairs Council called on Israel to meet its obligations regarding the living conditions of the Palestinian population in Area C by accelerating approval of Palestinian master plans, halting the forced transfer of the population and the demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure, simplifying administrative procedures to obtain building permits, ensuring access to water and addressing humanitarian needs. The Foreign Ministers further reiterated the EU’s joint commitment to provide financial assistance for Palestinian development in Area C.
While this debate deals with the West Bank, water is also a serious issue in Gaza, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, made very clear, where 90% of drinking water does not meet international standards. The Israeli blockade and restriction of the import of goods and equipment into the Gaza Strip have resulted in significant delays in implementing major water-related development projects in the strip. Water and sanitation projects worth over $70 million are still awaiting Israeli approval for access of materials, the implications of which the noble Lord, Lord Warner, highlighted.
We continue to call for the full implementation of the relaxation of access restrictions for Gaza. We welcome all suggestions to improve the deeply worrying health situation in Gaza. We are very carefully reviewing the Save the Children report. In recent years, there has been some limited movement towards the easing of the restrictions, which we welcome. However, more remains to be done. We hope that further easing of the restrictions will follow.
Water scarcity is a major issue not only for Israel and the Palestinians but for other countries in the region, too. Water has been a scarce resource in the Middle East since early civilizations, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, indicated. Rivers in the region are few. Water demand is increasing as populations grow. Underground reserves are shrinking. The current water usage in the Middle East is unsustainable. Shortages are likely, unless Governments take action to solve the impending crisis, which is why we very much welcomed the work undertaken by my noble friend Lord Alderdice.
The UK funds the Global Water Partnership, which has supported a regional water partnership for the Mediterranean. Partners have included Israel, Jordan and Lebanon among others. These independent regional partnerships have promoted the concept and implementation of integrated water resources management as a vital approach to managing the world’s water resources. Following on from this, we very much welcome the work that my noble friend Lord Alderdice has been doing with the Strategic Foresight Group, which the House debated on 27 October 2011. I am glad that the initiative that he called for then is being taken forward; I wish him well with it and thank him for his kind words.
We supported the Negotiations Affairs Department of the PLO in developing improved data on water issues in order to promote effective negotiations with Israel on water sharing and co-operation. However, strengthened dialogue and co-operation between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities on water issues do not need to wait. I noted what the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said; we would like to hear more about the noble Lord’s suggestion about bringing those Israelis and Palestinians who are involved in this area to the United Kingdom to discuss it. I will ask FCO officials to follow up on it and see where we can take it.
The UK regularly discusses access to water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the Israelis, including the urgent need for Israel to ensure fair distribution of water in the West Bank and Gaza. We call on both parties—and, as the occupying power, particularly Israel—to take urgent, practical and immediate measures to improve this unacceptable situation, which has been so well described in this debate.
International interest in this area is keen. What happens between Israel and Palestine has a knock-on effect within the region, which has a knock-on effect far wider than that. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and others have asked what representations we are making to the UN, the USA and others on this matter. We work closely with international partners, including the EU and the US. We will raise this issue in our discussions with them, as we have done. As I mentioned, the EU Foreign Affairs Council addressed the issue of access to water in its conclusions of 14 May.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about the village that she visited. I make the commitment that we will ask the British consulate-general in Jerusalem to visit the village and see how Her Majesty’s Government might be able to assist the villagers in gaining access to clean water.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, asked about the independent assessment of the situation. As he probably knows, the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs conducts regular assessments of access to water in the OPTs. Many have quoted from those assessments here today.
Water is one of several important issues for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and anything that can be done to bring the sides together is very welcome. With this resource being so limited in the region, effective co-operation is required from all parties to manage it to ensure enough for all. This evening’s debate only reinforces the urgent need for negotiations to resume and for a final status agreement to be reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Such an agreement must include a just solution on shared water resources.