Tue, Mar

U.S. Aid Sanctions Turn Taps Off Critical Palestinian Water, Wastewater Projects

One slip, and Issa Abu Shakr's 5-year-old nephew plunged into the fetid stream of sewage that flows outside the family's West Bank home. The contact with the filthy water required multiple blood transfusions and a 10-day hospital stay, Abu Shakr says.

YATA, West Bank -- One slip, and Issa Abu Shakr's 5-year-old nephew plunged into the fetid stream of sewage that flows outside the family's West Bank home.

The contact with the filthy water required multiple blood transfusions and a 10-day hospital stay, Abu Shakr says.

A few miles away, Maisoun Seidat picked up a blue bucket for one of her three daily trips to a communal cistern. People shouldn't have to fret about something as elemental as water, Seidat says, but in the parched West Bank, it's a constant worry.

These are the human face of the toll exacted by U.S. sanctions following the rise to power of the militant Islamic Hamas group.

U.S. projects were to have dried up the toxic flow that threatens the Abu Shakrs and bring more water to the Seidats. But the money has disappeared into the morass of Mideast politics.

Projects meant to make sweeping changes in the Palestinians' quality of life -- like the sewage treatment plant that was to have been built near Issa Abu Shakr's home in Yata village near Hebron -- have been put on hold.

Meanwhile, the Abu Shakr family complains of asthma, burning throats and colds. The trunks of olive trees near their home are blackened by the squalid flow.

"The fact that they stopped the project is a disaster," Abu Shakr says.

Palestinians had hoped a power-sharing deal between Hamas and the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would revive the aid, and a $250 million package of waste and wastewater programs the U.S. had planned for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated in a recent visit to the region that this won't happen unless Hamas moderates its refusal to recognize Israel's existence.

Other major donors have continued their smaller-scale infrastructure projects. But it is the U.S. the Palestinians depend on for water and sewage treatment, says Naim El-Mani, senior technical adviser at the Palestinian Water Authority.

More than 80 percent of communities in the West Bank aren't hooked up to a sewer network, and much of their waste ends up in riverbeds, some of it running into Israel, water experts said.

The suspension of the wastewater project "is like a time bomb," he said.

The U.S. poured $468 million into the Palestinian territories in 2006 -- the year Hamas rose to power -- compared with $400 million approved the previous year. But Howard Sumka, director for the West Bank and Gaza operations of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said his agency's mission has shifted toward "health care, food assistance and education" -- the things most threatened by the international aid boycott.

A sign outside a new water reservoir in Seidat's village of Bani Naim in the rocky hills near Hebron marks a USAID project designed to increase the hourly flow to the area by more than 260,000 gallons.

But the reservoir is empty, as are two others built for the project. Dozens of enormous concrete pipes that were to carry water from the reservoir to the surrounding area are stacked by the road, and the only workers present are guards keeping away thieves.

Of the West Bank's 2.4 million people, about 120,000 living in small communities do not have piped water, and those who do receive it only once every 10 days on average, says Ihab Barghouti, economic adviser to the Palestinian Water Authority.

So West Bankers rely heavily on purchased water -- sometimes from untreated springs and wells -- and rainwater collected in cisterns, Barghouti says.

Average daily water consumption, for drinking and bathing, is still only 8 to 10 gallons a day, about one-third the World Health Organization's recommended minimum, and some people shower monthly, El-Mani said.

"Sometimes, before I go to sleep, I think, what shall I do in the morning in order to have water," said Seidat, a 29-year-old schoolteacher and mother of three. "Am I going to have water in the morning or not? What shall I do? Where do I have to go? These are big questions in my mind."

Water consumes about one-fourth of her family's monthly income of less than $600, she says. In the past seven months, she has received just $700 of the $4,000 owed to her because international sanctions leave the Hamas government unable to pay full salaries.

The U.S. government is penalizing the Palestinian people for exercising their democratic right to vote, says Seidat's brother-in-law, Ahmed Seidat. "They talk about choice, but punish our people," he fumed.

In Gaza, the revised U.S. aid policy means nearly 3,000 illegally drilled wells are depleting Gaza's Coastal Aquifer and letting in seawater, Barghouti says.

At a municipal water distribution center in the southern town of Khan Younis, children fill bottles while adults fill 260-gallon storage tanks on donkey-drawn wagons.

Sometimes the donkeys drink from the same source.

To save the aquifer, USAID was going to build a desalination plant and a pipeline to deliver the water to Gaza, but those plans were suspended after three U.S. government contractors were killed by unidentified assailants in October 2003. Moves to resuscitate the project were cut short after Hamas' rise.

"USAID was doing big projects that no other donor could do," said El-Mani

Source: Associated Press

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