Wastewater and Wasted Water

By Madeleine Ekeberg Schneider

Fall 2020 Issue

In the summer of 2018, I studied abroad in Israel-Palestine, and we divided our time between the West Bank, where we worked on a farm, and Israel, where we visited museums, schools, and monuments. As we crossed back and forth between the territories, I noticed how much more litter there was in the streets of the West Bank compared to the Israeli cities we visited. The dirt road leading to the farm entrance was lined with plastic wrappers, and there was paper caught in plants along the roads in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem. There was also no recycling system in the area that our host families participated in. At the same time, however, there was strong awareness of water and electricity conservation. Massive black water jugs and shiny solar panels lined the roofs in Palestinian cities and towns across the territory. After witnessing the visible differences in waste management and apparent cultural differences in water use between the West Bank and Israel, I wondered how and why two territories, so intimately connected by resources, conflict, and livelihood managed their environments so differently enough that it was visible to a visitor. 

The Global North, the world’s richest and most powerful countries often export their environmental problems in the form of trash and resource extraction to the Global South. The developing countries must therefore deal with these issues imposed by the developed countries in addition to their own increased vulnerability to climate catastrophes given their geography, resources, and technology. These relationships are marked by power asymmetries and conflicting interests. The relationship between the West Bank and Israel is an example of the relationship between the Global North and Global South. Yet both face the same environmental issues given that they occupy the same space – they share the same ecosystem – making this particular situation both unique and universal. Israel and the West Bank both face issues concerning water scarcity and waste management, but they are also in conflict with each other, a conflict that lies fundamentally in control over the land and thus control of the natural resources and environment. 

This context and my own observation while visiting led me to the question: How do the environmental management institutions associated with water quality, water scarcity, and waste management in Israel compare to those in the West Bank? In particular, why do they lead to differing environmental management practices and outcomes? Additionally, what constrains their ability to adopt a more efficient and cooperative approach to management of their shared environment? In my investigation, I have found that Israel’s environmental management is more developed than that of the West Bank, in terms of infrastructure and precise legislation, but both face enforcement challenges that result in negative environmental and public health impacts for each other as well as themselves. The inevitably interdependent relationship between the two territories’ environmental management means that neither can solve its own environmental management problems without the other doing the same in addition to working together for the protection of the environment and public health. 

Israel and Palestine’s Environmental Management Compared 

Israel and the West Bank share the same natural environment and resources, but because of differing political and social circumstances, the two have developed different institutional environmental management frameworks. They do, however, share some approaches, such as delegation to local municipalities, and some challenges, such as wide distribution of management responsibilities among government agencies. Nonetheless, the two governments are characterized by different primary issues, falling into a different primary category of environmental management challenges: general public and resources. Israel struggles to enforce its growing environmental legislation because of a tradition of lacking governmental and public support, although there is a growing popular support for environmental practices. The West Bank primarily faces the resource challenge, with poor infrastructure, which subsequently results in poor popular support. Both Israel and the PNA disseminate environmental responsibilities broadly across ministries and other governmental agencies, and both face problems of inefficiency due to this decentralization. Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection was formed in the late 1980s, several decades following the foundation of the government of Israel. Until this time, environmental responsibilities had been addressed by other ministries up to this point, such as the Ministries of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health. Although many of the responsibilities were shifted to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, many laws concerning environmental management remain under other authorities, sometimes in conjunction with each other or the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Ministry does, however, play a significant role in implementing waste and water management legislation, as these areas often fall under its responsibility “for the formulation of a nationwide, integrated, and inclusive policy for the protection of the environment.” Even as the Ministry of Environmental Protection passed from minister to minister, it has taken part in amending and creating laws and policies concerning waste and water management. 

Instead of relying on public waste management services, many people choose other methods of disposal, such as burning or unofficial dumping.

Both Israel and the PNA give local municipalities a significant amount of responsibility for waste and water management. In Israel, the Ministry of Environmental Protection works at the national level to develop policies, strategies, standards, and priorities for environmental protection, but the implementation of these national policies is left to the districts. The amount of power given to local authorities varies depending on the management area. For example, local authorities are responsible for designing and constructing their own sewage systems, but the regulations and standards set by the national government still serve as guidelines. Thus, the municipalities are given some flexibility in their implementation of the law through duties such as the approval and distribution of permits and design of sewage systems, but the regulatory power remains with the ministries. One prominent change during the reformation of the water sector was centralizing more of the water management decisions. Although certain ministries are in charge of policy, the Water Authority became the head of water management in the country, producing results in water management efficiency that were previously unattainable. 

The PNA gives even greater power to its municipalities. Because the PNA was not founded until the 1990s, Palestinians in the West Bank needed other systems of environmental management, so local municipalities were the main environmental service providers. This system has resulted in uneven distribution of services and environmental management infrastructure across the territory, an issue that continues to this day. Because of the tradition and existing local foundation of environmental management, however, the PNA instituted a similar system, giving municipalities primary control of their waste and water management and mainly serving to provide financial support and basic guidelines. This system thus allows for more flexibility in the implementation of water and waste management across the territory than Israel allows. Both systems have drawbacks, but considering the context of both territories, their respective models make sense. Although the Palestinian model has resulted in management disparities across municipalities, their power gives them the flexibility to respond to circumstances that may not be affecting other municipalities, a condition that is particularly pertinent to the West Bank under occupation. Since the West Bank is divided by checkpoints and its different parts are affected differently by settlements and decisions by the Israeli Defense Forces in charge of the occupation, Palestinian municipalities must be prepared to react to changes in circumstances that may not permit the same environmental management strategies across the entire territory.Israel, meanwhile, does not have internal checkpoints and is therefore a much more cohesive and accessible territory, so its individual districts require less flexibility in their environmental management and are therefore delegated responsibilities. 

Israel Districts Map (2020) courtesy Maps Open Source

Israel and the West Bank face environmental management enforcement challenges, indicated by poor water quality, poor and dangerous waste disposal, and underperformance on goals such as recycling levels. The lack of enforcement on both sides has resulted in negative consequences for both Israel and the West Bank, emphasizing the need for cross-border cooperation concerning environmental issues if sustainability is ever to be achieved. Both territories lack the resources for proper enforcement, however Israel lacks these resources due to poor political support and the opinions of the general public, and the West Bank lacks the infrastructure and funding for proper enforcement. 

Israel has included recycling goals in its legislation since 1993, with a progression of increased recycling levels over the ensuing fifteen years. The country struggled to meet the standards, however, because the government failed to invest adequately in public education and recycling encouragement. Thus, “Israel is consistently among the lowest countries in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] when it comes to recycling,” states the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s head, Oded Nezer. The current recycling system in Israel requires separation of the waste at the source. This system requires public education and cooperation since they must know how to separate their waste and divide their materials for recycling. Because of the increased effort on the consumer end, in general, source separation often results in less participation in recycling among the public, but it results in less contamination and more effective recycling of the material that does end up recycled. The Ministry of Environmental Protection considers the lack of public knowledge about waste management to be the main reason for this poor performance, which has wider consequences; because so little of Israel’s waste is recycled, waste usually ends up in twelve growing landfills, which come with their own issues. Landfills take up a large amount of land and pollute the land and the area’s groundwater. Israel is developing “waste-to-energy” facilities as well to address this issue and to reach the goal of a 50% recycling rate by 2030, but “waste-to-energy” facilities also have detrimental environmental consequences since they involve burning waste. This process, even with filters, pollutes the air of both Palestinians and Israelis, as well as contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Israeli enforcement agency, the Green Police, exemplifies Israel’s enforcement problems. Although the department is in charge of investigating violations of environmental law across the whole country, it has too few inspectors to be effective without the support of other departments. The budget for the entire Ministry of Environmental Protection is about 89 million USD, a fraction of which is given to the Green Police to cover all expenses. These financial constraints and the agency’s lack of manpower are accompanied by limitations posed on the investigators’ power. They are allowed to interrogate, document, take samples, and issue certain penalties, but if the violation is serious enough to be a criminal offense, the legal department takes charge, involving bureaucratic processes and a much lengthier process. There are currently few prospects of a solution to this problem. A lack of political support among politicians for the Ministry of Environmental Protection ensures that the Ministry continues to struggle with insufficient resources and enforcement. 

The West Bank also struggles with public education concerning environmental management, particularly concerning waste. The Palestinians’ struggle, however, also lies in a severe lack of resources and services. In several cases, because of lack of waste collection services, waste has been disposed of near water sources, resulting in contamination of drinking water from cess-pools or the burning of trash. Similarly to Israel, the PNA faces a shortage of trained manpower, and in districts like Tubas and Nables, they lack the basic infrastructure and equipment, such as waste collection vehicles or roads, for a functioning and reliable environmental management system. Waste management is therefore particularly difficult and often ineffective, which results in a lack of faith and support from the public. Hence, instead of relying on public waste management services, many people choose other methods of disposal, such as burning or unofficial dumping. These actions exacerbate environmental issues such as water scarcity. Thus, even with municipalities in charge of their own environmental management, they are not always capable of creating and implementing a plan to address their own needs because they lack the necessary resources, even when supplemented by aid from the PNA. 

Both Israel and the West Bank face difficulties in enforcing all basic environmental management regulations and practices in their own territories, but evidence also suggests that they fail to enforce the policies they consider most important, namely hazardous waste disposal. Both Israel and the PNA assign the most severe penalties to the violation of proper hazardous waste disposal, yet e-waste as well as construction and demolition debris from Israel are regularly disposed of in the West Bank, violating both Palestinian and Israeli law. Some Palestinians, however, have grown to rely on the steady supply of waste from Israel, scavenging for valuable parts such as metals and burning the rest. This cycle has had detrimental environmental effects, blackening and contaminating once-fertile soil. The fires also contaminate the air, resulting in “black rain,” which, in turn, falls into water sources. While this issue has been brought to the attention of the Environmental Quality Agency, it has insisted that the local municipalities take over the decontamination process, despite their lack of resources. The Environmental Quality Agency has little power to actually stop the dumping of e-waste and other hazardous waste in the West Bank since it does not have control over its own borders. This situation ultimately renders the law against the importation of hazardous waste ornamental and the threat of imprisonment and fines ineffective. This issue brings to light the challenge at the base of the PNA’s environmental management system: the occupation. The way in which the occupation has progressed ultimately hurts both the Palestinians and Israelis when it comes to environmental management since they share the same natural resources: the same air, water, and soil. 

This article is an excerpt from Wastewater and Wasted Water: A Comparison of Environmental Management Institutions in Israel and the West Bank by Madeleine Ekeberg Schneider

Madeleine Ekeberg Schneider is a Norwegian-American recent graduate of the University of Michigan where she studied international security norms and cooperation and comparative literature. She is currently working in CPS English Learner classrooms as an AmeriCorps Member for City Year Chicago.