A DEEPENING drought in the Middle East is aggravating a water supply dispute, with the World Bank finding Israel is taking four times as much water as the Palestinians from a vital shared aquifer.

The region faces a fifth consecutive year of drought this summer, but a World Bank report found huge disparities in water use between Israelis and Palestinians, although both share the mountain aquifer that runs the length of the occupied West Bank. Palestinians have access to only a fifth of the water supply, while Israel, which controls the area, takes the rest.

Israelis use 240 cubic metres of water a person each year, against 75 cubic metres for West Bank Palestinians and 125 for Gazans. Increasingly, West Bank Palestinians must rely on water bought from the Israeli national water company, Mekorot.

In some areas of the West Bank, Palestinians are surviving on 10 to 15 litres a person each day, which is at or below humanitarian disaster response levels recommended to avoid epidemics. In Gaza, where Palestinians rely on an increasingly polluted aquifer, the situation is worse. Only 5 to 10 per cent of the available water is clean enough to drink.

The World Bank report, published last month, provoked sharp criticism from Israel, which disputed the figures and the scale of the problem on the Palestinian side. But others have welcomed the study and its findings.

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli head of Friends of the Earth Middle East, said:

"There is a severe water crisis out there, predominantly on the Palestinian side, and it will be felt even worse this coming summer."

Mr Bromberg said the Joint Water Committee, established in 1995 with Israelis and Palestinians as an interim measure under the Oslo peace accords, had failed to produce results and needed reform.

The World Bank report said that

in Gaza, the continued Israeli economic blockade played a key role in preventing maintenance and construction of sewage and water projects. In the West Bank, Israeli military controls were a factor, with Palestinians still waiting for approval on 143 water projects.

GUARDIAN