Bedouin in unrecognised villages struggle to get water to their home

Over half of the 85,000 Bedouin in the Negev desert live in some 40 villages not recognised by Israel, leaving them without access to many basic services, most importantly water. According to experts, about 45,000 Bedouin transport water to their homes using tankers or on animals.

Hundreds of people in Tel Arad village, for example, are completely reliant on tankers and animals to get water, making life more expensive for people who can hardly afford to buy meat on a regular basis.

"I am not connected to the water system, because they [the state] don't want [it]," said Odeh, an elderly resident, who remembers being displaced as a child.

As in other places, people keep their water in tanks on their roofs. These can rust inside and the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has expressed concern that this has unhealthy side effects, and can cause diarrhoea.

In August, about 80 percent of all Negev children hospitalised for diarrhoea are Bedouin, though they make up only 25 percent of the area's population. Unclean water, and not enough liquid in general (as they receive too little water) are blamed for the problem, according to the PHR.

Central water points

Another 40,000 people, to whom the Israeli authorities only provide collective central water points (pumping stations at specific points on main pipelines), use illegal hookups to get water to their homes. The connections can be erratic, and the pumping stations can be turned off if bills are not paid.

Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
Thousands of people use illegal hookups to get water to their homes. These can be up to six kilometres long

Sometimes we have no water, if one person in the village didn't pay their bill," explained Walid, a resident of Awajan, an unrecognised village. The collective nature of the central water points means one person's negligence or poverty can affect many other families.

However, the problems extend beyond paying debts. Some illegal water connections run for 6km from the central point, meaning that water pressure can be problematic, while the makeshift pipes are a breeding ground for bacteria, a local doctor told IRIN.

"In the summer many times there is no water. The pipe is too small and too many people are hooked up to the connection," explained Sliman, another resident. Both he and Walid end up buying expensive bottled water in the summer for their families.

According to PHR, the Regional Council for the Unrecognised Villages (RCVU) and the Water Coalition (all non-governmental organisations), of the 210 applications for central water points between 2003 and 2006, in accordance with a High Court ruling, only 30 requests were authorised.

New townships criticised

Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
Open sewage on the outskirts of an unrecognised village

Israel's official position as evidenced from recent High Court hearings is that the unrecognised villages are illegal as they were founded in violation of planning laws, though it has recognised a few in recent years. Israel would prefer residents of the unrecognised villages to move to the seven townships it has set up over the years for Bedouin, saying they can receive all services there.

Beyond the reluctance of many Bedouin to leave their homes, they also complain about what services are truly offered in the townships, as some 20,000 people there are not connected to a sewage system, according to the Water Coalition, the RCUV and based on the number of residents in townships that do not have systems.

"They have been promising us a sewage system since the 1990s," said Shahada, a resident of Laqiya township. He blamed local leaders for agreeing to let the state establish the township without a sewage system. Mansour, another resident, said he had to pay about US$140 every week to have his pit cleaned out. "We have 100 people connected to one pit and the ground can't absorb that. It smells all the time," he told IRIN.