DER SUDAN, WEST BANK — Each morning, Ammal Abd el-Raouf descends the rocky hillside below this village to retrieve water from a communal well, then hikes back up.
When she reaches for a handshake, her sandpapery skin feels like the palm of a man who has spent decades in hard labor.
"We have 10 little ones, and the small well in our house has enough water to fill two bottles a day," Mrs. Abd el-Raouf says. Like most other homes in this village near Ramallah, her house has no running water or sewage system. The well cannot keep up with the extended family of 25 who live under its roof.
Sometimes, the family buys purified water from an Israeli company that delivers weekly. Other times, the women make the 15-minute trek to one of two wells fed by springs and storm water. But the quality of the water at those wells is questionable.
"It's so expensive to buy clean water, so it's day to day," says Abd el-Raouf. "Sometimes we have no money, so we drink from the well whether we like it or not."
Like many Palestinians, she blames the problem on both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. But mostly she blames West Bank Jewish settlements, some of which have swimming pools.
"If there weren't settlements, of course we'd have more water," she says. "We asked them [the Israeli authorities] to bring a line here from the settlements, but they didn't. They were afraid that we would use up all their water." For other villages dependent on agriculture, the main problem is a shortage of water for crops.
Many Jewish settlements look green and lush in comparison, something Palestinians who work in them as day laborers know well. Part of the difference is due to living standards - Israelis have higher incomes that allow them to pay for as much water as their families need. But Palestinians feel they shouldn't have to pay for their water at all - and if they must, they say it wouldn't be as expensive and in such high demand if it were not for Jewish settlements built on land Israel gained in the 1967 war.
More problems await. Many places in the West Bank have no treatment facilities for waste water - or even catch basins for storm water. During the winter rainy season, the backup well in the valley at the bottom of Der Sudan overflows. With no mechanism to preserve the water for the dry summer, a steady rush of water spills out onto the ground.
In most West Bank municipal water systems, according to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), about 50 percent of the water is "lost or unaccounted for." In the teeming Gaza Strip, home to a million Palestinians, years of overworking the water table has caused seawater to seep in, raising salinity. Meanwhile, 12,000 to 14,000 cubic yards of raw effluent from Gaza are discharged into the Mediterranean each day.
Israel is not immune from water-shortage worries. Its main source of fresh water, the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee, is extremely limited. A key source of that water is in the Golan Heights, a crucial reason many Israelis are against returning the territory they conquered in 1967 to Syria.
A new report from the Technion University in Haifa predicts that by 2010, groundwater pumping will use 50 percent of the total available water supply in Israel and the Occupied Territories, leading to a collapse of the underground water ecosystem and increasing the possibility of consecutive drought years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees this as a vital issue, and often tells European nations who want a bigger role in the peace process that water - and other economic issues - is where they could be most helpful.
US officials are also trying to mitigate the water problem. At a cost of $265 million, USAID has a four-pronged program: assistance to the Palestinian Water Authority to develop new supplies and better systems in the West Bank and Gaza; a Gaza Wastewater Project to repair or replace sewers and fix the storm-water system in Gaza City; a Neighborhood Upgrading Program to improve deteriorated water in five of Gaza's poorest neighborhoods; and a Household Water Delivery Systems project to provide water services to more than 60,000 Palestinians.
But, in the long term, either saltwater will have to be made drinkable, or water will have to be brought in. Both prospects are costly.
"There is not enough water in the ground to supply the people who live here over time," says Christopher Crowley, mission director of USAID for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "One way or another, new supplies will have to be brought in from the outside."