As an undergraduate history major, Stephanie Galaitsi developed a deep interest in the Middle East. While studying for her M.S. in water resources engineering, with the support of SEI Senior Scientist Annette Huber-Lee, one of her professors, she spent two summers conducting her thesis research in Palestine. There she worked with the Palestinian Water Authority to survey households, and analysed the results together with data from remote sensing.

The work has now been published in the journal Water International . Galaitsi answered questions about her field research and analysis.

Q: How do people on the Palestinian West Bank get their water?
SG: Water access in the West Bank is location-dependent, and there are huge variations. The most secure supply is your own water, a cistern. These collect rain water during the winter, and some families I interviewed had enough capacity that they could use the cistern water all year. Other families depended on municipal water, which is almost universally intermittent, especially during the summer. The intermittency has a lot to do with politics, unfortunately. And some families bought water from tanker trucks. Some families bought tanker water as supplemental water; others used it as their entire water supply.

Q: How much water insecurity do these people face?
SG: Water insecurity also varies by location, but I would say that everyone in Palestine faces some sort of water insecurity. I say “water insecurity” to denote that you harbour some fears that your water access will be insufficient or undependable. Even the people with cisterns aren’t totally water-secure, because there have been instances of the Israeli army destroying cisterns. Talking about water insecurity in the West Bank often means talking about the occupation.

Q: How does water insecurity alter people’s water consumption?
SG: Water insecurity is one of several factors I found impacting water demand. The one I set out to investigate was price elasticity [the extent to which demand is affected by prices]. Normally, the more expensive water is, the less you would buy. However, the more insecure you are, the more water you buy. There are a lot of documented reasons for this – stored water becomes contaminated, people leave taps on in their tanks because they’re not sure when the water will come. But I think the notion of insecurity is inherently tied to overcompensation. If you feel like you can’t get what you need, you’ll take all you can get.

Q: From a modelling perspective, how big a difference does it make to include water insecurity as a variable in predicting demand?
SG: Without getting into the statistical explanation, including water insecurity as a variable improved the prediction power of my model, and it also allowed price to be a determining variable of water demand. Without the water insecurity variable, the relationship between price and water demand was not strong, and not informative – and the goal of the work had been to find price elasticity. So even though the insecurity variable itself has a small magnitude of elasticity, it allows my model to work.

Q: What lessons does this work provide that could be further built on in research on Palestine, and more broadly around the world?
SG: My small-scale conclusion is that you can provide people a better quality of life while possibly even saving resources, if they have reliable water access. The Sustainable Development Goals refer to reliable electricity, but for water, they only talk about access. It’s not enough. Right now I’m working with professors at Tufts to study the negative feedback loop of intermittent domestic water access.

My large-scale conclusion is that governance, psychology, perceptions of power, respect and human dignity have to be incorporated into studies about behaviour. I wanted to study the relationship between price and water demand, and I learned I couldn’t do it, not well, without incorporating the political factors that could break that relationship down.

Q: How do you solve the problem of water insecurity?
SG: It is not easy. The roots aren’t just political, but have to do with over-population, with climate change, and with the priorities of funders, who can be more interested in expanding poor networks than improving them. And I’m not even prepared to say that that’s wrong. But we need to prioritize both coverage and reliability if we want people to live well.

Read the journal article (external link)