With the Middle East experiencing one of the hottest summers on record, severe droughts have been recorded in a number of areas -- nowhere more severe than the West Bank city of Hebron. Some Palestinians say it is because Israel controls all the water resources, but others blame it on unscrupulous Palestinian businessmen.
Water splashes out of a truck onto a dusty Hebron street, and passersby stop and gawk. Several people reach down to get a handful and wash their faces. Water, after all, has become a precious commodity here.
For more than month, the city of Hebron has been running dry -- roughly 70 percent of its residents have received no water for five weeks, municipal officials say.
"There is a water crisis in Hebron like we've never seen," says Rubin el-Atash, head of the Hebron Municipal Water Department. "There is no water. The municipality is desperate, but what can we do?"
Atash is standing outside the city fire department, watching firemen sell water from their reserve storage tanks to private companies. Those companies turn around and sell it at five or six times the price to desperate residents.
His chief engineer, Imad Azier, says that it's not the first time Hebron has scrambled for water.
"Even though this problem recurs every summer, this year has been the worst, because the Israelis, they control everything, including our water," Azier says.
Atash says the water shortage stems from unfair distribution by the Israelis. The main source of water in the area is the Mountain aquifer, an underground basin that lies largely under the West Bank. But Israel uses about 80 percent of the aquifer, while Palestinians receive about 20 percent, according to figures published on Israel's Water Authority website.
Because the water lies under the ground that Palestinians feel is earmarked for their future state, the issue is likely to figure prominently in the peace talks that have just gotten under way.
The Israel Water Authority did not answer requests from NPR for additional information, but a 2009 document published on its website said that the Palestinians allowed illegal pirate connections to the water supply -- and that helped provoke the severe shortages in Hebron.
But many in Hebron don't care who is to blame. They just want to see the problem solved.
Samir Azzadine El Bakri said he hasn't had water in his home for almost five weeks.
"Water has become a black-market commodity," Bakri says. "To get water to my house, I had to pull every string I had in the Palestinian Authority."
Standing outside the water department headquarters in Hebron, Bakri waves slips of paper at local officials. They are receipts for the water he has purchased, most of which won't be delivered for another month.
He has been forced to buy from a private company, he says. He's paying more than $30 -- five times the amount he would normally pay for 5 cubic meters of water to be delivered the same day.
"We are desperate," he says. "We have been paying large taxes and fines. We are happy to pay to empower the Palestinian Authority, but we are getting no services in return. Instead, corrupt private companies take advantage."
Returning to his home in the sprawling hills of Hebron, Bakri's six children rush out to greet him. He also supports his older brother, who is paralyzed, and his brother's family.
He says he can afford to support his extended family and provide some extra water for his neighbors, but the expenses are drawing down his savings. Outside his home, he points to the six plastic tanks he had installed last year to provide water for the house.
Each one echoes hollow.