Stipulated: Since 1967, when it occupied the Palestinian territories, Israel has been progressively robbing Palestinians of their land, thus pauperising them and stultifying their economy. A given. But what seems to have passed largely unnoticed here is the robbery of these people's water supplies, a more reprehensible crime with a more devastating impact on the quality of life in the occupied territories.
The world's most precious resource, when you get down to it, is not oil, but water. Rob a people of their water resources, or dramatically reduce their access to them, and you transform them into a community living in the manner of beasts.
The United Nations has appointed Pittsburgh the North America host for World Environment Day 2010, a series of conferences book-ended by Earth Day on April 22 and The Water Matters! Global Water Conference on June 3, the latter being the marqee event, with keynote speakers from different countries around the world and panel discussions on water-based topics, highlighting our dependence, as human communities, on water for public health, energy and economic prosperity.
It is hoped that Arab delegates to this important conference will stress to the international community that while Israel's land grabbing and colonisation practices in the West Bank are egregious enough by themselves, robbery of Palestinian water from the two main aquifers there is even more so, leaving a devastating trail of poverty, destitution and misery behind it for ordinary Palestinians under occupation.
The figures speak for themselves. In a report released last year, the World Bank found large disparities in water used between Israelis and Palestinians. Although both Palestinians and Israeli colonists share the same aquifer that runs the length of the West Bank, Palestinians have access to only a fifth of the water supply, the report said, while Israelis take the rest. In some areas of the West Bank, Palestinians survive on as little as 15 litres a person a day, which is at, or below, humanitarian disaster response levels recommended to avoid epidemic. (In Gaza, where Palestinians rely on an aquifer that has become increasingly saline and polluted, the situation is worse, for only 5 to 10 per cent of the available water is clean enough to drink.)
In prosperous countries, say in this case the US, the average American uses 100 gallons of water a day at home for cooking, drinking, bathing and washing. In Palestine, the average Israeli uses 92.5 gallons of water a day, whereas his Palestinian counterpart gets a mere 18 gallons. Worse than that — and this according to Beitseleem, the Israeli human rights group — when water is scarce, the Israeli water company Mekorot shuts the valves of the main pipelines supplying Palestinian towns and villages with water so that Israeli supplies remain unaffected.
Human face to the tragedy
Let's dispense with these abstract figures and give a human face to this tragedy. Here's part of a report posted in August last year on the website of Voice of America: "It is Wednesday at the home of the Mahmoud family in the village of Rafat, not far from [occupied] Jerusalem. This is one of the few days of the week that water flows from the taps. Family members rush to take advantage of every precious drop before the afternoon, filling plastic bags, oil drums, and pails with water for use by the 15 people in this house. Intifar Hassan, one of the women of the family, says she knows the taps will run dry by the afternoon and stay dry for several days ahead. She hurries to knead dough for the bread her family will eat all week. She says that on this day that they have water from the taps, her family bathes, does laundry, washes dishes, cooks, and flushes toilets".
In an article that appeared recently in Nation, a progressive American weekly, Fareed Taamata evoked a bemused image of this unequal division of water in his village of Qira, for whose residents it is a daily struggle to coax water out of taps: "Across the main road from Qira, deep inside the West Bank, is the Israeli [colony] of Ariel, where water is supplied to irrigate gardens, wash cars, and fill swimming pools. The water in Ariel, and other Israeli [colonies], is never cut off. Ironically, we feel lucky because we look out onto beautiful homes [in these colonies], with green yards, while Israeli [colonists] view the gloomy scene of our poor, parched community".
Water, as the very trigger for the rise and fall of civilisations in human history, has long been recognised by historians, most notably Karl August Wittfogel, whose seminal work on what he called "hydraulic cultures", along great rivers like the Nile, the Yangtze and the Ganges, continues to be read today, well over six decades after its publication.
Wittfogel's thesis may appear pedestrian at first glance, but it is relevant to a consideration of the fate that can await Palestine and the Palestinians in the not too distant future: a people with abundant access to water will prosper and move on civilisationally, whereas a people with limited access to it will wither — or emigrate.
Maybe by robbing Palestinians of their land, and then of the very water resources that God had endowed them with since time immemorial, Israel intends to do just that — see to it that Palestinians will wither away, or emigrate, into oblivion. Damn this Zionist entity with its latter day colonial designs on our homeland!
Arab delegates at The Water Matter! Global Water Conference in Pittsburgh on June 3 should be forceful in reminding the international community of Israel's criminal (yes, that is the word) water policy in Palestine.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.