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Michelle Chen: A Deluge of Sewage in Palestine, but Still No Water

December 18, 2013

When a natural resource becomes a weapon of war.

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Image by Peter Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons

By Michelle Chen

We measure the devastation of war in the number of homes, people, and governments it destroys, but the ecological scars left behind by conflict are often the less visible tragedy in contested territories. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the struggle over the region’s water shows how a natural resource can become a weapon of war. As the aquatic analog to the border wall, the water tensions surrounding the occupied territories reveal the scope of the occupation’s human and environmental impacts.

The Gaza Strip is perhaps the most spectacular illustration of the water crisis. Sewage has been washing over the streets of Gaza since the start of November—the result of a massive electricity outage and subsequent breakdown of a wastewater treatment facility, which in turn are byproducts of a fuel shortage created by a blockade at the border with Egypt. Isolated Gaza neighborhoods have long relied on resources funneled through the Rafah border’s intricate network of underground smuggling tunnels, but Egyptian authorities’ crackdown has intensified local fuel scarcities.

This chaotic scene—now aggravated by the torrents of ferocious winter storms—is just the latest escalation of a long-term water crisis, with much of the Palestinian population suffering constant shortages of clean water. According to United Nations monitors, approximately 90 percent of the water from Gaza’s coastal aquifer, the region’s main water source, is “unfit for human consumption as a result of pollution caused by raw sewage and rising seawater infiltration.”

For Palestinians, water scarcity is as much a political dilemma, deliberately built into the structure of the occupation, as it is an environmental crisis.

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian communities of the West Bank, water scarcity can also be traced to a more insidious resource struggle over the Jordan River Basin, a key source of freshwater. The Jordan’s watershed—which touches the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel—has steadily deteriorated over the past half century. According to researchers, waste dumping has caused heavy damage, as has the diversion of water that favors Israeli settlements over the Palestinian territories.

For Palestinians, water scarcity is as much a political dilemma, deliberately built into the structure of the occupation, as it is an environmental crisis. Israel has long exerted fierce control over freshwater resources through a nominally cooperative management system, the Israel-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, that effectively enforces unequal water access. While settlements flourish, the Palestinian territories are systematically deprived of water. At the same time, the exhausted watershed system, along with the fragile environment and agricultural landscape of the Jordan River Basin, are saddled with crumbling infrastructure and pollution dumping.

The entire region has become a casualty of conflict. Media reports in recent years have described holy pilgrimage sites marred by sewage. Paradoxically, while the region divides sharply along nationalist lines, the collective flow of filth pools together sewage and saline water dumped by Israel with waste from Jordanian and Palestinian villages. The governments of Jordan and Israel have initiated some remediation plans for the pollution, but the fate of the region’s fresh water supplies remains firmly under Israel’s grip.

This systemic, politicized resource scarcity makes it a struggle for colonized communities just to survive day-to-day, much less pursue long-term sustainable development.

In the Occupied Territories, the Israel-Palestinian Joint Water Committee was established initially as a temporary arrangement for riparian management in 1995. But it continues to administer what activists call a system of “water apartheid” across a patchwork of subdivisions. As it currently operates, the system undermines any potential for economic or environmental self-sufficiency on the Palestinian side. United Nations authorities estimate that some 300,000 Palestinians in the West Bank are “vulnerable to water scarcity.” In Israel, per capita water consumption was several times greater than in the West Bank. With the vast majority of the West Bank’s water resources under Israeli control, residents must often rely on privatized water sales, which means struggling households are often beholden to corporations that deliver water services at exorbitant prices, aggravating the burden on distressed neighborhood infrastructures. And while besieged by encroaching Israeli settlements, Palestinian farmers watch their crops wither due to a lack of irrigation, thus deepening the economic devastation of occupation.

Ultimately, this systemic, politicized resource scarcity makes it a struggle for colonized communities just to survive day-to-day, much less pursue long-term sustainable development. In a recent analysis of the region’s water politics, international relations scholar Jan Selby called Israel’s grip on Palestinians’ water access “both illegal under international law and one of the major impediments to Palestinian statehood.”

For the Palestinian communities mired in parched farmlands and sewage-clogged streets, water deprivation continues to aggravate the chronic pain of an overarching humanitarian crisis.

The Jordan River crisis is at its core a political issue, but also reflects a pattern of environmental erosion across the Middle East, which is exacerbated by political boundaries and tensions over shared resources. Earlier this year, a U.S.-led research team published a satellite-data analysis showing massive degradation of groundwater resources across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In a field report, hydrologist Jay Famiglietti wrote that the amount of regional water loss over a seven-year period was “equivalent in volume to the Dead Sea.” An underlying problem was that “the international policy and legal framework is simply not in place to ensure peaceable water management capable of circumnavigating the complexities of the 21st century water landscape.”

Lately, environmental groups and officials in the region have signaled an interest in dealing with depletion of the riparian habitat, but not without controversy. For example, earlier this year, through a joint rehabilitation program for polluted lands, Israel began releasing a small amount of fresh water from the Sea of Galilee into the Lower Jordan River, somewhat alleviating a decades-long blockade. Still, the small scale of the plan, with water flowing at just a fraction of the overall volume needed to really replenish the river, has come under criticism from international water experts and environmental groups.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has proposed a plan to restore water resources through linking the Red Sea and the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea, and to distribute desalinated Dead Sea water to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. But the scheme faces intense criticism following environmental assessments that reveal it might, in fact, significantly worsen the very environment it claims to be restoring. And while the project was touted as a collaborative effort of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, some Palestinian NGOs protested that the scheme failed to deal with the core issue of the unequal water-sharing system imposed on Palestinians.

For the Palestinian communities mired in parched farmlands and sewage-clogged streets, water deprivation continues to aggravate the chronic pain of an overarching humanitarian crisis.

The ruination of Middle East’s ancient waterways may seem like just a ripple effect of occupation. But distorting the ecology of a contested land is actually part and parcel of the dehumanization of its inhabitants.

Michelle Chen is a Contributing Editor at In These Times and an Associate Editor at CultureStrike, and studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

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2 comments for Michelle Chen: A Deluge of Sewage in Palestine, but Still No Water

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on December 18, 2013 at 9:40 am

    I would suggest that your readers take a look at the other side of the story and decide for themselves where the truth lies.

    http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Palestinian-lies-like-water-319582

  2. Comment by Kate Bates on December 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” …from Ancient Mariner if I recall correctly.
    The other problem not mentioned is Israels plans to block the Nile from Ethiopia, Somalia, before it reaches Egypt.
    This is cunning ploy to control Middle East water and the zionists are behind this.
    I do not believe their (zionists’ lies) about national security; this is a clever strategy that must be defeated. Who controls water distribution controls life itself. I do not want my or anyone else’s destiny controlled by rabid, aggresive occupation and aforementioned apartheid-minded radicals.

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