Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Water as resistance

There seems to be a general thread across different aspects of the Palestinian ‘development’ domain. This was brought home to me at yesterday’s workshop, hosted by Birzeit’s International Studies department, on water resources and management. There were a couple of interesting presentations about the situation facing the Palestinians. Indeed the most interesting were those that had a political edge and which, in the words of the rapporteur, focused on how to break the constraints posed by the occupation as opposed to working within them (the latter was addressed in a couple of presentations on intergrated water resources management and the waste water strategy).

Shaddad Attilli, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority, started proceedings and acknowledged from the start that he is effectively Palestine’s ‘virtual water minister’. What became a constant theme in his and others’ presentations was the extent to which the Palestinians have no control over their water resources. Central to this problem is the formal mechanism in place: the Joint Water Committee (JWC) established under Oslo 2. This requires Israelis and Palestinians to reach a consensus for water-related projects to be passed, whether they be wells, desalination, cisterns, pumping, pipelines, etc. However, the Israelis effectively have veto power over the JWC, since they can reject any Palestinian-focused project if they like. Attilli said that the situation is also compounded by the fact that donors tend to grant money to those projects that the JWC approves and not to others.

The University of Sussex’s Jan Selby set three ways for thinking about water resources and management: between dependence (where Palestinians are reliant on external actors like Israel and the donors – the current situation), independence (where Palestinians would not be limited by external donors) and inter-dependence (where Palestinians and Israelis would be subject to others – but also able to impose on others as well). The situation is likely to deteriorate if there is no change but that to achieve an inter-dependent relationship is going to require policymakers to be especially activist in their approach, whether that discussion starts now or in the final status talks – which water has tended to be relegated to. This would also mean going against the Palestinian approach until now, which has included them acquiescing in their own domination by Israel, by approving water infrastructure to Israel’s West Bank settlements on the JWC – a necessary quid pro quo if they are to gain Israeli approval for their own projects (although some have taken more than a decade and a half to be approved).

Clemens Messerschmid, an independent researcher and hydrologist, presented some policy options for the Palestinians. He noted that the cheaper cost of drilling more wells is being largely avoided, as this challenges the occupation (the Israelis are unlikely to approve Palestinian drilling). Instead the PWA and donors are focusing on more expensive measures, kike network lost reduction, waste water reuse, cisterns, etc. He said that these tended these priorities targeted ‘marginal water’, which only manages the current situation rather than confronting the primary problem: the occupation.

Clemens also mentioned that while the pursuit of independence – or inter-dependence – is feasible in the West Bank, Gaza is another case. He said we need to get out of the mindset of seeing Gaza as a country and see it as a city. Moreover, no city is capable of being completely independent in its water resources and management, so there is therefore a need to think about relocating wells and transferring water to the enclave.

Of the discussants I was especially struck by Fuad Bateh’s comments. An independent researcher, Fuad took a very forthright position and demanded that Palestinians start thinking about the hard choices they face. Palestinians do not have sufficient water resources and are dependent on Israel and the donors. Are Palestinians ready to reject the donors’ agenda though? Are they prepared to continue buying water from the Israelis? (Ramallah itself is completely supplied by Israel’s water carrier). Fuad felt that in the case of Gaza a moral case could be made in the short-term for this to happen, given the lack of resources there. However, his central message was that Palestinians cannot leave the issue of water to the leadership in their negotiations with the Israelis. Water has not been seen as a priority in the leadership’s eyes, making it essential that Palestinians become more active and vocal in order to push the leadership to take their concerns onboard. He said that Palestinians needed to see water resources and management issues as a form of resistance and noted the pressure being imposed on Palestinian society by its dependency: the failure to have access to water is forcing people out of Area C into the urban areas and people in the towns to go abroad – which all contributes to Israel’s growing control of the West Bank.

In sum then, the thrust of this political side of the workshop suggests that Palestinians have to become more active in their approach to water. It may well mean rejecting particular projects which could alleviate pressure and growing demand. In addition there was discussion about what legal strategies might be employed to oblige Israel to sanction Palestinian water-related projects (Fuad had suggested that the PWA could do with a lot more lawyers in it than engineers). What was also interesting was an observation that Israel is sensitive to international criticism, such as that spelled out in a World Bank report a few years ago regarding the denial of water supplies to Palestinians. As a result, they were prompted to approve several projects in the JWC that they might otherwise have opposed. This therefore raises the question of why Israel is so sensitive (especially given its quite robust opposition to Palestinian statehood in the face of world opinion at the UN) and if this really is the case, what more could be done in this regard?

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