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Analysis: The ‘apolitical’ approach to Palestine’s water crisis (Part III)

Aug. 2, 2017 12:55 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 2, 2017 2:14 P.M.)
Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law. This is the third of a three-part analysis on water rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, written by Al-Shabaka policy member Muna Dajani. The first part was published on Ma’an News on Monday, and the second section was published on Tuesday. The full report can be read here.

The elision of Palestinians from infrastructure, technology, and scientific collaboration

With the Israeli occupation imposing military laws on the access and control of essential resources such as water, as well as tightening imports of basic fuel and energy sources, the Palestinian Authority has not developed substantial infrastructural development in the water sector for decades, especially in Area C, which constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank. The occupation’s “civil administration” has the power to veto all infrastructure projects in Area C, with an acceptance rate of only 1.5 percent between 2010 and 2014. Most large water projects have been frozen due to Israel’s condition of connecting settlements to such projects, whose funds come from donor agencies to the Palestinian people. Area C therefore remains a site of de-development and is framed by the international community as a space of humanitarian intervention only.

Moreover, the international community’s close collaboration with and admiration of Israel’s water technology remains unconstrained and blind to the de-development and sanctioning of the Palestinian water sector. Recently, the EU rated Jerusalem -- occupied by Israel in violation of international law -- as one of the top five cities in the world for water efficiency, management, and innovation. This congratulates an occupation regime for its work in a city where 36 percent of its Palestinian residents are not even connected to the Israeli water infrastructure and where discriminatory policies are implemented in order to empty the metropolis of Palestinian inhabitants.

In 2012, the European Commission and the Israeli Ministry of Energy and Water Resources signed a five-year memorandum of understanding to strengthen scientific cooperation, especially in the field of water desalination and energy. The British government is also pursuing such collaboration with Israel. It recently launched two platforms that entail such initiatives as placing Palestinian graduate students in Israeli laboratories to build partnerships and “solve serious water shortage and quality issues.” Apart from the business-as-usual stance toward an occupying force, the approach is problematic in that it seeks to normalize the occupation given that investment in scientific excellence is not considered for Palestinian universities and research institutions. Rather, all work benefits the institutions of the occupier.

One seeming exception to this trend is through the UK’s Department for International Development, which supplied $1.6 million to help vulnerable rural farmers in Area C of the West Bank, mainly Bedouin herders, support their families due to the increased cost of agricultural production. The program has allowed the farmers to rehabilitate water cisterns, and has provided approximately 20 miles of water conveyance systems; these developments have improved irrigation efficiency. Cisterns, however, have limited storage capacity (70 cubic meters/year) and rely on harvesting rainwater. As such, their rehabilitation only alleviates, rather than helps to solve, the occupation’s imposed water shortage, and in a broader sense weakens Palestinian efforts to achieve an equitable share of resources by limiting more empowering water development to small-scale solutions.

In sum, donors have continued a business-as-usual approach that normalizes the occupation, engaging with and funding research and scientific collaboration with Israel and investing millions of dollars in water infrastructure development commandeered by Israel. Donors are even rehabilitating or rebuilding infrastructure that Israeli forces destroy. Donors’ complicity in these destructive mechanisms contributes to Palestinian complacency and dependency, as well as an overall de-development of the Palestinian water sector. An overwhelming apoliticization of water issues impedes the Palestinian quest for the right to self-determination.

The struggle for Palestinian control over water: ways forward

While the water situation may look bleak for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are a number of strategies that Palestinians and their allies are undertaking -- and can develop further -- to reveal the political, man-made nature of water inequality in the OPT and push for just solutions to the crisis:

  • Highlight how the donor-led water sector development approach is distracting at best, and harmful to Palestinian dignity, independence, and overall success in reclaiming water rights at worst. This will require campaigns and programs that enhance awareness of the politics of water and demand donor accountability to ensure Palestinian water rights are met within the Palestinian agenda, namely through addressing Israel’s rights violations and occupation.
  • Demand that donor-funded water sector development projects follow a comprehensive and territorial contingency plan throughout the OPT. Such projects should ensure that development -- not humanitarian aid -- programs are implemented in a participatory and transparent matter so that water rights are made a top priority.
  • Strengthen Palestinian research institutions and universities as hubs of knowledge on natural resource politics and management, where appropriate technologies and applied research are produced to reflect the political, social, economic, and cultural facets of natural resource management under occupation, and develop a robust technical niche of Palestinian water experts and engineers to support local, community-led mobilization.
  • Demand greater transparency of PA authorities to ensure they protect the Palestinian right to natural resources by strengthening and actively joining both local and international water rights campaigns and providing a strong platform for civil society organizations to represent Palestinian water injustice nationally and internationally.
  • Build alliances with international and transnational movements to further expose Israeli water rights violations and develop a global action campaign with indigenous communities that actively oppose large-scale extractive industries and states.
  • Finally, underpinning all the above, it is vital to reintroduce and reframe the struggle over access to and control of natural resources as part of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and freedom.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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