Creating people's geographies
By Richard Harth
Thirsty in New Orleans
On Sunday, August 29th of last year, the hurricane we’d been watching metastasize in the Gulf of Mexico crossed from sea to land, disfiguring and permanently altering the city of New Orleans. Our beloved and often backward backwater became instant front page news across the country, in Europe and nearly everyplace else–a 9/11-style catastrophe (in truth, much larger in scale) that was soon on everyone’s lips.
It was unthinkable that a modern city could simply drop off the radar like a doomed passenger jet, but soon enough, we were alone, incommunicado; the accessories of modernity-radios, television, cooling systems to protect us from suffocating heat, street lamps to illuminate the increasingly terrifying nights, put to ruin in a few short hours. On Poydras Avenue near the Louisiana Superdome, the sky seemed spray-painted with stars. It was the first time in 100 years they were visible above the extinguished city.
In the Central Business District, the so-called social contract was unraveling. Guns were drawn, unattended fires raged, and panic seized a citizenry abandoned to its fate and severed from all sources of news other than circulating rumors and generalized dread. Meanwhile, in the suburb of Old Metairie, an otherworldly calm prevailed. I floated through the submerged neighborhoods in a boat that had plucked me out of chest-high floodwaters. A mélange of chemicals and gasoline left an iridescent sheen on the surface, above which dragonflies danced in the heat. The smell was uniquely repulsive.
We wouldn’t learn of the hair-raising mismanagement of the crisis for weeks-neither about Brownie’s heck of a job, Bush’s operatic Jackson Square farce or the convoys of ice trucks crisscrossing the nation with their chilled cargo only to languish in Carthage, Missouri or Montgomery, Alabama, finally completing their futile trek in Maine (yes, Maine); a frozen odyssey worthy of Garcia Marquez.
By Wednesday after the storm, conditions were turning dire for the fortunate among us, having long since turned life-threatening or lethal for the less-than-fortunate, generally, the working poor, baking on rooftops awaiting rescue or confined in the claustrophobic torture chamber known as the Louisiana Superdome, which had been transformed from crisis shelter to makeshift prison for the city’s untouchables, surrounded by a phalanx of armed National Guard.
I remember the marshals standing on the median along Canal Street, their pump shotguns pointed uselessly skyward as goods of every description were being dragged from the smashed shop windows into the waist high muck. I remember a CNN correspondent urging me to eat and drink whatever was available because “you’re not getting out of here anytime soon.” Apart from the chaos, I mostly remember the thirst.the anxiety about water. It was our Gaza moment.
The suffering in Israel’s Occupied Territories, however, is not the result of mismanagement or indifference. Instead, it is the consequence of premeditated, often cruelly ingenious strategies to strip an oppressed population of cropland, housing, security, education, basic services, medical care, freedom of movement, functioning government, olive groves, citrus trees, nightly sleepand water.
As with so much else in the Palestinian tragedy, the already lopsided balance of power regarding water resources tipped decidedly against the Palestinians following Israel’s lightning victory of June,1967. The region’s three primary water sources consist of the Jordan River, and two large aquifers, the Mountain Aquifer of the West Bank and the Coastal Aquifer, extending northward from the Gaza Strip.
Prior to the Six Day War, Israeli land encompassed only three percent of the Jordan River Basin, though in 1964, the enterprising state had already constructed an elaborate conveyance network of canals, pumping stations, reservoirs and pipelines, integrating them into a national water system which diverted 75 percent of the Jordan’s flow for Israel’s use. After the 1967 War, Israel claimed full control of the Jordan’s headwaters. While Israel shares some of the flow with Jordan and Syria, the Palestinians are forbidden any water from the river, forcing them to rely on groundwater pumped from aquifers and springs or delivered, often sporadically, by truck.
Unfortunately, while 83 percent of Palestine’s groundwater sources are recharged by rainwater within the borders of the West Bank, only 19 percent of this water is available to the Palestinians, due to transparently inequitable arrangements symptomatic of Israel’s racist occupation.
After 1967, Israel also exerted dominion over new groundwater resources, diverting these for Israel’s exclusive use, either within the Jewish state or to serve illegal settlements (including the Eastern Aquifer, whose boundaries are entirely within Palestinian Occupied Territory).
Israel at once seized the opportunity of military occupation to bypass demands for equitable sharing of water resources, as mandated under international law. This feat was accomplished through a series of military orders designed with two purposes in mind: 1) to secure the maximum water available to fuel the economic growth and profligate water habits of Israel and its illegal settlements beyond the Green Line and 2) to deprive the Palestinians of vital water resources, essentially, an ethnic cleansing by other means, two decades after Israel’s forced expulsion of 750,000-800,000 Palestinians in the Nakba of 1948.
A review of these military orders makes for chilling reading. Military Order # 291 for example, entitled Concerning the Settlement of Disputes over Titles in Land and the Regulation of Water, underlines Israel’s non-negotiable stranglehold on a resource essential to life, declaring null and void any previous laws or agreements concerning water rights and transferring control to Israeli discretion.
The military orders, while having no legitimacy under International law, have nonetheless had the effect on the ground of denying Palestinians all right of equitable distribution as well as the means to exploit new resources to serve a growing population under acute stress. The tactic has served Israel’s Judeo-supremacist ethos well, causing severe hardship to Arab communities under Israeli occupation, while ensuring unlimited running water to Israelis within the Jewish state’s borders as well as in the West Bank’s expanding settlement blocks, where Hebraic overlords splash contentedly in their swimming pools.
A plastic olive branch was extended in 1993 with Israel’s signing of the Oslo Accords, including their vague reference to “Cooperation in the field of water.” The Interim Agreement of 1995, however, spelled out what such “cooperation” amounted to, from the Israeli perspective. Far from offering the Palestinians relief for their increasingly desperate water situation, the Interim Agreement acted to legally solidify Palestinian water impoverishment, declaring that there could be no reduction in Israel’s exploitation of the West Bank aquifers, so that any additional water required for the Palestinian people would have to come from new sources, specifically, new wells. By means of military dictates, intimidation, land confiscation and a byzantine bureaucratic system to obtain well permits, the Israelis effectively closed this option as well, leaving the Palestinians of Gaza with less water than they had in 1947 and the rest of the Palestinians with a grossly inadequate water supply of ever-declining quality.
Adding insult to injury, Israel’s separation wall conveniently meanders east of the Green Line, incorporating and annexing some of the most important wellsprings of the West Bank. As the human rights group If They Knew reports:
In the West Bank, around 50 groundwater wells and over 200 cisterns have been destroyed or isolated from their owners by the Wall. This water was used for domestic and agricultural needs by over 122,000 people. To build the Wall, 25 wells and cisterns and 35,000 meters of water pipes have also been destroyed.
Contrary to international law, (as well as the stipulations of Oslo), Israel refuses to treat the West Bank and Gaza as portions of the same territory entitled to a just sharing of water. This shortchanges Gaza from any water from the West Bank Mountain Aquifer, (three quarters of which is pumped instead to supply Israel’s needs), making the water-starved Gazans dependent on the Coastal Aquifer. Ninety percent of the Coastal Aquifer’s water is non-potable and drastic overpumping is further degrading it. It should be noted that non-potable means the water isn’t suitable for drinking. It doesn’t mean the Palestinians don’t drink it. In fact, they have no choice.
Through the metering of Palestinian wells, Israel imposes strict quotas and exorbitant fines for Palestinian “overuse.” In truth, Palestinians are kept on a starvation diet in terms of water, with an average per person daily consumption of 70 liters per day in the West Bank (with many inhabitants receiving a fraction of this), and a dismal 13 liters per day Gaza (about five percent of the average for Israelis), despite the World Health Organization’s minimum daily requirement for human health of 100 liters per day. The consequences for hygiene and health are severe, with dehydration and widespread skin ailments joining various water-borne diseases ravaging the population.
The Gaza aquifer suffers from the intrusion of sea water as well as pollution from sewage, partly due to non-maintenance of infrastructure (another Israeli responsibility under International law). Salt has rendered this water unsuitable for irrigation, with disastrous consequences to Palestinian subsistence and economy. The health effects of ingesting this water have been predictably grim, the international community’s response, predictably lackadaisical. Dysentery and hypertension (caused by salinity) are prevalent. Eighty percent of the children in some areas test positive for one or more parasitic infestations. Kidney failure caused by dehydration is common, as is anemia, likely caused by nitrate levels (present at 13 times the World Health Organization’s safety levels), due to sewage and agricultural chemicals leaching into the aquifer. Much of this pollution comes from Israel’s habit of using Palestinian lands as a dumpsite for its waste.
These shameful conditions have persisted without relief throughout the Occupied Territories for decades prior to June 28th, 2006, when Israel’s latest military offensive demolished Gaza’s electrical plant, carrying the longstanding practice of collective punishment to new summits of barbarity. Dr. Virginia Tilley, professor of political science, writes of the latest crisis. Her description deserves quotation at length:
No lights, no refrigerators, no fans through the suffocating Gaza summer heat. No going outside for air, due to ongoing bombing and Israel’s impending military assault. In the hot darkness, massive explosions shake the cities, close and far, while repeated sonic booms are doubtless wreaking the havoc they have wrought before: smashing windows, sending children screaming into the arms of terrified adults, old people collapsing with heart failure, pregnant women collapsing with spontaneous abortions. Mass terror, despair, desperate hoarding of food and water. And no radios, television, cell phones, or laptops (for the few who have them), and so no way to get news of how long this nightmare might go on.
In other words, New Orleans times a thousand.
Deprivation of water has proven one of the most effective means of crushing Palestinian society, consigning an entire people to perpetual desperation. Having reduced Palestinians to a crippled state, Israel lately appears determined to unplug remaining life support. Appeals to international law, insistence on water as a fundamental human right, the (pathetically muted) outcry of the international community, the endless recitation of deplorable health statistics (particularly concerning those most vulnerable, Palestinian children), have done little to alleviate the anguish of the victims. Or their thirst. We must continue to speak out on their behalf and redouble our efforts to secure for them the things we take for granted.
In the meantime, Palestinians continue to subsist on their dwindling supply of poisoned water, many staring gloomily from Red Cross tents toward the remnants of bulldozed and dynamited homes, some 12,000 and counting, since 1967. As The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, BT’Selem reports:
Gaza Hospitals have reduced their activities to life-saving procedures. Since the bombing of the power plant, Gaza’s water utility has been dumping 60,000 cubic meters of raw sewage into the sea each day, for lack of power and equipment to run the treatment plants, and there is concern that untreated sewage will [further] pollute the aquifer or spill into the streets.
A few unresigned youths still turn out in Hebron, in the squalid streets of Khan Younis, to confront the tanks and gargantuan D9 bulldozers with gathered stones. From the Gaza border, primitive missiles are now and again launched in the general direction of the oppressor, an omnipotent state boasting the fourth most powerful military on earth, bristling with leading-edge weapons and backed without restriction by the United States. Defiance, whether in the form of peaceful protest or ineffectual militancy, is enough to mark the Palestinian people, their malnourished children, their brutalized society pounded into wreckage, as a serious menace to the civilized world.
I was one of the lucky ones following Hurricane Katrina. I never ran out of fresh water to drink, even as conditions here fell into anarchy. But I rationed the supply I had with me, taking abbreviated gulps of warm water that failed to quench, uncertain what the coming days would bring. Today I raise a glass to those in the Occupied Territories, consider their fate, and count my blessings.
Richard Harth is a writer living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: [email protected]