Sunday, June 1, 2008

Water wells and water wars

A few hot, dry days ago, on the edge of Nablus and across the street from the entrance to Balata Refugee camp, I lifted a tin cup to my lips to drink cool water from a well said to be 3,700 years old. The forty meter-deep well is in the crypt of a church that rests upon earlier churches going back to the 4th century. It’s called Jacob’s Well (cf. Gen 33:18-20; Jn 4:12). Gentle Jamal will let you draw water for yourself with a rope and bucket. The usual tourist kitsch—icons, crucifixes and postcards—clutters a nearby table, but there is something undeniably magical about connecting to a place featured in both Genesis and John’s Gospel.

All sides of the Israel / Palestine conflict agree that water access and availability is a major flashpoint. Elena Hansteensen, a Humanitarian Officer in the Nablus OCHA office (United Nations – Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), contends that the locations of major Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been clearly chosen to guarantee access to the aquifers in the Palestinian hill country. An OCHA report details the inequity of water distribution in the region.

“Israeli per capita water consumption is more than five times higher than that of West Bank Palestinians (350 litres per person per day in Israel compared to 60 litres per person per day in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem). West Bank Palestinian water consumption is 40 litres less than the minimum global standards set by the World Health Organization.” (The Humanitarian Impact on Palestinians of Israeli Settlements and other Infrastructure in the West Bank, UNOCHA, July 2007, 114.)

A similar picture emerges in a report by BT’selem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories:

The discrimination in utilization of the resources shared by Israel and the Palestinian Authority is clearly seen in the figures on water consumption by the two populations. Per capita water consumption in the West Bank for domestic, urban, and industrial use is only 22 cubic meters a year, which translates into 60 liters per person per day.

There is a huge gap between Israeli and Palestinian consumption. The average Israeli consumes for domestic and urban use approximately 104 cubic meters a year, or 280 liters per person per day. In other words, per capita use in Israel is four and a half times higher than in the Occupied Territories. To make a more precise comparison, by also taking into account industrial water consumption in Israel, per capita use per year reaches 120 cubic meters—330 liters per person a day—or five and a half times Palestinian per capita consumption.

The World Health Organization and the United States Agency for International Development recommend 100 liters of water per person per day as the minimum quantity for basic consumption. This amount includes, in addition to domestic use, consumption in hospitals, schools, businesses, and other public institutions. Palestinian daily consumption is 40 percent less than the recommended quantity.

One front in the Water Wars might come as a surprise:

“For residents of the Occupied Territories, the primary result of the change in the law and transfer of powers over the water sector to Israeli bodies [at the beginning of the Occupation] was the drastic restriction on drilling new wells to meet their water needs. According to military orders, drilling a well required obtaining a permit, which entailed a lengthy and complicated bureaucratic process. The vast majority of applications submitted during the occupation were denied.”

I learned more about this curious state of affairs when I spent Friday with Nasser Abufarha, the Chair of the Palestine Fair Trade Association and the Director of Canaan Fair Trade based in Jenin. An anthropologist-entrepreneur-scholar-humanitarian (Google him some time), Nasser described to me the Israeli policy that forbids Palestinians from digging new wells when old ones run dry. Palestinians are forced, he said, to hide their new wells (e.g., under houses) and to dig them at night. Meanwhile the Israelis conduct aerial surveillance, fill newly-discovered, “illegal” wells with concrete, and restrict the amount Palestinians can draw from “legal” wells by placing regulators on them. To my surprise, Nasser does not believe that these draconian measures are driven by a fundamental water shortage in the region. Rather, he claims, water restrictions are one element of Israel’s systematic campaign to make life difficult for the Palestinians—difficult enough that they’ll want to leave.

I’m hardly qualified to opine on the politics of regional hydrology. But I can say that the water infrastructure in Palestine is woefully inadequate. I passed through a village in the north yesterday where the town well was surrounded by donkey droppings because the locals still transport their water on the backs of animals.

This brings me back to Jacob’s Well. According to ancient tradition, this is the very well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman and, at high noon, scandalously asked her for a drink (Jn 4:6). It’s a compelling story about ethnic tension, patriarchy and gender, sexual infidelity, competing religious claims, prophecy and fulfillment and more. Rereading the story lately I was struck by something else: Jesus’ promise to quench the woman’s thirst:

"Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, "Give me a drink," you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water'."

"Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life'." (Jn 4:10, 13-14)

Not even a Biblical well can keep physical thirst from returning. But Jesus’ dramatic claim here, interpreted literally by the dusty Samaritan, is that his loyal followers will find a deeper thirst quenched once and for all. For those of us who enjoy a cold beer on a hot day, the thought of never getting thirsty may have little appeal. But for folks over here who must daily draw water by hand and schlep it home on the back of a donkey, this is good news indeed.

Is there something in the water of Jesus’ Gospel for these sons of Abraham—here in Nablus and in nearby Ariel—whose parched souls thirst for peace? Is it foolish to think that the message of Jesus could end a 60 year-old drought in this land? Is it na├»ve to think that Christians could play a reconciling role between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land? I don’t know. Perhaps the water we have to offer is simply too muddied—by Crusades, anti-Semitism and Christian Zionism—to be drinkable, let alone thirst-quenching. What do you think?

ADDITIONAL NOTE: A helpful piece on the subject of water by Ron Taylor just appeared today in CounterCurrents. It's called "Water Wars in the West Bank."


Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece. I read it remembering my own trip to Jacob's Well with my group, and decided to bring this article to read when I bring a group from my parish next year.

Bruce N. Fisk said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your encouragement. Blessings.