A November 17 article in the Boston Globe titled “In Israel, water where there was none” detailed the emerging water partnership between Massachusetts and Israel, a union sparked by Governor Deval Patrick’s visit to the Holy Land on a 2011 trade mission. It’s a picturesque chronicle of the events leading up to today—one that erases, in entirety, the experiences of low-income people in the United States or Palestinians on the far side of the sea. The Globe omits any mention of disparities in access to water, or state policies that allow select segments of the population the power to direct how the current flows.
In 2009, the state passes legislation creating the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, a body tasked with developing “a comprehensive, long-range water infrastructure finance plan for the commonwealth and municipalities.” The commission, staffed by a mix of industry, advocates, progressive legislators and state administrators, identifies a $20 billion dollar gap in funding for water infrastructure over the next 20 years, and outlines the need to invest, innovate, tackle challenges of affordability and promote a greener future.
Think reports about the decaying water infrastructure in the first-world are overstated? They aren’t. The same day it released an article on the Israeli partnership, the Globe reported a significant water main break in the theater district. A video of a South Boston water main break and the fallout from a “catastrophic rupture” that left 2 million people with a boil-water order, reveal the same problem: the pipes are falling to pieces.
Yet even as municipalities feel the pinch of a growing water budget and shrinking pocketbooks, it’s rare that equity, affordability and access get the attention they deserve.
Israel – On the edges of the Naqab Desert
The Globe paints a serene image of Yatir, depicting a lush green expanse “[o]n the chalky lower slopes of the Hebron Hills, in the midst of the scorched Israeli desert” and linking to a Jewish National Fund Sustainable Development page. The Jewish name for the community, and the forest planted in 1964, comes from the Old Testament—Jattir, a city in hill country.
Israel is an innovator. “The arid country has,” according to the author Erin Ailworth, “figured out what few other desert regions have: how to squeeze enough water from a parched landscape to sustain a nation.”
Ask Adalah about Yatir Forest and you’ll hear a different story.
In 1948, a newly-established military government evicts the Al-Qian Bedouin tribe from their traditional home. Eight years later, they settle in Atir. Years pass. The Jewish National Fund begins planting trees—the Yatir forest—in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the Al-Qian file claims for their original home and are ignored; forces try to evict them once again, but they win brief respite—court-ordered recognition—and for a time, they will remain in Atir.
Then, in 2011, the Israeli National Council for Planning and Building releases a new plan for the Yatir Forest area. Five hundred Bedouin will be displaced to make way for a recreational park. These Arab Israelis, full citizens of Israel, are in the way of development, an obstacle to making the desert “blossom as a rose.” On the plan for Yatir Forest and Park, Atir is marked as unoccupied territory—no one unfamiliar with the area, no tourist from Tel Aviv or Boston, would ever suspect foul play. There is simply nothing there.
Umm al-Hieran, an adjoining area, suffers a similar fate. Residents who are denied “basic services including water, electricity and sewage” watch as illegal settlers arrive in a JNF-funded caravan. The settler outpost has, within two years, access to these services. In November 2013, the Israeli Knesset approves the demolition of Umm al-Hieran—a necessary step to construct the settlement of Hiran.
Per the Boston Globe: “This is the main war in Israel,” said Ya’acov Ben Dor, managing director at Yatir Winery, which uses 13.2 million gallons of water a year in an area that gets less rainfall than most parts of Texas, “the war against the desert.”
Three months before Deval Patrick heads to Israel, Catalina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water, visits Boston. She’s joined by youth activists, representatives of Community Change, an anti-racist organization, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), Massachusetts Global Action (MGA) and the Lead Action Collaborative (now a scarcely-funded entity known as the Boston Healthy Homes and Schools Coalition) among others. The conversation is, by all accounts, harrowing.
A young woman reports her family spends nearly half their income on rent; utility bills chip away at the remaining funds there is little left. Despite efforts by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission to educate the public and maintain affordable rates, residents of Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester and East Boston are faced too often with water shutoffs. One participant, an advocate with MGA, cites the number of shutoffs at 2000 a year. Lead piping in public and private service lines is a serious health hazard, particularly for young children and expecting mothers.
Many do not know about lead replacement programs, and the nonprofits who support the city in educating the public are often hurting for funds. Foundation grants are swiftly moving from environmental health to addressing climate change, and the recent recession has sapped potential donors. Even those residents who are aware of the available rebates for replacing lead pipes may not have sufficient resources to pay for the remaining cost.
Charting the way toward the Human Right to Water isn’t easy. The work’s done behind the scenes, it is unfinished, and there are, too often, not enough bodies in the room. Nevertheless, two years later, in 2013, the work continues. Advocates and activists meet at the South End Technology Center, a collaboration between MIT and the Tent City Collaborative. Its nickname, “Tent City,” hearkens back to 1960s housing organizing by founder and director Mel King.
In his spare time, Mel, community organizer, activist, former state representative and one-time mayoral candidate, helps raise funds for Al-Quds Medical School, which is split in half by The Wall. He’s been to the West Bank several times.
In 1995, an interim agreement (Oslo II) brokered between Israel and Palestine creates the Joint Water Committee, “the body tasked with approving every water and sewage project in the West Bank.” The JWC considers projects in both Palestinian communities and illegal settlements, approving new construction by consensus. According to Haaretz, approved projects differ in number, ease of permitting, and capacity. These approvals proceed until about 2010, when the Palestinian Water Authority ceases approving water infrastructure projects in illegal settlements.
A pipe built in 1972 is decaying; half the water leaks out or is stolen on its way. The Palestinian Authority wants desperately to replace the pipe; in 2008, the United States Agency for International Development agrees to fund the project. But the project stops up. Rather, the IDF Civil Administration refuses to let it proceed, because the project will interfere with traffic.
The World Bank, in 2009, notes the impossibility of “decisions by consensus between two parties with unequal power. In effect, the way [Oslo II] has been implemented, gives Israel predominance in the allocation and management of West Bank water resources.” The same year, Amnesty International releases “Troubled Waters—Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water.” An image in the report shows a Israelis enjoying a swimming pool in the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem. The adjacent community of Al-Eizariya, the Tomb of Lazarus, struggles for water.
Here and There
Booky Oren—Israel’s water genius, a World Bank innovator and veteran of the water, information science, and financial sectors—puts a question to Governor Patrick during the 2011 trade mission: “Why not a water sector?” The Governor, long an advocate for clean tech, takes quickly to the idea. Israeli businesses flock to Massachusetts.
Israel “has become the modern version of the land of milk and honey,” writes the Globe, “much of it nurtured, drop-by-drop, from water reclaimed from Tel Aviv’s sewage.” Sewage in the West Bank, in Gaza, doesn’t earn the same saccharine praise. Half of the Gaza Strip’s wastewater pours into the sea. 26% of disease has its origin in water.
In 2013, Haaretz reports, Palestinians in the West Bank have access to about 70 liters of water a day person, less than a third of their Israeli counterparts inside the Green Line. Black water tanks are visible on homes in East Jerusalem, in Palestine— the water doesn’t come every day; in fact, most days it doesn’t.