More than 28,000 participants including head of states, ministers, parliamentary members, children and youths from different parts of the globe flocked to Istanbul to take part in the 5th World Water Forum. As the title of the forum “Bridging Divides for Water” promised, the hope was to tackle current water crisis through open discussion and transparent dialogue, the exchange of ideas and experiences. The forum was presumably designed to come up with new ideas and critical views, to ultimately reach a common understanding and consensus on water-related issues. However, from the sessions that I attended, I concluded that the forum outcomes fell far short of being a success. As the forum drew to a close, I could not avoid thinking repeatedly of the pressing question: Was the forum about “Bridging or Maintaining Divides”? In sessions that I attended, there was not much space to promote discussion and dialogue, let alone to challenge mainstream discourses. Hegemonic discourses of business and world politicians’ elites prevailed and went unchallenged. To better illustrate my impressions, I shall draw on a few sessions, which I attended.
In a session titled “Overcoming obstacles to serving the urban poor”, one expected the discussion to explore genuine mechanisms and approaches on how to realize universal access to water services, including the poor segments of societies. However the session’s speakers overlooked recent experiences where privatization profoundly failed such as, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Tanzania, and attempted to convey messages and convince the audience on how successful the privatization programs in Manila and Morocco have been to increase coverage and universal access of water supply. Experience shows that polices of privatization have been challenged by significant opposition and public protests, hostility and violence and aggregated power inequalities and socio-economic worsening. What’s more, the session speakers, in contrast to conventional knowledge on the driving forces of multinational companies, wanted us to believe that water companies are socially responsible for the poor and concerned about the Millennium Development Goals as an end but not as a means to profitable business. If this session was genuinely designed to bridge divides, as the title promises, then a wider range of participants should be invited to foster dialogue ad discussion and to conclude on constraints, openings and key factors to improve water supply services. People from case studies, such as Bolivia, where privatization of water services spawned public protest and drastic social and political consequences, would give a counter perspective. It was no surprise to learn that the stakeholders of this session are drawn from the private sector and development agencies.
More evidence for my perception came from the sessions and the side event related to the Tranboundary water issues on the Jordan River. A video presentation by one of the donors’ agencies attempted to convey a misleading and absurd message of existing cooperation and coming peace. The film wanted us to turn a blind eye to Israeli’s war crimes on Gaza that deliberately targeted civilians, homes, mosques, schools, universities and children and to have our ears deaf to the pleas of 1.5 million people besieged in Gaza. The aim of the video film, in my view, was intentionally to reduce the Palestinians cause and the Israeli occupation to sound like a normal conflict that is in way to be resolved and to normalize the sense of urgency that the international community may pick up to take action.
The Norwegian moderator, in both of the sessions: ‘Water management During and After Disasters / conflicts” and the “The UN – Water Day” did not allow for an open discussion, and constrained participants from asking questions or contributing by relevant statements. Instead he took the lead himself to address questions and sometimes he influenced the answers. While the head of Palestinian water authority was urging the participants, especially the Israeli audience, to depoliticize water issues from the political conflict, he couldn’t himself depoliticized his answers when addressing questions on how power asymmetry of the water-conflicted parties impact a real cooperation and water conflict resolutions. A few times, when one of the speakers succeeded to convey a short and clear quick message about the water crisis situation, the Norwegian moderator jumped in to normalize the message and reduce the significance of the water crisis. If this session was designed to bridge divides, the title should describe the reality as it is: ‘Water management under occupation and siege”.
Despite of the remarkable presence of Palestinian water professionals, Palestinian speakers found themselves constrained and not able to say much about the water situation crisis and the Israeli mass destruction of water infrastructure, the thievery of water and the denial of their water rights from both surface and the ground water sources. The constrains can either because their messages has to be in harmony with what the Palestinian Authority (PA) want them to say or that they must follow instructions of the session’s chair persons or possibly because they are self-constrained. For them, it is a simple fact that if they were to convey a clear message about the crime polices on water, they would not be permitted by the Israelis, later on, to leave their occupied territories and attend the next water meeting event. Such decisions on the control of people’s movement are claimed to be for security reasons, and are not questioned or challenged. Also noteworthy are the two Palestinian children from Gaza who were supposed to participate in the children forum but were not allowed to leave Gaza. No justifications for their actions were given by the Israelis.
(photo at the left, a picture from one of the many pool installation companies in Israel) In a side event, a presentation dedicated to a future water scenario, was presented by a British consultant, on how to augment the water supply for Palestinians in the Jordan River Basin in 50 years. What this pragmatic proposal suggested is that riparian countries have to give up their water rights from the Jordan River and to adapt the available water quantity they have, if any. Ironically, the water consumption per capita in Israel, severe scarce country, is 320 liter per day, a figure which is far more than the water per capita consumption in a water rich country like Sweden (220 liters). The future scenario, as the consultant advocates, is based on two components. The first is to construct a desalination unit for the Gaza, with possibilities, on the Egyptian land. But what does this scenario imply? Does it imply that Gaza will be a separated geographic entity from the West Bank? That is not clear. If this unit is constructed inside, the consultant stated, there is a risk that it be destroyed by the Israelis. This is a naive speculation because if Israel wishes to destroy the unit, they can do as they have done in similar aggressive acts without any respect to the sovereignty of states or international law norms and without questioning.
Moreover, the proposal, ambiguously assumes that with the elapsing time, Palestinians will be able to develop their water infrastructure while living on a gradual and small augmentation of water supply. By time, he said, both the Israelis and Palestinians are expected to reach a positive-sum situation by developing new water sources. This assumption again is either naive or misleading. On which basis the proposal assumes that Israel will allow the Palestinians’ a free hand to develop their own infrastructure without delaying, undermining or destroying the developing water infrastructure? What kind of signals on the ground, away from “lip service” rhetoric, has Israel given so far to base such proposals on? More than 170 water projects, which were agreed upon between Palestinians and Israelis, have not been implemented due to imposed bureaucratic constraints by Israel. Furthermore, on which territory should the water infrastructure be built? Is this territory based on the references of United Nations resolutions? Has Israel identified its borders so far? Shouldn’t we have first and foremost identify the Palestinian lands before proposing a future scenario on water? Land and water are inseparable issues to be resolved.
Palestinians also have to be cautious about the time issue. The time dimension has been always important for the realization of the Zionist project and the never-ending expansion of Israel’s state on the historical land of Palestine. Experience shows that the Israel governments base its strategies on creating new realties on the ground that are being realized by time. Time has been also a significant factor to discursively legitimatize the Israeli polices before the international community for more than 60 years. What was accepted by the international community including the Arabs before 1947, was different from that which was accepted in 1948, before and after 1967, now and so forth. Palestinians water professionals should be aware of the proposal implications on land, water, geographic integrity of the Palestinian territories. They also should engage as many water experts as possible, not only inside the occupied territories, but also in the exile to scrutinize proposals and challenges, to avoid losses or legitimized the illegitimatized and to safeguard water rights and shares in reference to the international norms. Palestinians should not accept less than that.
The Forum has been expected to build a platform for future settlement of divides on water. In reality, there have not been constructive discussions between parties who really need to bridge the divides.
Lina Suleiman, PhD candidate
Division of Urban and Regional Studies
Department of Urban Planning and Environment
School of Architecture and the Built Environment
KTH, Royal Institute of Technology
100 44 Stockholm