That's what they taught you in the Boy Scouts, if ever you were lost in the wilderness. Downhill led (hopefully) to a stream, downstream led (hopefully) to settlement and salvation.
The Arab Cultural Center in Brussels has been showing a series of films lately. Palestinian (Israeli-Arab) filmaker Rima Essa and Peter Snowdon of the UK have made a 30-minute documentary "Drying Up Palestine," which shows that in the West Bank, "downhill, downstream" has an entirely different connotation. It should be essential viewing for all Middle East Peace Processors, because without water, there cannot be life, let alone a two state solution.
"Downhill" in the West Bank is usually the direction that Israeli settlers look. They - along with Israeli Army outposts - occupy the high ground, and increasingly, the preponderance of the territory's water resources. Essa and Snowdon start out with a scene filmed through their car's windshield, driving through a welcome West Bank rain. But they point out that even the raindrops do not belong to the Palestinians: the runoff is collected for Israeli use.
Another scene has settlers complaining about the nasty smells from untreated sewage wafting up the valley from the Palestinian village down below. Whose sewage? We're not told, but elsewhere we're shown raw sewage seeping from an Israeli prison (for Palestinians?), polluting villagers' rare water supplies. Throughout the film, the pattern is clear: what had been Palestinian water resources are inexorably expropriated by Israel for use in settlements, or to augment water supplies for Israel proper, or - ultimate injustice - sold back to Palestinians.
There are numerous organizations - Palestinian, Israeli, international - that are focusing on this crucial aspect of life in this contested corner of the world. For those who can't watch the Essa/Snowdon film, I recommend this excellent animation from the University of Newcastle's SUSMAQ (Sustainable Management of the West Bank and Gaza Aquifers Project). Midway through this computerized 3-D animation is a map with the recognizable outline of the pre-1967 West Bank boundary. Look at the dots that appear to the west (i.e., Israeli side) of that boundary. They are wells, drilled deep into the aquifer under Palestinian territory. And they ring the West Bank and Gaza.
"Like a Long Straw, Draining Your Milkshake"
Think of those Israeli water wells when you see the Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood." Day-Lewis, in the role of the rapacious oil man, has long coveted a parcel of land belonging to an ornery holdout. Finally, when approached years later by the holdout's representative in dire need of money, Day-Lewis crushes the man's hope by explaining that the parcel is now worthless: Day-Lewis, controlling all the surrounding land, has "drained" the oil using his own wells. He conjures up an image of a milkshake with two straws, where his is the longest... but still capable of siphoning off his neighbor's supply.
But it's not just the Israeli wells around the Palestinian territory; Israeli wells inside the West Bank - deeper, more sophisticated than shallow, traditional Palestinian wells - have simply dried up those Palestinian sources. Arab farmers now have to purchase their water - at high prices - from Israeli suppliers. And are relegated to jury-rigged water trucks supplying expensive water to their cisterns, now that their own traditional wells are dry.
Maps are important to understanding the situation on the ground, and B"Tselem, the Israeli organization dedicated to human rights in the occupied territories, produces excellent ones illustrating the kind of daily frustration ("Forbidden Roads") that is the lot of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The Gaza Strip has been described as "the world's largest open air prison," but the sad reality shown by Rima Essa's and Peter Snowdon's film is that large stretches of the West Bank are indistinguishable from the squalor of Palestinian refugee camps set up as "temporary" shelters in the late 1940s.
ARIJ - The Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem - and The House of Water and Environment (HWE, in Ramallah, for which Snowdon and Essa made "Drying Up Palestine") are Palestinian research centers which help "build capacity" through training projects, often in collaboration with international bodies like "Waternet" from the Netherlands and UN agencies. Finally, in about the only "good news" aspect of the sorry water story, there is "Friends of the Earth Middle East" (FOEME) "a unique organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists." FOEME has an estimable project, "Good Water Neighbors," which appears to have good PR and funding, but whose goals appear impossible in the current stalemate.
Just consider the water news out of Gaza today:
GAZA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - The Palestinian water utility urged Gazans on Wednesday to boil their drinking water and said contamination was a risk because an Israeli-led blockade was choking off chlorine supplies. The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, which runs the Gaza water system, said it was struggling to disinfect water due to shortages of chemicals as well as spare parts for pumps and other equipment. But Israel, which has tightened restrictions on the Hamas-run enclave in what it says is a response to militant rocket fire, said it only received a request for chlorine on Wednesday and was still processing it. The CMWU said 52 of Gaza's 140 water wells had no chlorine and the others were fast running out. The utility posted a newspaper advert on Wednesday warning the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million residents the situation could prompt an epidemic.
Meanwhile, in the Jordan valley town of Jericho, municipal officials - with the help of $10 million from Norway and the Islamic Development Bank - have (re)connected to the Jordanian power grid, after more than 40 years of Israeli occupation. But for water - sorry, Jordan certainly has none to spare.
Whatever rump territory can be salvaged out of the patchwork of settlements, military outposts, bypass roads, and security barriers (try to make sense out of the maze that is the West Bank of today) → it is access to water that will determine the viability of any future Palestinian state. The record does not bode well for sustainability, which, in the end, will underpin "independence."
(Map source: PASSIA - Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Jerusalem)