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(en) Britain, Organise* #64 - The water wars

Date Fri, 08 Jul 2005 07:02:03 +0300

Water is essential for all life, a finite, but endlessly renewable
resource. One third of the world's population do not have
access to a supply of safe drinking water, consequently, a
third of deaths globally are from water-borne diseases.
The water crisis is worldwide however,
affecting (over) developed countries too,
whether they are `water-rich' (such as
Britain) or not. Examples from the Middle
East and Europe show the depth and
breadth of this problem.
The lower River Jordan in the Middle East is
symptomatic of this global water crisis. This
stretch, which runs between the Sea of
Galilee and the Dead Sea, has been turned
into a drainage ditch by dams and pumping
stations which divert almost 90% of the
water. Parts of the surrounding valley and
the Dead Sea are currently on the brink of
an ecological disaster, a 70 mile zone of
The Israeli-Arab war of 1967 was triggered
by attempts to divert the sources of the river
in South Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
Afterwards, the Israeli state began to
appropriate water supplies to support new
settlements, as well as towns and
settlements within Israel. 30% of Israel's
water supply (600 million cubic metres a
year) comes from aquifers lying wholly or
partly under the West Bank. Since 1967, the
West Bank Palestinians (1.4 million in the
mid 1990s) are allocated 115 million cubic
metres a year, and have been barred from
digging new wells, or renovating old ones. In
contrast, the Jewish settler population
(130,000) are allocated 30 million cubic
metres. The remainder ( 455 million cubic
metres) goes to Israel. Egypt offered Israel
400 million cubic metres annually to settle
its conflict and assist the Palestinians, but
the conflict remains unresolved.
The lower stretch of the Jordan is now little
more than a drainage ditch; 50 years ago
the annual flow was 1.3 billion cubic metres,
today 200 million constitute a good year.
Nearly half of that consists of raw sewage
from the Palestinian villages and Jewish
settlements, the effluent from commercial
fish farms, and other untreated wastewater.
Gidon Bromber, of Friends of the Earth of
the Middle East (FoEME) commented
"Ironically, it is sewage that is maintaining
what little biodiversity there is along the
Jordan. Right now the river is so desperate,
the sewage is the only thing keeping the
river flowing at times. It feeds life there". At
the lower end of the river the pollutants spill
into the Dead Sea, compounding
environmental crisis where the sea level has
fallen 25 metres since Israel dammed the
river, and industry began to suck water out.
Munqeth Mehyar (of FoEME Amman) asks
ironically "Is it a competition; who can
damage the river more than the other?" As
Bromber correctly points out - "Each side
tried to grab as much of the resources as
they can without consideration of the
consequences. It started in the 60s with
Israel ceasing the flow of the upper Jordan
into the lower Jordan. Syria tried to build a
dam at the same time to stop water coming
down...[The state of ] Jordan in the 70s built
a canal to capture the main tributary into
the river. It escalated from there" The
current problems are compounded by
Amman's construction of a new dam on the
Yarmuk river, which is the Jordan rivers'
largest tributary. The straightforward
practical solution is to divert less water.
FoEME, is a cross border group, and brought
together officials from Amman and
Jerusalem in early March of this year to
pressurise them into action. No progress
was forthcoming, however - "Unfortunately,
environmental policies are governed by
politics" admitted Hassan Bin Talal of
Jordan. Faced by the refusal of both
governments to restore the rivers supply of
natural water, FoEME is pressing for the
sewage to be treated, so that it is pumped
into the Jordan as clean water.
Encouraged by a surge of prosperity in the
1960s, the Spanish ignored the fact that
they live in a semi-arid country that is prone
to periodic, lengthy droughts. Water-hungry
Golf courses were built for tourists,
swimming pools for themselves, and lawns
and gardens that require daily watering
proliferated. Farmers diversified from their
traditional drought resistant produce, such
as figs and olives, into `thirsty' crops such as
rice and strawberries. The result is that
Spain is now the world's fourth highest per
capita consumer of water, after the U.S,
Canada, and Russia. Now it has to build
huge dams, and pay the cost to divert rivers
to over-developed areas, amid growing
environmental and community opposition.
Many factors (which apply elsewhere also)
conspire to support this. These include laws
that give the producers the right to squander
resources so long as there is a consumer
demand to be satisfied (big farmers have
the same licence in Britain). The role of the
centralised State is also crucial. Largely
controlled by business influences, it
arbitrates the management of resources
through its control of revenue, command of
resources, expertise, and the power to
enforce policy on citizens.
In contrast to Spain and the Middle East,
Britain is a water-rich area with a high
rainfall, and only occasional water
shor tages. Until the 1990s, water was seen
as a common good, and water planners saw
any form of supply restriction, such as a ban
on the use of hosepipes, as an admission of
failure. The regional water authorities
pooled access to water resources, and made
long term plans for a London ring main,
recharging aquifers from winter river water.
People and organisations co-operated to
manage water resources relatively
ef fectively, and to save water when it was
needed e.g. during the drought of 1975/76
when only 76mmn of rainfall fell all summer.
"There are plans for eight new or enlarged reservoirs
in the south-east of England. What is needed is
conservation and sensible use of water, however."
The Conservative government privatised
water in 1989, increasing water costs to the
average household by 67% between 1989
and 1995. Company profits rose by an
average of 20% to 1993, and remain high.
The profits of these companies are
subsidised by the poorest people in Britain,
those least able to pay. Thousands of
households now regularly have their water
supply cut off. In 1991/2, in the Sandwell
Health Authority (in the West Midlands),
1400 households were cut off, leading to a
ten-fold increase in cases of hepatitis and
dysentry. In 1994 2 million households fell
into water arrears, 12,500 were
disconnected. Water companies in England
and Wales are increasingly introducing pre-
payment meters. This increased use of
metering, which occurs more often in poorer
households, results in either increased
water bills, or forced cuts in water supply by
those who need it most. The response of the
water companies to increasing criticism of
their disconnection policies has been pure
PR(public relations). A tiny proportion of
their inflated profits is given to charitable
trusts that help the poorest customers. This
tokenism also gives these corporations tax
advantages. In London, the 19th century
sewer system is understaffed (water
companies slashed jobs after privatisation),
and struggling with a vastly increased
workload; it is unable to cope with `flash
floods' from road runoff which is diverted
into the system after heavy rainfall. The
result is periodic discharges of raw sewage
into the Thames, which kill much of the river
life, and threaten human health.
Britain is facing the strong possibility of
another drought this summer, according to
climatologists. It has just experienced the
second driest winter in 50 years, and the
driest since water privatisation in 1989, and
a long dry spell is predicted for the summer.
This will be compounded by the huge
amount of water that is being lost every day
through broken and leaking pipes - a fifth of
the 15 billion litres that the UK water system
supplies daily. On the 1st of April, household
water bills in England and Wales rose by an
average of £29 in an attempt to fund the
necessary investment required to tackle the
leakage: they would not consider funding it
from their large profits, of course. The water
industry is seeking deals with bottled water
companies to keep supplies going, and the
government appointed industry regulator
(Ofwat) could impose supply restrictions if
there is a lengthy drought. There are plans
for eight new or enlarged reservoirs in the
south-east of England. What is needed is
conservation and sensible use of water,
however. Scientists warn that such droughts
will become increasingly common, with
globak warming creating more extreme
weather patterns with lengthy dry spells
interspersed with intense storms.

Fighting Back

In the 1980s, and between 1994-96,
anarchists played a key role in direct action
community campaigns which defeated
attempts to introduce water taxes in Dublin,
in Southern Ireland (issue 3 of `Red and
Black Revolution', gives an excellent
account and analysis of this).
For thousands of years legal and informal
systems accepted and insisted that water
was a communal asset that could not be
privately owned. There is a long history of
human societies that have developed
elaborate systems that ensure fair access to
water. In Spain the water communities on
the Genil, Segura, and Ebro rivers are
examples of solidarity and social co-
operation that were created on foundations
laid by the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire,
and the Moors. The modern technology of
pipes, pumps, and motive power makes
these schemes easier. For irrigation, local
control of water is all-important and can be
achieved in many ways. In the small-scale
irrigation schemes of eastern Spain under
the Moors, water belonged to the
community and was sold with the land.
Continual disputes about its use in times of
scarcity were regulated by a communal
organisation, the huerta, in places such as
Aragon. Here water belongs to farmers
through whose land it passes, each water
user belongs to a comunidad de regantes
(association) that elects a sindico, the
combination of sindicos from each zone
constitutes the Water Tribunal. These meet
to judge rations during scarcity; no lawyers
or state laws are involved, fines are
sometimes imposed, and always paid.


If the price mechanism continues to
determine the allocation of water, the poor
will die of thirst. If it decides which crops are
irrigated for the market, they will starve. If it
determines the availability of water for
personal hygiene, vast numbers of children
will die before the age of five, from illnesses
such as diarrhoea. There are however many
examples from around the world which show
that people can co-operate to share water
resources sensibly and fairly, for themselves
and the environment, but only where there
is common ownership and control of water.

Organise is the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.
It is published twice times a year to promote discussion
and the development of anarchist communist theory.

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