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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Water politics debated here

Jewish Review

March 19, 2009

By Amy Kaufman

To spur U.S. action on the global water crisis, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced the Sen. Paul Simon Water for the Poor Enhancement Act of 2008, and he reported recent successes in the implementation of this bill in his March 1 talk at Congregation Shir Tikvah.

Hydrologist Jeff Albert, co-founder of the Aquaya Institute of San Francisco, and Mousa Diabat, who works on transboundary watershed issues in the Middle East, also spoke at the event, “The Politics of Water in the Middle East and the Developing World.”

Rabbi Ariel Stone said the 2008 bill “coordinates and improves international efforts—and America’s part in them—to develop safe and sustainable drinking water and sanitation systems for everyone in our world community.”

Blumenauer said that although the Sen. Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 “provided the framework” for making water issues an essential part of U.S. foreign policy, “we didn’t get our act together” in terms of allocating sufficient resources. “For all of sub-Saharan Africa … it was about $7 million that the U.S., the richest nation in the world … (invested) to alleviate the suffering.”

He said the new administration has shown concern for water issues.

“I know we’ve put $10 trillion in commitments to bail out the banks and the wackos that drove us into the financial ditch,” he said, “but from my perspective we’re looking at a quantum increase in this funding. From less than $10 million for sub-Saharan Africa it’s going to be $125 million.”

Blumenauer said the recent stimulus package contains “billions of dollars for water resources,” including “tens of millions” to improve the Willamette River.

“People will be at work on that in a matter of months,” he said.

Almost one billion people live without access to fresh drinking water, and 2.5 billion lack sanitation, according to Blumenauer.

He emphasized the connection between water and political strife. “In Sudan the lack of fresh drinking water contributes to the tragedy. In Zimbabwe the health of the entire country is threatened by an entirely preventable cholera outbreak. About half the sick people in the world “are sick needlessly from preventable waterborne disease,” he said.Blumenauer said it is “heartening” to see individuals and organizations taking action.

“People can go to a village in Latin America, Asia or Africa, and they can make a difference for hundreds of people in a matter of hours,” he said.

The congressman said unsustainable practices are exacerbating water shortages in the United States. He mentioned “subsidizing farmers to grow rice in the desert” and golf courses in Las Vegas.“The largest irrigation crop in the U.S. is grass. Millions of acres of nice green lawn … that contributes to all sorts of problems, (including) pesticide and fertilizer runoff. … We’re going to have to adjust in a whole range of areas.”

Albert, formerly an analyst for the Israel Water Commission in Tel Aviv, has participated in several Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Jordanian projects relating to the region’s water supply. The Aquaya Institute “improves health through clean water innovation,” according to its Web site.

Albert described listening to President Obama’s inauguration speech “on the banks of Lake Pretoria in Kenya.” “There was a line in that speech that had us all cheering,” he said, and he quoted: “To the people of Africa—we will help you make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow.”

Albert showed how “rain falls over the mountains of the West Bank and infiltrates into the subsurface, and part of that water flows naturally from east to west and crosses a boundary into Israel.” He then posed the question, “Whose water is it?”

He said the theory that it is Palestinian water corresponds to the “mainstream concept” reflected in the position of “Secretary of State Harmon vis-a-vis the Rio Grande—it’s an American River, not a Mexican river. Water that falls on your country, regardless of where it flows next, is your water.”

Conversely, he said Egypt claims the Nile, although Egypt is arid and “most of the water of the Nile is rains coming from Ethiopia and Sudan. … The argument is, ‘I’ve been using this water for millennia, and it’s water that reaches me naturally, so it’s my river.’”

According to Albert, “The concept of Israeli water and Palestinian water, or Egypt and Sudanese or Ethiopian water, becomes very fuzzy when water crosses a boundary. It’s not a hydrological concept at all.”

Albert said he was “not ready to concede that Israel has a volume that’s available to it that’s quantitively different from what’s available to the Palestinians because of the amount of water that’s shared by them.”

However, he said can recall no time “in the last 30 to 40 years in which an Israeli city has had to ration water.” In contrast, he said, “In parts of the West Bank there is no water at all from the end of the rainy season in April” until the November rains.

He asked the audience to “consider the misfortune of the Palestinian hydrostrategic position” as Israel pumps water from a major reservoir 200 meters below sea level, while the Jordanians divert water from the Yarmouk River, which vents toward the West Bank, for use on the East Bank.

Albert said Israel operates “the world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination facility.”

“We’re working with desalination technologies to purify drinking water in Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. The price is coming down significantly,” he said.

Diabat, a Fulbright scholar conducting doctoral research at Oregon State University, informally described a U.S.-funded project on the Alexander watershed shared by Israel and the West Bank.

In general, he said, “There is enough water for all, but some are greedy. Some are using more than what they need just because they have it. Others use almost 100 percent of what they can afford.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Portland chapter of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, with a grant from the Marc Zwerling Fund; Congregation Shir Tikvah; and the Bridgeport United Church of Christ.



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