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A visit with multiple stories of water in Israel and Palestine

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Just over two weeks ago I returned from a 7-day visit to Israel and Palestine. As a part of the ExCiteS Intelligent Maps team, and in the first year of my PhD in Anthropology at UCL, I was there to explore possible settings for research, with a focus on water infrastructure, systems of care, environmental justice and citizen science. A few brief reflections from this trip are captured here, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to share with those who are equally curious.

To start, some words on the backdrop for this project. On the one hand, it is informed by a body of literature in the social sciences that – at its simplest – connects climate change to water scarcity, and water scarcity to war. On the other hand, it is driven by interests that I have had for years, in emergent forms of social infrastructure, psychological health and care, and techno-science. The intention is to examine how these systems interact with the futures predicted from climate change, and with the possible alternatives that might be.

In my exploration of potential field sites – which has taken me from Mexico to the Middle East – my attention had been drawn to Israel and Palestine. A desert landscape, water has been at the heart of the conflict, just as much as at the centre of efforts towards cooperation, and the application of the most advanced scientific and technological knowledge. Representing in many ways the extremes of predicted scenarios of water scarcity, it seems an important place to examine how water infrastructure intersects with civic society.

Over my week there, I had the privilege to experience a range of perspectives. A Bedouin family West of Be’er-Sheva, a scientist with expertise on microbial biofilm, NGOs whose remits cover environmental justice, infrastructure and trans-national environmental peacekeeping, along with educators, entrepreneurs, and film-makers.

The terrain is dense: metaphorically and in reality. Distances are short, diverse populations live side by side, and stories overlap and abut each other. While I’m still digesting it all, here are some of the thoughts that are coalescing for now.

  1. Within a condensed space, the most sophisticated water systems exist alongside spaces with limited water infrastructure. Almost like alchemy, desalination plants transform salty water into that which can be consumed, comprising about 60% of Israeli drinking water, and making water scarcity seem no more than a reality from the past. Yet, in the Bedouin village in which I was welcomed, while there is a connection to a main water pipe for domestic use, it is not enough for sewage and waste. As an unrecognised village, contestation with the Israeli government over land places limits on the water infrastructure to be accessed.

  2. Because Israeli water management is so advanced, efforts to fill gaps in water infrastructure tend towards rural areas, amongst Bedouin villages, for instance, or Palestinian farmers, in South Hebron or the Jordan Valley. Although perhaps less acute, water can pose issues in the cities as well. I spoke with residents in Kufr Aqab, a dense urban neighbourhood in East Jerusalem beyond the separation barrier. They told me about irregular deliveries of water during summer droughts, and their distrust in the quality of water, stored in black plastic tanks sitting on top of building roofs. These were attributed to the status of Kufr Aqab, described as a regulatory no-man’s land, as it falls between the claimed responsibility of either Jerusalem or Palestinian municipalities.

  3. The urban struggles with water were emotive. Caring for a family – keeping children clean, healthy and well fed – is pressured in those summer months. The anecdotes relayed to me involved mention of constant anxiety, but also of domestic creativity. One woman who had lived in Kufr Aqab created a lab, shining UV light on water from the tanks to kill toxic bacteria; according to the biologist I spoke with, the contamination likely emerging from nano-scale biofilms, sheets of micro-organisms proliferating beyond human sight. Official online databases were consulted for clues of when and where water would be delivered next, for later coordination with family nearby. Interaction with modes of water delivery were not passive but fraught, complex, fierce.

Across these points, contradictions seemed to simmer just beneath the surface. How water is accessed, through whom, and when appear to contain a myriad of political, affective, and material qualities. In my week I was given a glimpse of the multiple stories, and intertwining of technology, large-scale systems, and small-scale emotions that exist here. Whether my research takes me back to Israel and Palestine or elsewhere, these are the stories that I will look forward to learning more about.

With thanks to support from the Intelligent Maps EPSRC-funded project, and to the Wellcome Trust Doctoral Studentship. 

Image: The view over Kufr Aqab, with its water-tank dotted roofs, author’s own (2018). 

 

 

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