Hydropolitics

An Interview with Alex Baramki and Maya Yared

Lebanon, the US, Malta and Occupied Palestine

Nathalie Grima

August 2013

How did you source water in Beirut, Lebanon, before the war of 1982?

Alex: When I was very, very young, 5 or 6 years old, we did have occasional shortages of water supply and we would drive out to a place called Dbayyeh to fill up gallons of water and take them back home and it was, what?, a 20 minute drive out of Beirut to this place, which was I guess a waterplant, because due to the still primitive water distribution methods we did not get enough. This was, we’re talking mid-50s, mid-1950s, a very long time ago.

So even though Lebanon has a lot of rainfall and snows and rivers and so on, water was a problem early on. But everybody had tanks as you do here and they tended to be filled up and these were rare occasions when we would make these trips.

Maya: In the 60s and 70s I don’t recall any water shortages. Ehm, now the incident that we talked to you about was specifically during the Israeli invasion in 1982. But during all the entire war and up till now, there are still water problems. The distribution is very erratic and it happens, you know, you just get sometimes a few hours a day, sometimes not even every day. And that is really due to poor management, and mismanagement.

Alex: Which implies stealing as well because people here and there in illegal housing and so on, they all get serviced and they tend to be the poor people and so they find ways to divert water and electricity and you must not separate the two because they are related. But the only recourse these people have is to illegally tap into the, whatever the, official supplies. But there can be plenty of water for everyone and plenty of electric power if they were managed properly. Unfortunately due to corruption and other factors…

M: And also lack of rainwater harvesting and also lack of storage means. It’s all these put together. But as Alex is saying there is plenty of water in the country, Lebanon has more water than any other country in the area. I mean there are lots of rivers, there’s rainfall, there’s snow-capped mountains.

M: People with means buy water and store it. I mean there you have cisterns that come and fill their tank.

A: As you do here in Malta you get the trucks, you know. Rich neighbours and not so rich neighbours we see who get a truck and whose gardens are flourishing.

M: And they also have wells like you have here and so they tap into the ground water which is not necessarily the good thing because it tends to deplete it and the quality is not in control either and so you get sometimes water which is not up to the standards.

A: It can be saline.

M: At some point during the Israeli invasion in 1982 it was a complete blockade, food, water, fuel and electricity, everything. But somehow food would also somehow trickle in, very expensive but, whereas they had full control over the water and the electricity, they would shut off…

M: But towards the end yes there was shortage and you know we were reduced to cans and there was very little fresh food coming in. But the water was interesting. In the beginning you would find bottled water on the shelves of supermarkets,  and then these disappeared and there would be imported bottled water. And then after a while those disappeared and then the next thing you would find were sparkling water bottles and soft drinks and then those eventually disappeared. People with wells still had some access to water. It wasn’t potable.

We used to go down to American University we knew people who lived in the faculty appartments where the university had its own water supply that was not shut off I guess. We used to go and fill big gallons and bring them back home. But again this wasn’t really potable water, right?

I remember an instance when we went there and just finished filling our gallons and one of those 19 hour raids started and that was… yeah, we were on the road coming back and we got our water but it was a, it was…

A: We were in a little Volkswagen Beetle and it was shaken from the concussion of the bombs. This was August 12th 1982, 19 solid hours of bombing when US President Reagan called Menachem Begin to stop. Even Reagan! It was horrendous. I mean we didn’t know how we got home. And it’s barely a 7, 8 minute drive from the university. It took us 3 minutes because we were speeding to save our lives. The roads were empty but the car was shaking and we parked on the sidewalk and rushed up with our gallons…oh [laughs]. One of those moments which sounds funny after many years but was actually was very risky at the time].

A: Oh they [the Israelis] are very well practised in the mechanisms of occupation. They know the infrastructure, they know everything, they know exactly where to go.

M: They had full control of the distribution. Yes, they entered and maybe altered what was there to just shut off and that was basically to punish the population of West Beirut for…

A:  for harbouring the PLO.

A: They would give us a couple of hours here, a little water there…

M: Yes maybe that hour or two…

A: It was psychological warfare not just water and electric power but concussion bombs. And those bombs sounded like the whole world was collapsing. They’re not bombs, no, they’re just sounds but they make you think, I mean it’s psychological warfare not that they didn’t bomb many instances, but they did use psychological warfare against the entire population. Bombs that targeted military installations. But this was blanket across, whatever their beliefs whatever their convictions.

A: The critical part of the ’82 invasion was just one summer. It started in June and then when the, in early September some time, the PLO were evacuated to Tunis and that was supposed to end it all and then we got the US marines and this and that and supposedly… But it didn’t stop. The suffering of the population did not not stop there. It continued many years beyond. And they were repeated, we’re talking about Beirut, they were repeated Israeli forces into the South of Lebanon… But the, and this is why it brings in Hizbollah because ultimately they drove the Israelis out from Southern Lebanon.

Is the problem with water access today in Lebanon an effect of this war?

M: It’s probably a combination. I mean the war I’m sure contributed to the, you know, the dismantling of the infrastructure. But it’s probably also inherent to the, you know, the dysfunctional state, which is partly a result of the war but not entirely.

A: Unless my memory fails me, even years after ’82 when the Israelis wanted to move things… You know they controlled the airspace, no military was allowed to fly, they could just fly over bomb the grid and go back.

M: I mean in 2006 when they invaded again they destroyed a lot of infrasturucture so that didn’t help either but I don’t think we can blame it entirely on them.

A: Demoralising doesn’t encourage any government to repair when they know anything could be bombed again, and in the meantime all the illegal stealing of power and water. But no doubt, given stability these things can be resolved, whereas in situations of instability…

You migrated to the US in ’87.

Alex: In the US we found a culture that’s very wasteful, not just of energy but of water too. And we did retain some habits of not, not being wasteful and of course in Malta we certainly, we’ve revived those habits. We refuse for example… ours is a small house but it does not get so much pressure on the third floor, but we refuse to install pumps. They use up more water, more electric power. We lived so many months bathing out of huge pasta pots, of heated, slightly heated water. So we can manage with low water pressure. I hate those things pumps; there a waste of both electric power and of water….

M: It’s amazing with how little water you can get by if you don’t have running water for a shower and manage to get the whole shower with that….

A: The washing-machine is at the top. It’s an energy saver.

M: Our water tank is at the top.

A: Yeah, it’s about two or three metres higher.

A: And in the US our washing cycle used to take 30mins here it takes an hour and  15mins, the shortest cycle because of energy-saving both electric and of water I think. No, no in the US they don’t bother with energy saving or with water saving. We were renting apartments and the cheapest machines were not the most energy efficient. Here it takes an hour and 15mins. In the US It takes much less time but consumes more water and more power. At least that was what I was told when we bought the house with the machine. Here we didn’t choose it but when I said, what’s with this thing 45 mins for the gentlest shortest wash, they said because it’s an energy saver. And when I heard that I’m fine with it.

Do you drink tap water in Malta?

A: No. Well we thought it wasn’t good [tap water in Malta] but very recently we learnt it’s drinkable, it’s potable but it’s not very tasty.

M: One thing they do in Lebanon now is when the water comes from the tap they fill gallons, glass gallons and then they put them in the sun, instead of boiling and instead of buying bottled water, It has to be white, transparent glass and so a couple of hours in the sun…

A: I don’t know if you want to add anything about what I saw in my visit in Palestine. My taxi driver pointed out you can tell which houses are Arab owned and which houses are Israeli owned by the number of tanks and by the colour of the tanks it seems, but basically by the number. Because Israelis get uninterrupted supplies of water whereas the Arabs in the drought months and the summer months get twice a week or something like that. The settlements have their swimming pools and so on whereas the poor farmers have to plant crops that don’t require water. There is a huge political use of water in Israel and in the Occupied Territories going on. It didn’t start in the 20th century. Well, it started very early in the 20th century, very early on. Now people are becoming aware of water as the “white gold,” the new petrol, probably because of the new wars, but it’s been going on since late 19th early 20th century, in Palestine yes. We speak of now. But we’re talking about even before the establishment of Israel.

M: In the 1920s when there where Zionist groups, immigrants coming. The water would be diverted to their estates more than to other areas and the British went along with it.

A: So the awareness of the value of water in that part of the world was already there a 100 years ago.

M: Well the acquisition of land also is very much tied to where the water is.

A:  You can say yes, we have a two state solution: let the Palestinian Authority collect the garbage but we, the Israelis, get the life-blood of the land Oh yes, the Gaza strip the much more extreme case too.

This is one of those insidious, sly tactics that the media doesn’t find very thrilling.

There’s a name for it now, Hydropolitics. It’s now become a field within political science and it was being practised as early as the 1920s in Palestine.

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