Symposium Explores Water Wars

By Tory Brykalski - What is the relationship between hydrological sciences, agricultural development, and colonialism in the twenty-first century? On November 30, 2015, an interdisciplinary panel took up this question at a symposium entitled "Thirsting for Justice: Native Resistance to Colonization of Water & Land." Panelists examined the way social justice struggles over land and water in California and Palestine affect communities through the theft of water and destruction of indigenous agriculture.

Hydrologist Jamil Ibrahim began by outlining his research on the development of water infrastructure in Palestine. Providing a comprehensive historical overview of the transformation of Palestinian water and agricultural production, he detailed the ways in which Israeli colonial interests have long driven water policies in the region, and vice versa.

Though Europeans have long benefited from Palestinian agricultural production, it was not until the 1920s that European colonists began to develop water infrastructure with the explicit aim of developing a Zionist settler colony in Palestine. Under the tutelage of Californian water expert Elwood Mead in the 1940s, the new Israeli state developed a number of irrigation and hydroelectric projects, helping to consolidate and justify its claims on the land. These projects are the origin of the oft-cited trope about Israel’s ability to make the Palestinian desert "bloom.”

Making the desert bloom

Ibrahim showed why this trope elides the fact that these development projects have largely been implemented at the expense of Palestinian water and land rights. In 1967, for example, Israel declared all water resources to be state property. The state funded deep new wells to provide water to growing Israeli settlements in the newly occupied West Bank, which were designed explicitly to undercut the water supply of existing Palestinian wells.

The Israeli Military Authority also issued a directive forbidding Palestinians from accessing the Jordan River and restricting their access to underground aquifers. As a result of these policies, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are not connected to a piped water network, and have to rely instead on purchasing water via water tankers and rainwater cisterns. Extremely vulnerable to state and paramilitary violence, these informal water infrastructures are rarely sufficient.

Israelis are often lauded for their ability to make the desert bloom. But Ibrahim’s presentation suggests that these tropes, and the kinds of policies and collaborations they encourage, are flawed, if not completely fabricated. In the process of “making the desert bloom,” he concluded, the Israeli state has dispossessed and exploited hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. There can be no viable Palestinian state without securing the Palestinians’ right to water.


Perpetuating water wars

Kaitlin Reed (Yurok and Hupa), a doctoral student of Native American studies, expanded on this theme by explaining how similar water policies have also been deployed in California in order to dispossess indigenous people and pave the way for agricultural business. Focusing primarily on the legal infrastructure that constructs water rights and perpetuates water wars, Reed described the ways in which this legal infrastructure has pathologized certain ways of interacting with indigenous land practices while praising industrialized farming.

This pathologization has been encoded in the dominant legal framework that shapes Western US water law under a doctrine of “prior appropriation,” which simply means that water rights are determined by the priority of “beneficial use.” Because tribes are unable to become senior water rights holders, most if not all of what the US deems “beneficial” is determined by commercial and economic interests. Because this legal framework was largely designed to meet the needs of the leading political and economic forces in the Western U.S., water disputes are largely settled in favor of these interests.

According to Reed, these preferential water rights are part of a deeper epistemological viewpoint in which water is valued monetarily above all else. The codification of this viewpoint in U.S. law and water sciences has meant that other ways of valuing water, especially tribal ways, simply aren’t counted.

“It is important to keep this water ‘scarcity’ in perspective,” she said, addressing California’s current drought. “The reason most water in the West is already allocated is that irrigated agriculture consumes more than 80 percent of it. In effect, we do not have a water shortage in the West; we have an oversupply of underpriced, subsidized water to irrigated farmland.”

By situating California’s water infrastructure in its historical and socio-economic context, Reed challenged prevailing notions of drought and abundance. The ways in which we think about the drought is conceptually and materially based on colonial legacies and ongoing dispossessions. Any attempt to intervene in Californian (or U.S.) hydrological sciences or water politics must account for this.

Colonial disproportion

Gabi Kirk, an environmental educator in San Franciso and part of Young Jewish Voice for Peace, discussed the effects of Israeli water policy on Palestinians living in the Jordan River Valley—a region in Palestine that is almost entirely closed in by Israeli military zones. Drawing parallels between water policies in California and in the Jordan River Valley, Kirk explained that, as a result of Israel’s military and economic interests in the region—which lies adjacent to the Jordan River—most of the Palestinian inhabitants’ water cisterns and wells have been destroyed, or else are threatened with demolition orders.

Like indigenous peoples in California, Palestinian inhabitants of the Jordan River Valley are faced with an impossible decision: stay on the land and try to squeeze every drop of water out of the broken cistern, or leave. A tool of colonial disproportion, Israeli water policy is explicitly designed to persuade, and in many cases force, Palestinians off the land.


Tory Brykalski, a graduate student in anthropology at UC Davis, concluded the event by illustrating some of the many ways in which Palestinians resist Israeli colonization by continuing to plant, water, and harvest the land. Barred from building wells, accessing their lands, or purchasing the inputs needed to develop commercial agriculture, many Palestinians have turned to alternative modes of agricultural production, including forms of permaculture activism.

A system of agricultural and social design principles centered around remembering and utilizing the patterns of local ecosystems to provide care for the those ecosystems and those that live in and around them, permaculture has become an intentional political strategy for many Palestinians (including those at Bustan Qaraaqa and Marda). By refusing to engage with the Israeli market or colonial political apparati, and by reconstituting what care for the land is, these Palestinians are re-imagining, at least at a micro-scale, what liberation from a settler-colony might look like.