Water apartheid in Gaza and Flint

A woman searches for water after Israel bombed her home during its 2014 attack on Gaza. 

Ezz Zanoun APA images

At first glance, the nature of the water crises in Gaza and Michigan look very different. Gaza’s water infrastructure has been bombed repeatedly by Israel. Despite their many problems, the people of Flint and Detroit have been spared such overt brutality.

So why did women in Gaza send a message of compassion to women in Flint earlier this month?

The answer is simple: both are striving to hold the powerful to account for how the water on which they and their families depend has been contaminated.

The letter from Gaza to Flint — signed by various activists, including the prominent doctor Mona el-Farra — notes that Israel controls Palestinian water. The Israeli occupation steals from the coastal aquifer that is Gaza’s main source of water, prevents Palestinians from building sewage treatment facilities and forces them to buy water at prices they cannot afford.

Ordinary people in Flint do not enjoy any sovereignty when it comes to water, either.

Over the past few years, Rick Snyder, Michigan’s governor, has appointed a series of “emergency managers” — unelected technocrats, with powers to sell off public assets, invalidate union contracts and to undermine local democracy.

In 2014, Darnell Earley, one of these emergency managers, decided that Flint should begin using water from Flint River. That was despite how the Michigan authorities deemed water from the river to be unsafe for drinking.

Blood poisoning

The decision had rapid effects. Locals complained that the water from their faucets was discolored and unpalatable. A research team at Virginia Tech confirmed that the water in Flint was poisoned.

The level of lead detected, for example, in some samples was 13,000 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that lead in water should be no higher than 15 parts per billion.

Across Flint, the number of children with above average levels of lead in their blood has almost doubled. In “high risk” areas, it has tripled.

The people of Gaza are grappling with similar problems.

During 2014, it was reported that 90 to 95 percent of Gaza’s water supply was unfit for drinking. The Palestinian Water Authority found that the aquifer on which Gaza depends was highly polluted with pesticides and untreated sewage.

Symptom of racism

Palestinians live under an apartheid system. And the impacts of apartheid are especially pronounced when it comes to water.

While Israeli settlers in the arid West Bank can enjoy the sight of well-irrigated floral displays and dips in swimming pools all year round, Palestinians have access to considerably less drinking water than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

Michigan’s water crisis is also a symptom of institutionalized racism.

Snyder and his predecessors have imposed emergency managers mainly on towns and cities with large Black populations, including Detroit and Flint.

In 2013, The Atlantic reported that the five cities in Michigan then under economic management contained just 9 percent of the state’s inhabitants. Yet about half of all Black people in Michigan lived in those cities.

Writing in The Nation last month, Juan Cole argued that just as Flint’s residents “had their access to a basic staple like clean water denied by decisions made by bureaucrats they did not elect, so the Palestinians of Gaza lack the basic rights of citizenship.”

The right to water has been recognized by the United Nations. Yet the dominant ideology treats water as a commodity.

It is only natural that alliances should be formed between defenders of the right to water in different cities and countries.

The government in my native Ireland, under pressure from its masters in Brussels and other EU capitals, has been trying to put control of water in the hands of a private company in recent years. The battle for the abolition of Irish Water, as the firm is called, has received support from activists in Michigan, Bolivia and Spain.

More than a few of Ireland’s right to water campaigners are also part of the Palestine solidarity movement. One such campaigner, Gino Kenny, has been elected to Dáil Eireann, the lower house in the national parliament. When his election was announced in late February, he celebrated by waving a Palestinian flag.

The gesture was appreciated by Palestinians — not surprisingly so. Struggles for justice will always be intertwined.

Additional research by Jimmy Johnson.