Since I started working at Middle East Children’s Alliance, the MAIA Project to bring clean water to the children of Palestine has become closest to my heart. All of our projects are important for people in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, but the MAIA Project is connected to my history and my family. It takes me back to the days when I struggled with my family to bring clean water to our house so we could drink, cook and, sometimes, have a shower. My mother, sisters and I would carry gallons of water in heavy containers on our heads. Providing this essential for our family made my mother physically strong, her arms and shoulders shaped by her efforts, but her health suffered greatly. Much work and time is required to achieve the basic necessity of clean water. I still remember the weight of the water and the great responsibility on our necks and backs everyday.
Israel controls and uses 89% of the water resources in the West Bank, leaving 11% for the 2.5 million Palestinians. The Israeli Occupation continues to limit Palestinian access to clean water as form of collective punishment by controlling the water resources and distribution and by destroying the water that we are able to get. During Israeli military incursions, and especially during curfews, when we could not leave our homes, Israeli soldiers would shoot the water storage tanks on our roofs. Our water would pour down the sides of our buildings unused. During the recent attack on Gaza, Israel targeted the entire water infrastructure including the largest water purification system in Gaza. They also targeted electrical generators that supported water purification and sewage treatment. This kind of collective punishment is also used against Palestinians inside Israel. Palestinian villages “unrecognized” by the Israeli state are not connected to the national water grid that serves all Jewish communities, and the residents suffer from a lack of clean water.
In 1994 and 2001 I visited Black townships in South Africa. When the inhabitants in the townships explained their daily lives, they focused on the scarcity and difficulty in obtaining clean water. Water, they said, was only for the white people of South Africa. I immediately understood and thought that we could substitute Palestinian refugee camps for the South African townships. It is the same system of oppression. During apartheid access to public spaces, especially public beaches, was restricted according to race. The beautifully maintained beaches were accessible only for the white people. This is the same situation found in Palestine now. Israel severely restricts our access to the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and Lake Tiberias. Palestinians are forced to apply for permits from the Israelis to access these sites, even for a simple visit. Even when limited access is allowed, such as in Gaza, the coastline is often flooded with untreated sewage as a result of damage done by Israeli bombardments.
As I was writing this article, I spoke with Dr. Mona El-Farra, MECA’s Project Director in Gaza. We were discussing the current water situation and she was saying that the tap water in her apartment was unusable. She said “Ziad, the water here is polluted and undrinkable, more than that it is unusable for cleaning. Some people have started to lose their hair from showering with this water. The new business in Gaza is selling clean water from tanks around the city. Of course it is expensive and since few people are employed they cannot buy the water. People here are constantly sick from the lack of clean water.” She added that as a doctor she is seeing an increase in kidney disease, dysentery and other serious medical conditions related to polluted water. If people are lucky enough to survive the Israeli air strikes and sniper fire they go on to face the threat of dirty, dangerous water.
Images from Gaza show water tanks driven around the cities, people waiting in lines for water, and children carrying empty water containers searching for water to fill them. Children in Gaza are missing their childhood. They are defined as children by their age but they live as survivors, not as children. They are taking responsibility to protect themselves and their families. When I was a child in a refugee camp in the West Bank, our struggle to obtain basic necessities to survive was the same. Thirty-five years later, Palestinian children are still forced to grow up too soon.
The Middle East Children’s Alliance is working to support the rights of children, particularly the right of Palestinian children to survive and flourish. In the last two years, MECA’s Maia Project has succeeded in building 22 water purification systems in primary schools and kindergartens giving nearly 25,000 children access to clean water. As a result, thousands of mothers will feel less frightened that their children might be harmed by polluted water. Dr. El-Farra has witnessed the precious moments of accomplishment and pride when a new unit is installed.
MECA’s Maia Project seeks to expand to all the schools in Gaza so more children can realize their right to clean water. In South Africa apartheid has ended, but water injustice is still something the inhabitants of the Black townships and other marginalized communities struggle against on a daily basis. In Palestine, we are still struggling against the Israeli apartheid system that deprives us of our basic human rights, including the right to one of the most important things in life: Water.
ZIAD ABBAS works for the Middle East Children’s Alliance.