Historically the source of many conflicts, water grabbing is the control and theft of water resources by the powerful, often at the expense of local populations and ecosystems. It can result in dispossession, displacement and ecological destruction...
In an age of dwindling resources and climate change, water is increasingly being privatised.
It is now 24 years since the United Nations designated March 22 as World Water Day.
Al Jazeera looks at water grabbing in four parts of the globe, including large-scale damming in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, the mining industry in South Africa, inequitable water practices in Palestine/Israel and the impact of dams on people living along the Mekong River in southeast Asia.
The Israel-Palestine water conflict
Since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, Palestinians have been at the receiving end of discriminatory water-sharing agreements. These have prevented them from developing their water infrastructure.
Thousands of Palestinians are deprived of reasonable and fair water supply.
In this way, water has long been used as another tool to control and maintain the occupation.
More than 500,000 Israelis live in Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, according to the Israeli rights group B'Tselem. Tiberio Grimberg is a gardener in the Israeli settlement Beka’ot, in the Jordan Valley. He says that when it comes to water, the desert is like a jungle. “It’s a continuous battle. And the Palestinians are losing it.”
Abed al Mahdi Salami, 73, is the head of the small Bedouin community of al-Hadidiyah in the Jordan Valley. He says he needs to travel more than 25km every day with the tractor to access water. Near his tent, a water pump from the large Israeli utility company Mekorot hums away quietly. “The water is there; you see? Why can’t we use it?” he asks rhetorically.
Water and sanitation structures are often demolished by Israel on the pretext that they are lacking the necessary permits. The lack of water and other basic services resulting from Israeli policies has created a coercive environment that often leaves Palestinians with no choice but to leave their communities. This facilitates an Israeli takeover and even the expansion of illegal settlements.
Palestinians purchase a lot of water from Mekorot, Israel’s state-owned company. In effect, Palestinians are buying back their own water.
Palestinian water projects all over the occupied West Bank need an approval by the Joint Water Committee (JWC), created in 1995, as a temporary measure to manage water affairs in the occupied West Bank. While JWC has representatives from each side, Israel has the upper hand in the implementation of agreements. Only 56 percent of Palestinian projects regarding water and sanitation were granted permits by the JWC (against a near 100 percent approval rate for the Israeli projects).
The Palestinians are heavily dependent on the Israelis for water, in spite of aquifers and rainfall collection basins concentrated in the north-central areas of Palestinian territories. “There is a deep schism in the right to water access between the two populations,” says Amit Gilutz, a spokesperson for B’Tselem, an Israeli organisation that works to protect the rights of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
While Palestinians could theoretically build their own wells to access the plentiful groundwater, Israel rarely grants permission
Most affected by water scarcity “are rural areas and refugee camps”, says Meg Audette, vice-director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).
“The infrastructure is old in the camps and UNRWA has no mandate to be able to create new infrastructures. We can only monitor water quality and make minimal interventions,” Audete says.
Every year, water supply to Palestinian towns and villages is cut off for days. This forces Palestinians to buy trucked water at five times the price of network water.
In the village of Khirbet Al Halawah, south of Hebron, in the occupied west Bank, average water consumption is 20 litres per person per day. While Israelis have access to around 240 litres of water per person per day, and settlers more than 333, on an average, Palestinians in the West Bank are left with 73 litres. This is far less than the 100 litres per person per day recommended by the World Health Organization.
The refugee camps are administered by the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN organisation created in 1948 for Palestinian refugees. Area A is under Palestinian Authority control (15 percent of the West Bank territories), while Area B is governed by the Palestinian civil administration and guarded by Israeli/Palestinian joint military control. Area C contains the rest of the Palestinian territories, where the Israeli settlements are also located. It is home to more than 150,000 Palestinian residents and 326,000 Israeli settlers.
Water access is severely limited by the Israeli authorities. To the Bedouins, this significantly affects their lives.
In recent years, the country of Nelson Mandela has become one of the least sustainable countries on the African continent.
South Africa is home to some of the largest and deepest mines in the world. As the sixth-largest exporter of coal, the impact on the environment has been devastating. South Africa is one of the countries guilty of a high-level of carbon dioxide emissions. On a community level, the pollution has been left many with respiratory diseases.
But the mining industry has perhaps been most brutal on the country’s water supply. Not only does mining use large amounts of water, abandoned coal mines and waste have also left rivers and dams contaminated.
Coal mining can be traced back to gold mining in the 19th century in the Witwatersrand area, now in Johannesburg. Since then, the country’s industrialisation ambitions have hinged on coal. Around 80 percent of the country’s electricity is generated by coal.
In one of the many informal settlements in Witbank, Chinue lives with her four-month-old baby. Her home, made out of metal sheeting, is next to a coal mine. For over seven years, she has suffered from asthma. Her home, like the others in the townships, has no access to water or electricity.
Eskom’s Duvha Power Plant, the second-largest power plant in all of Africa, was built on a farm called Speekfontein, just outside Witbank. The coal is sourced from the Duvha Opencast Mine, considered the largest opencast coal mine in the southern hemisphere.
Between 2006 and 2016, the number of operational coal mines in South Africa increased by 59 percent.
Willonah Noudo Kubeka, 33, lives with her mother, Agnes, in an informal settlement close to a coal mine. Because of water and air pollution, Willonah suffers from systematic kidney failure. Twice a week, she has to undergo dialysis in order to keep her disease under control.
To extract coal from the ground, miners use explosives. The powerful impact causes small ground movements that produce cracks in the homes of those living in the vicinity.
The Mabola region, near Wakkerstroom, the second-oldest town in Mpumalanga, has been identified as the next area for coal extraction. The proposal to build a coal mine here has raised the ire of activists because of fears it could poison the area’s water supply.
All of the families who live in the Wakkerstroom area will be dislodged to make way for the proposed coal mine. The area is surrounded by mountain springs and valleys and is considered one of 22 strategic water source areas in the country.
Abandoned coal mines tend to pollute the water supply. Many rivers in the Mpumalanga province, have become polluted in what is called “acid mine drainage”. The contamination harms aquatic life. It is also dangerous to anyone who uses the water for agriculture or household purposes.
Without clean drinking water in the areas around the mines, the only way for people to access drinking water is to purchase it at a supermarket. The cost of the bottled water, however, is astronomical.
The government is set to invest more than $70bn on a nuclear power plant. The plan is part of an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jacob Zuma. Naturally, the proposed project has prompted mining companies to file mining claims related to uranium, including in the southern Karoo. “It’s madness,” says 50-year-old Billy Steenkamp, a resident of Beaufort West, a town in the Western Cape.
Omo: The forgotten valley
The Gilgel Gibe III dam, located on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia, is one of the largest and most controversial hydroelectric projects in Africa.
Located in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region of Ethiopia, it is the type of infrastructural project that can change a country’s destiny. It is 240 metres high, 630 metres wide at its ridge, and has a 150km-long dock to power turbines with 1,870 megawatt capacity. It cost $1.7bn to build. The dam’s “big sister,” the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 6,400-megawatt project, is currently under construction along the Blue Nile. The two dams are the most important component of a larger Ethiopian strategy to invest in long-term energy production.
The Gibe III dam was inaugurated on December 17, 2016, and is part of a cascade of five dams, including four on the Omo River, that runs through southern Ethiopia and empties into Lake Turkana in Kenya. Two other dams are already in operation: the Gilgel Gibe I and Gibe II (420 megawatts). The Gibe IV (1,472 megawatts) is still under construction, while Gibe V (4,560 megawatts) is still in the planning phase.
Activists allege that the series of mega dams and resulting agribusinesses are rapidly transforming the territory and culture of local ethnic communities, in some cases uprooting people from their homes.
“The dam has put an end to the Omo River’s seasonal flooding, which 100,000 people directly depend on to water their herds, fish and cultivate their fields. Another 100,000 people are indirectly dependent,” says Francesca Casella of International Survival, a worldwide movement for the rights of indigenous people
The new dam will further affect food security and the quality of life in the Omo Valley and around Lake Turkana in Kenya, according to Felix Horne, a field researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“This project will further increase water extraction,” says Horne. “And the water level has gone down by one and a half metres since Gibe III went into operation, which makes us worry even more.”
The project is being touted as a “revolution” for the economy with up to 700,000 jobs created and new towns in the making. But for the local populations this “revolution” has meant forced displacement, and land confiscation.
According to Luca Manes from the Italian NGO Re:Common, which monitors larger infrastructural projects around the globe: “The Lower Oma Valley tribes have been evicted from their ancestral homes due to the developments. Their pastures and agricultural lands have been turned into industrial plantations of sugar cane, cotton and agro-fuels. There is talk of beatings, abuse and general intimidation by Ethiopian soldiers."
The Grand, along with Gibe III, is the most important part of the Ethiopian government’s aggressive strategy of energy investments. With growth increased to almost 10 percent, strongly supported by China, and a population of more than 100 million people, Ethiopia aims to become a newly industrialised country. The government aims to move from a strongly rural economy to an industrial and service-based economy.
Ethiopia’s hydroelectric strategy will support the development of East Africa’s largest economy. But the use of mega-dams is controversial, both in Ethiopia and neighbouring Kenya.
“The dam was not planned with enough attention to [the] social and environmental impacts,” says Rudo Sanyanga, the Africa programme director for International Rivers, an organisation that monitors the environmental impact of large hydroelectric projects.
“To ensure electricity in the capital and in the rich north, the government has not fully considered the impact on the tribal people who have lived for millennia along the Omo,” she adds.
In April 2016, the Donor Assistance Group, travelled to the South Omo Zone, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region. They said in a report that while communities did not appear to have been forcibly moved, they noted that there had been a series of irregularities in the consultation process.
“Communities were not adequately involved in the planning and decision-making of developments that may affect them and their environment, despite legal obligations to do so,” the report said.
The disputed river
Mega-dams, dykes and drought, from China to Vietnam, along with escalating social and environmental dilemmas are raising political tensions among the states bordering the vast Mekong River.
As the world’s 12th largest river, the Mekong runs from the Tibet through China's Yunnan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Some 28 dams have been planned on the Mekong. The lives of indigenous communities living along the river are likely to change, forever.
The Srekor village and the surrounding areas will soon be flooded because of the construction of the Lower Se San II Dam. The 400-MW dam is to displace more than 5,000 villagers in the Sesan district. Studies claim that the dam could seriously affect fisheries and in turn the livelihoods of more than 100,000 residents living upstream and downstream of the dam.
Activists allege that the construction of the dam has led to large-scale deforestation of protected timber in Cambodia.
The Royal Group of Cambodia’s hydroelectric project in partnership with the Chinese Hydro Lancang International Energy has distributed compensation to families who have had to leave their homes due to the dam. Many, however, feel that the compensation for forced relocation is low, and housing quality is poor. In an instant, middle-aged men and women have had to change their means of securing a livelihood.
According to Pianporn Deetes, from International Rivers, one of the leading organisations for the protection of rivers, interviewed in their Bangkok offices: “About 25 indigenous villages in Laos and two in Thailand will be wiped out by the Pak Beng Dam. Over 6,700 people will have to be forcibly relocated.”
Suk Lang takes tourists out on the Mekong to spot the famous Irrawaddy dolphin, of which only 50 remain in the world. The trip costs tourists only $4.25.
His boat casts off from the Cambodian village of Preah Romkel, in Stung Treng province. A little less than a kilometre out the boat stops just before entering Laotian territory.
This particular stretch of river near the Laos-Cambodia border was once the protected home of the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin. The cacophony from daily explosives used by workers building the Don Sahong Dam has forced the dolphins into unprotected waters.
Chhith Sam Ath, country director of the WWF, says numerous scientific reports “clearly show the dam will do untold damage to migrating fish, and will affect the food security of many fishermen south of the dam.” A report from the Mekong River Commission published in 2015 established that the completion of all 11 dams planned could wipe out half the fish population in the river. This is especially true for large fish that may become extinct. Hundreds of thousands of people would lose the ability to fish the river, a loss of both food and employment. The damage to the development of the country would be incalculable
Over the past five years, Southeast Asian nations have competed to build hydropower dams in an attempt to meet the growing demand for electricity. This is especially true for the more developed economies: Thailand, Vietnam and China. Thailand has built seven large hydroelectric plants in Upper Mekong (known as Lancang in Chinese). The southern part of the basin, which covers Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, contains 11 dams.
Three dams are being built: the Don Sahong Dam, the Xayaburi, and summer 2017 could see planning start on the colossal Pak Beng Dam, in the heart of Laos’ Upper Mekong. Xayaburi will dam the Mekong at one of the points where it gathers the most water. About 95 percent of electricity produced (7,500 gigawatts per year) will be bought by the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand, which is the main customer of the hydroelectric stations Don Sahong and Pak Beng.
Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith has shown willingness to incorporate some elements of sustainability into the country’ dams, a comprehensive study on the impact of all 11 dams along the Mekong is yet to be done.
Photography by Thomas Cristofoletti / RUOM (MEKONG), Fausto Podavini (South Africa and Ethiopia), Gianluca Cecere (Palestine)
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