Saturday, July 12, 2008

Leaking faucets

Water is the most limiting factor for food production in many countries of the world. Nearly half of the “water-poor” world population is concentrated in the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in countries where poverty and inequality are endemic. Other “water-poor” regions include some of the poorest countries in the world such as Yemen, Mali, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia and Somalia. Moreover, most of these countries suffer from deficient governance systems.

Throughout history, farmers in the drylands have relied on a variety of water-saving techniques and of hydraulic engineering approaches to use the renewable water resources available to them. Examples include terracing for water harvesting and soil conservation in the mountains of Lebanon as well as water transport through the elaborate qanat systems of Iran and Iraq. There are also reports of early drip irrigation technology using reed and clay vessels for the production of vegetables in semi-desert. Moreover, the steppe-based agro-pastoral systems which associated the seasonal cropping of drought-tolerant cereals with small ruminant production allowed the nomads and semi-settled populations to maximize the use of the sparse and variable rainfall that characterizes these regions.

Since the Green Revolution of the 1960’s, water-starved countries have- paradoxically-adopted policies favoring intensive, irrigated agriculture in order to address demand for food and to encourage an export-oriented agriculture which was expected to be a major source of hard currency. “Dry” countries have endeavored to build more dams, sink more wells and construct water supply infrastructure, in order to address the supply side of water management. Today, the agriculture sector accounts for over 85% of total water consumption in many of these countries, including Lebanon, where irrigation is often practiced with low efficiency, sometimes below 50%.This means that half the water that is drawn from a well or a canal is actually used by the plant for growth. The rest of the water goes to waste. More over, water that is drawn from various sources for use in irrigated agriculture often goes to irrigate high-value, export crops that are not consumed by local people, while the poor, in rural or urban regions, lack access to clean water for drinking and domestic use. This situation is especially dramatic in Egypt where many middle class and poor neighborhoods lack access to clean water while export goods and golf courses, exclusively made for the rich and the tourists, are irrigated around the clock.

Most of the countries in the dry part of the world are today considered to have exhausted their water resources and to largely depend on trade to import water primarily in the form of food. This is the case of the Gulf countries. In Lebanon, we exploit the groundwater in a manner that is totally unsustainable, and export the water that is not renewable, in the form of potatoes or animal feed. As a result, the water table in the Biqa` plain has dropped by several hundred meters in a few decades, and, in a few years, the cost of pumping water for drinking and domestic use may become prohibitive.

However, as the food crisis continues to unfold, food production is once again becoming a priority goal, and it is expected that farming will become a strategic economic activity. If Lebanon adopts this approach, (BIG "if" here) we will have to look very closely at what we are planting and at the volumes of water we are using for producing, for example, a ton of potato versus a ton of wheat, and how much of the precious water we are effectively exporting. We will need a strategy for water conservation, and for ensuring that we make best use of the available water, especially when it comes to irrigating export crops. We must realize that every ton of produce shipped is equivalent to tens (sometimes hundreds) of tons of water used for growing it. We must also be aware that as occupied Palestine continues to dry up after the zionist settlers have exhausted the Palestinian aquifers and the Jordan River, their eyes will, once again, turn towards the Lebanese water. And that our resistance must not be limited to a national military defense strategy, but must also include a national water conservation strategy. We need to use every drop of water with care in order to produce and live well and stay rooted in our lands. We need this in order to eliminate the poor excuse often used by Israel and its friends, which is that "if the Lebanese cannot use their water efficiently in farming, then they should "sell" it to Israel which will know how use it well. They can then import their food from Israel".

In the wake of the July 2006 war, I was in South Lebanon and a Spanish reporter interviewed me for Spanish TV about the war and its impact. Somehow, we got talking about water and the South and Israel's views on the water of South Lebanon, and he gave me the "if you waste it then you deserve to lose it" argument. I answered him: "Juan, you told me that you live in an old charming house in Madrid, right?" He said: "yes". I said: "you have a leaking faucet in your house, and you are not using a small toilet flush when you urinate. So I'm going to take your water away and give it to your neighbors and when you need to pee or wash your hands, you'll just have to use their toilet." I think he got the point. But I also think that living in an old charming house is no excuse for neglecting leaking faucets.

1 comment:

Ms Levantine said...

We cannot affod to neglect our water problem anymore. In the North they started the shooting over water rights.

But I am confident the new gov. will look into it. Next time Raymond Audi invites his new colleague Ali Qanso to a party in Faqra they will surely discuss the topic.

Your logic is flawed: Juan should let the Israeli manage his leaking faucets, not you. In fact, we should give them everyting while we are at it.