Monday, July 21, 2008

Water, food and social justice

I have received this link to the NYT article on food and water and the Middle East from 3 different sources. Thanks (in this order to D., Leila and Rami).

"CAIRO — Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a quandary, as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water."

There is a problem of water in the Middle East. It is an ancient problem that is now being revived because of the food crisis, and because, clearly, strategic choices have to be made regarding the future of food systems in the region.

But the food-water crisis is also an opportunity to underscore Israeli achievements and supremacy and contrast it to Arab underdevelopment.

"For example, Doron Ovits, a confident 39-year-old with sunglasses pushed over his forehead and a deep tan, runs a 150-acre tomato and pepper empire in the Negev Desert of Israel. His plants, grown in greenhouses with elaborate trellises and then exported to Europe, are irrigated with treated sewer water that he says is so pure he has to add minerals back. The water is pumped through drip irrigation lines covered tightly with black plastic to prevent evaporation."

Of course, you can be impressed with that, in the same way as you can be impressed with the fact that Israel owns hundreds of nuclear weapons (all products of its advanced technologies) when the neighboring countries do not.

Israel is ahead in modern technologies. This is for sure. Whether these technologies can serve humanity and sustainability is a different matter all together.

The food crisis is also an opportunity for many regional or international actors who suffer from political autism, self delusion, amnesia, intellectual laziness or who are just callous, to try to push forward a "technology for peace" deal between Israel and the Arabs. This is a long way from the "land for peace" deals which were all stillborn- why should Israel give something it can keep?.

Israeli technology is for sale- to anyone. Israel sells mostly military and repressive technologies to third world tyrants, but agricultural technologies are also on offer. And now is the time to try to capture some of the dividends of the oil prices. This is why we are increasingly hearing about Israel's water technologies achievements, from sources as various as the (corrupt) prime minister Olmert in the Med forum to this article in the NYT. One might admire Israeli agriculture and water saving technology, but one should keep in mind the tremendous human and material investments that were available to Israel when most of the Arab countries were still emerging from centuries of colonial rule (and going straight into autocratic rule, courtesy of former colonial rulers). One must also remember that Israeli agriculture is heavily subsidized and that the reason why Israel still supports its agriculture is purely political: to be able to control the land. Israeli agriculture is a colonial occupation tool. Look at the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. And remember that Israel does not lift a finger for the Palestinian farmers except to shoot their children, beat them, humiliate them at checkpoints, rob them of their water and land and destroy their crops (please do not send me info about token gestures).

But the discussion about food and water is also the opportunity to brandish the (now much discredited, but the writers do not seem to know) "comparative advantage" argument:
"Economists say that rather than seeking to become self-sufficient with food, countries in this region should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage, like produce or flowers, which do not require much water and can be exported for top dollar."
This is a classic argument of the liberal tool box, which sounds a bit like a line in a poem by Abou Nawwas, the Abbaside poet who sang in praise of wine: "wa dawiha billati kanat hiya al da'ou" which translates approximately as: "cure the disease with its cause". Specialization of agriculture for trade purposes caused the destruction of local food systems and the demise of farming and rural society in the developing world. What the Egyptians are being told today by the author (and by most international institutions) is: "use your water to plant luxury items so that the rich can decorate their houses and eat off season tropical fruits when it is snowing in Paris (or London, or...). For your daily food, just get what is dumped on the market, that is if you can afford it." And of course, they are being duped: it is NOT TRUE that "produce" (what produce?) or flowers do not require much water. Flowers and vegetables actually require more water than field crops.

I will spare you the spiel about the way to go. Just look up anything by La Via Campesina on the role of the small farmers. And remember: this is about social justice. It is indivisible. Oppressive states, colonizers and occupiers cannot be part of social justice movements.

No comments: