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‘Counter-infrastructure’ and local water governance: the case of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights

By Muna Dajani[1]

5 am on a crispy early morning in September 2016, Abu Naser (Figure 1) picks me up from my accommodation and on his tractor, we drive towards the apple orchards on the outskirt of Majdal Shams, a Syrian village in the northern tip of the occupied Golan Heights[2]. Lying directly on the 1974 disengagement cease-fire line drawn between Israel and Syria, the apple we will pick today are on the ‘border’ separating Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from its Syrian part. As we arrive, an Israeli army patrol vehicle passes on the dirt road near the fence and causes a storm of dust, leaving the apple orchards covered in yet another layer of dust. Abu Naser family joins, hurriedly picking as many apples as possible, as they yet have to return home, take a shower and start their ‘official’ jobs: one a lawyer, the other an accountant, yet another a musician. That does not stop us from recapturing moments of celebration of any traditional harvest: freshly baked pastries, tea and coffee, apples cut fresh from the trees and accompanied by folklore songs about apple picking and stories of community resistance in 1982. By 10am, we conclude the picking part of the day, and I join Abu Naser for a short drive to deliver the apples to the processing factory in the same village where the apples are thoroughly cleaned, sorted and waxed, ready in plastic containers for the market. Across the street from the processing unit is an apple cooler, where the sorted apples can be stored to preserve their quality and price for the next few months after the season passes[3].

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Figure 1: Abu Naser in the middle of his apple orchard

 

Within that confined geographical spot, in the northern point in the occupied Golan Heights, 12,000 dunums (3,000 acres) of irrigated agricultural land have been developed by the local community throughout the decades since the 1960s. Coupled with distinct landscape transformation, equally distinct water infrastructure dots the landscape ; shallow pools, rainwater harvesting tanks, and a more developed piped network come to define a hydrosocial territory (Figure 2; see also Boelens et al, 2016). To make sense of these configurations of people, water flows and infrastructures attention was given to how communities, under settler colonial and military rule, navigate practices of caring, sharing and knowing their water sources. In doing so, it illuminates how these practices consequently transform communities’ value, use and relationship with land and water (Dajani and Mason, 2018).  

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Figure 2: a view of the apple orchards bordering the ceasefire line (Author’s picture, 2017)

 

Israel, as an occupying power since 1967, has transformed water infrastructure in the Golan Heights. The Israeli state invested heavily in constructing artificial lakes, dams and reservoirs to harness water for the exclusive benefit of Jewish-Israeli settlement agriculture. Groundwater wells were very limited before 1967, but soon after that, the Israeli state (alongside settlement water companies) began drilling for wells throughout the region, and today these wells produce around 10 million cubic meters per year (Dafny et al, 2003). However, groundwater excavation has been a completely an Israeli (state) activity in the Golan Heights, and one that the local community was denied direct access and benefit from. The practices which the indigenous Arab communities have developed throughout the decades therefore represent a case of countering those restrictions imposed on their access and control of their land and the fresh water sources on and within it. ‘Counter-infrastructure’, which emerged as a response to such denial of access and development of water resources, combines material and symbolic resources to advance a space of autonomous action resisting this hydrological domination by the Israeli state. These counter-hegemonic water infrastructures and associated land use choices and local institutions were devised as tools to bypass discriminatory restrictions on the abstraction, storage and use of water for agriculture. The development of such alternative water infrastructure by the indigenous Arab communities represents the development of tactics to respond to hydraulic domination by the Israeli state.

 

The communities had historically carried out decentralised collective efforts to secure water for agricultural development from the nearby springs. Druze farmers testify to the historical success of their communal planning and funding of water resources, predating Syrian rule. Channelling the spring water of nearby springs through basic dirt channels, the farmers began surface irrigation to the central agricultural valley, called Al Marj, to irrigate newly planted apple trees in the early 1940s. The spring water was fetched using cement and rock channels (Figure 3) and transported to the agricultural plots by gravity. As Nazih explains:

“The irrigation was done by rotation. It was a primitive channel. There was someone appointed to oversee and supervise the water allocations, called Natoor, and his job was to supervise and ensure no conflicts and tensions happen over water allocation. Every Natoor was supervised by a committee of farmers in each area, around 3-5. Each problem goes to the committee when the Natoor couldn’t solve it. Each dunum for instance needed 2 hours of irrigation so sometimes there is conflict around timetables. Even if these channels are not used anymore today, we still do the rotation between landowners in Al Marj with drip irrigation".

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Figure 3: Remains of the cement canals on the main road (right) and within Nazih’s orchard (Author’s picture, 2017)

As land reclamation accelerated and water needs rose, farmers began carrying out acts of reclaiming access to water and increasing their share. After 1967, the community was denied access to a volcanic lake called Birket Ram when the Israeli water company (Mekorot) confiscated the lake and began extensive abstraction of its waters to the newly established Israeli settlements.

The Syrian farmers began retaliation acts and carried out multiple attempts to pump water from the lake in the middle of the night. Using mobile tankers, they transported the pumped water to their land to irrigate their newly-planted crops a few hundred metres away. This became riskier after 1981 annexation, as Shihadeh, a resident and agronomist from the area, shares:

"After the confiscation of Birket Ram, it is a known story here that the farmers used to pump water from the lake at night. Only after the annexation would the border control (Israeli army) go around in night patrols to arrest these farmers and confiscate their pumps. This is not because the military occupation was less brutal, they are the same. However, after the annexation the attack was more severe and targeted".

While the night pumping was a defiant act, it was not sufficient to provide enough water for the growing irrigated agriculture. To secure sufficient water sources to irrigate the apple orchards, the farmers began digging small ponds to capture rainwater (Figure 4), in addition to other small-scale efforts to provide water for irrigation. Similar to pumping water from the lake, such infrastructures were deemed illegal in the eyes of the Israeli state. Shehadeh elaborates:

“Between 1975 and 1985, the region witnessed the largest expansion in land development. In addition to increasing the agricultural lands, there was increased activity in creating ponds. These ponds were also dug but they reached a depth of 5-6m only and were 5-6m in diameter. Other shallow wells were there but as you know many failed because they were not based on a geological or hydrological survey. It was also a very expensive action but the challenge to develop the land was an instrumental driver for such actions”

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Figure 4: rainwater pond built by the Syrian population (Author’s picture, 2012)

 

However, the rainwater ponds proved insufficient to meet the demand and required a lot of manual work in addition to being extremely costly. Other mechanisms had to be devised to capture more rainwater to keep the orchards alive and thriving. Hundreds of circular metal tanks (Figure 5), with a volume between 300 and 1,000 cubic metres were built and erected on agricultural land to collect rainwater. These metal tanks started dotting the landscape, in defiance of the Israeli water law which prohibited the harvesting of rainwater for private use, as the Water Law of 1959 treated all water as state property. The building of tanks was a trial and error effort by individual farmers, such as Nazih, a veteran political activist and farmer recalls:

"The first one to consider building a reservoir designed it as a cube. The consideration was to collect rainwater or bring water from Sa’ar River. However, it was not strong enough and the water seeped. Others began designing it in a circular shape and made 4 of them... and just like mushrooms the reservoir tanks spread all over. 400 cubic metres to 800 cubic metres People worked at night, since the committee of planning and construction in cooperation with the police were the main actors monitoring our villages in the morning, at night the staff goes home. This is when the welders begin working, and by the next day, the tank will be set up and ready. The Israeli state at first didn’t pay attention but later on, it began intimidating us by issuing demolition orders and imposing fines".

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Figure 5: Satellite image of some of the rainwater harvesting tanks in the agricultural areas

The state observed with serious concern the proliferation of these tanks, and began legally prosecuting farmers for installing them and collecting rainwater. Some farmers share how they were legally persecuted and charged for negatively impacting the groundwater levels on the long term, a charge the Israeli settlements were never convicted of despite constructing more than 18 large artificial lakes capturing runoff in the centre and south of the Golan Heights. Faced with increasing pressure from the state, coupled with unfavorable marketing conditions for selling their produce and fierce competition from the Israeli settlements, the farmers decided to demand water allocations through direct negotiation with the Israeli water company Mekorot. These encounters with Mekorot began in the 1990s, creating channels of negotiation and lobbying to acquire water rights and receive quotas for irrigation water from freshwater and groundwater sources, including Birket Ram. However, farmers still were placed with the responsibility to develop their own network, which they have collectively fundraised and constructed themselves without any help from the state.

 

Each cooperative consisted of a number of farmers collectively applying as one unit for water quotas, providing details of their plot sizes and the type of crop grown. The cooperatives started receiving around 70 cubic meters per dunum in the 1990s, but the collective efforts of lobbying raised this to 250 cubic meters per dunum (40% of what is needed) by 2016 (Keary, 2013). Today, there are 17 cooperatives with farmers being shareholders in each cooperative. The cooperatives have paved the way to developing community-led and developed assemblage of pipes and pumps providing water from the lake to the agricultural land. Thus far, they have secured over 40 per cent of the water irrigation needs of Arab farmers with apple orchards. Farmers were thus able to irrigate a crop considered “the bloodline of life” by developing counter-infrastructure which is bottom-up and most importantly not state-funded, owned or operated.

 

In the occupied Golan Heights, where Israel has asserted a monopoly of control over water resources, the water counter-infrastructure of the Syrian farmers challenged the ‘impermeability’ of state laws and infrastructures. What began as simple acts of ‘illegal’ water collection has been scaled up to a collectively managed water network in constant negotiation and contestation with the state. These everyday infrastructures represent local practices striving for water autonomy, in defiance of the legality of state control of resources. It also illuminates on the limitation of the political reach of the state, however entrenched it is in the landscape (Meehan, 2014). Such counter-infrastructures have proven to be a manifestation of collective oppositional water governance by creating alternative spaces of rule outside of the realm of the state and by defying state efforts to order and discipline alternative waterscapes (Meehan, 2013).

References:

Boelens, R., Hoogesteger, J., Swyngedouw, E., Vos, J., Wester, P. 2016. Hydrosocial Territories: A Political Ecology Perspective. Water International 41(1): 1–14.

Dafny, E., Gvirtzman, H., Burg, A., Fleischer, L. 2003. The hydrogeology of the Golan basalt aquifer. Israel Journal of Earth sciences. 52:139-153

Dajani, M., Mason, M. 2018. Counter-Infrastructure as Resistance in the Hydrosocial Territory of the Occupied Golan Heights. In Water, Technology and the Nation-State, eds. F. Menga and E. Swyngedouw. Routledge , 147–62.

Keary, K. 2013. Water Is Life : A Consideration of the Legality and Consequences of Israeli Exploitation of the Water Resources of the Occupied Syrian Golan. Al Marsad Publication

Meehan, K. 2013. Disciplining de facto development: water theft and hydrosocial order in Tijuana,

Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 31: 319-336

Meehan, K. M. 2014. Tool-power: Water infrastructure as wellsprings of state power. Geoforum 57(1), pp. 215–224.

 

 

[1] Senior Research Fellow at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University and part of the T2GS team

[2] The Israeli military occupation, since 1967, of two-thirds of the Syrian Golan Heights, followed in 1981 by de facto annexation, created a situation where only five Syrian Arab villages (out of 2 cities and hundreds of villages), clustered in the north, remained with access to 20,000 dunums (2000 ha) of cultivated land, compared to 80,000 dunums (8000 ha) of cultivated land farmed by Jewish-Israeli settlers (Kearly, 2013)

[3] Notes from the field, Majdal Shams, September 2016