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(Photo: flickr / cc / Tom Yeager)

The Water of Life: Thirsting for Justice in a World of War

Robert C. Koehler

I’m thirsty. Indeed, I’m overwhelmed by thirst, thinking about those who lack access to clean water. I’m thirsty for a different world.

“In Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lack water, including those living in hospitals and refugee camps,” Sarah Kendzior wrote in Al-Jazeera last week. “On July 15, citizens of Detroit held a rally in solidarity, holding signs that said ‘Water for all, from Detroit to Palestine.’ A basic resource has become a distant dream, a longing for a transformation of politics aimed at ending suffering instead of extending it.”

Water is our common need, our common source of being. In bankrupt Detroit (city of my birth), as the world now knows, the poor and struggling segment of the population — the people whose overdue water bills exceed $150 — face water shutoff. The United Nations, for God’s sake, has condemned the action by the city’s emergency manager as a human rights violation. Thousands of residences — housing as many as 100,000 people — have had their water shut off so far, out of a total city population of 700,000.

Ironically, Detroit is surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Michigan license plates used to proclaim: “Water Wonderland.”

Austerity, austerity, God shed his grace on thee . . .

As with draconian austerity measures elsewhere, those who bear the greatest burden are the poor, the ones who are barely making it anyway and face the daily and weekly choices of paying for food, paying their rent or taking care of utility and other bills. Alas, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department is owed millions of dollars and has to collect. With the city reeling in bankruptcy, it has no choice. Sorry, poor people.

Except, here’s the thing. Many commercial entities also owe money to the DWSD: “Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field, Palmer Park Golf Club and half of the commercial and industrial buildings in the city . . . owe roughly $30 million in overdue water fees,” Drew Gibson writes at TruthOut. And the State of Michigan itself, according to the Daily Beast, owes $5 million.

The big players may also owe money but they can contest it. They have clout, so they’re left alone. Implementing a regime of austerity means squeezing the powerless. And seldom mentioned is the fact that squeezing them costs money. The city’s emergency manager has hired a private contractor, Homrich — for over $5 million, according to The Progressive — to turn off Detroiters’ water.

Last week’s Progressive article, by Ruth Conniff, also notes: “The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is a public asset valued at $6.4 billion. Forty-five percent of the utility’s annual budget goes to Wall Street banks to service its debt — a debt the emergency manager has the power to renegotiate.”

But water shutoffs for the poor apparently come first. Austerity is in no way meant to interfere with the rich getting richer. Detroit’s troubles are framed as straightforward and financial, but that’s just part of the game of power and dominance being played here. To the political and corporate sharks in charge of the Motor City right now, the human right to water is not much of a value, not when the possibility of privatizing public resources looms so seductively.

I thirst for a different sort of world, one in which water is not just another commodity, something to be controlled, to one’s own advantage and another’s detriment.

“There’s more blood than water today in Gaza,” Palestinian poet Jehan Bseiso wrote this week at Electronic Intifada as the bombardments continued.

And just as the powerful play at austerity, so they also play at war. Brent Patterson, political director at the Council of Canadians, who quoted Bseiso, also cited the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in a recent essay:

“After two and a half weeks of bombardments from the air and ground, roughly two-thirds of the Gaza Strip’s inhabitants — 1.2 million people — are suffering from severe disruptions to the water and sewage systems, according to Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene, a coalition of around 40 humanitarian groups operating in the occupied territories. In addition to the damage of the central pipeline and the reservoirs — which affects cities and villages throughout Gaza — home pipes and water containers on roofs have been damaged by the bombardments.”

And an early July article in The Guardian by John Vidal is headlined thus: “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn.”

While the article focuses primarily on the tactics of the rebel group ISIS, Vidal notes that getting a stranglehold on the water supply is a primary goal of all sides in this desperate conflict — more important than controlling the oil refineries.

He writes: “Last week Iraqi troops were rushed to defend the massive 8km-long Haditha Dam and its hydroelectrical works on the Euphrates to stop it falling into the hands of ISIS forces. Were the dam to fall, say analysts, ISIS would control much of Iraq’s electricity and the rebels might fatally tighten their grip on Baghdad.

“Securing the Haditha Dam was one of the first objectives of the American Special Forces invading Iraq in 2003.”

These are the reckless tactics of war — every kind of war. Revering and protecting our water supply, not merely “controlling” it, is a far better use of our blood, sweat and tears.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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