Water, Internet and MacGyver in Nablus

“Everybody hacks here,” C (the assistant director) leaned against the kitchen counter, drinking tea. His casual response to my asking if I should install a VPN. Overall he felt it would be a waste as governmental organizations can gain access easily regardless of such technology and hacking is incredibly popular in Nablus. “In fact,” he continued. “There have been times I haven’t been able to use my computer because someone has taken over it.”

Later that evening the electricity went out. In the few days I’ve been here, we’ve faced two electricity outages and three days of water shortage. Today I took a shower using one and a half containers of bottled water. Yet, though citizens may have trouble accessing electricity for their lights and water for their showers, you’ll also find many are equipped with iPhones, laptops and all manner of technology. There’s a strange sort of duality here between technology and underdevelopment. On one hand, most of my students will likely be very tech savvy, on the other hand electricity outages and water depletion is not uncommon here.

Last night, as I sat on the balcony drinking tea and eating a fresh Falafel made by a sociable stand owner down the street, I noticed a young woman sitting on top of her roof on her laptop. She laughs at something and leans back to rest on a black cylinder which squats on her building. The next day I met a taxi driver, who I would come to know affectionately as “Super driver” who had wi-fi in his cab. He would often pick up his cellphone while driving and, removing his ever-present cigarette from his mouth, answer “Yes habibi”. Of course, despite all of their tech. savviness, so much hinges on having electricity or, if you’re wealthy, a generator. While staying there I sometimes found myself unable to finish lesson plans due to an unexpected electricity outage.

As for water, most, if not all buildings in Nablus, feature a flat top with a large black container positioned on them. Every night, these black containers are replenished with water. Some of you may wonder: where does this water come from? In fact, the water is effectively allocated to the West Bank by Israel, which controls the water supply between Gaza, Israel and the West Bank. Now, some readers may have read the Oslo II Accords and point out that Nablus is located in the small percentage of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority; therefore, the water should be controlled by the PA. Actually, there’s a small asterisk there which indicates they should be allowed to control the water insofar as it does not affect the Israeli settlements(page 103) (Also found here) So, in practical terms, Israel controls the water as any water available to the region reaches the settlements first. The settlements themselves are sprawled around near villages outside of Nablus, often surrounded by walls and the IDF.

I talked more with C about this and he highlighted Oslo II as one of the major reasons we, and other Nablusis living in our area, were dealing with water shortages. “There’s also just not good infrastructure here,” he told me.  “We only get water bills sporadically, so maybe we haven’t paid.” I nodded. Each building in our area was outfitted with a large black tank on top of the roof. Every night, new water filled the tank, but often very slowly and sometimes not at all.

“How does water even get up there?” I asked him. “Where does it come from?”

“You know,” he said, finally looking up from the computer screen. “I have no idea. That’s a good question. There’s probably an aquifer near here.”

Water in Palestine is a complex issue. The joint water committee or JWC, a partnership between Israel and Palestine’s Palestinian Water Authority (created after Oslo II) approves all new drill sites for water and, in practice, the amount of water allotted to Palestinians. According to the Israeli government, some of the approved drill sites have yet to be tapped; but, Palestine is guilty of illegally drilling elsewhere (here) (here). The PLO, the governing party of the Palestinian Authority maintains that the Oslo II Accords have not yet been fulfilled. According to an article written by a member of the Negotiations and Development unit, the water resources in the region continue to be divided disparately between Palestinians and Israelis (here). Some cite the codification of inequality in the Oslo Accords as the cause, others blame infrastructure and poor management by the Palestinian Authority.  A recent article on Bloomberg speaks to this disparity, highlighting poor infrastructure which has left many unconnected to the grid of water lines. “According to Water Authority statistics, Israel now supplies more than double the required amount to the Palestinian Authority, or 53 mcm, but even that does not meet the areas’ needs”. Unfortunately, around 30% of that is lost due to leaking pipelines.

Later in the article, Tamar Feldman, an attorney with a civil-rights company in Israel,  notes the following:

“The West Bank water problem is threefold. First comes the “outdated and dysfunctional” Oslo framework. Second are the more than 100 “unrecognized” Arab villages in West Bank areas under full Israeli control, which have no access to the national water grid. And third is Israel’s refusal to license new Palestinian wells. The military authority destroys wells drilled without a license as well as old water cisterns that have been repaired for use, she said.”

This, is perhaps a rather good summary of some of the main issues with something a simple as water. Of course, water isn’t solely a Palestinian-Israeli divide issue, it is also tied closely to the issue of poverty and wealth disparity. During my conversation with C, the assistant director,  he also noted at one point that water and electricity tend to “go out” more in places like the Balata refugee camp than in the region we lived in. After living for two weeks in a region near the Souk,  the other teachers and I moved to a wealthier section of Nablus. There the water almost never went out, even though more people resided in the apartment. Of course, that could also partially be due to the landlord of the other building; but, I wonder if it also may be that the wealthier get more governmental attention and, in general, have more access to resources.

My inclination is to say that developing grid works for water and distributing should be simpler and more accessible than, say, the internet or the phones that many of my students were equipped with. Even so, technology is not as accessible as this article may make it seem. For one, it tends to be more difficult due to sanctions and the reality of being an unrecognized country to obtain something as simple as a charger. I learned this when mine broke one day. Somehow, I had managed to hit it on the desk just so and one of the metal prongs that connected the battery box to the detachable cord broke off and slid into the box. As I shook the plastic box, listening to the sound of metal knocking around, I felt certain this was a death sentence for it. R.I.P. charger.  In the U.S. I would normally order one off of Amazon for a few dollars, but here I needed to find a store that could recognize it and attempt to repair it or order a new one at a high price. To my surprise, they managed to fix it! This involved them breaking apart the protective box that surrounded the main section of the charger, removing part of the cord and replacing it with another one and finish by gluing or soldering it firmly in place. To me, this was some unthought-of MacGyver level stuff. If you’re impressed by that, which I was, you’d probably be interested to learn more about the innovative tech start-ups developing in Palestine which may not only help the economy, but also influence the culture (as things like this tend to do everywhere)! Overall,  as we develop a sense of what technology can do and we discover more disparities between what we’d expect of old technology (like water grids) and new technology (like the internet, computers, etc.). Then, Maybe as we refine the old technologies, maybe even using the new ones with the help of our MacGyver friends, we’ll be more ready to solve problems that now seem insolvable. Who knows?


3 thoughts on “Water, Internet and MacGyver in Nablus

    1. Thank you. I thought it was interesting, I suppose. I struggle a bit with using the word ‘interesting’ because it doesn’t feel appropriate to use when describing something like resource insecurity.
      Hopefully I can explore it more. In the mean time, I should probably clean up this post a little bit. The writing is a little messy.


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