Senator Lee Rhiannon – speech about EWASH report on water, sanitation, hygiene situation in the occupied Palestinian territories

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
September 12, 2012

One might think that in a dry, Middle Eastern landscape there simply is not enough water to go around. But the reality is that an accident of birth determines your access to life-saving water. For example, while many Palestinians regularly have their water supply reduced by the Israeli national water company, Mekorot, Israelis on illegal settlements in the West Bank face no such restrictions.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:09): I express my sadness and acknowledge our great loss at the recent death of Joan Bielski, and I pay tribute to her memory. Joan is remembered for her passionate commitment to social justice and for the many great reforms brought about through her sustained advocacy.

Joan was born in Narrabri in the twenties and, like many women at that time, left school to find work before receiving the leaving certificate. In 1941, as soon as she turned 18, she joined the armed forces until the end of the Second World War and then studied to become a teacher. Indeed, Joan was a true educator and, from the early fifties up to this very year, spent her life educating and bringing about generational change in practically every level of society.

As a research officer on the Royal Commission into Human Relationships in 1975 and through the New South Wales Ministry of Education she advised the government, universities, colleges and schools on discrimination and sexism, multicultural education and anti-discrimination legislation within education, and employment in education. She was also instrumental in improvements in the school curriculum, in the introduction of TAFE apprenticeships for girls and in re-entry education and training programs for women that are still in place to this day.

Joan was a founding member of Women in Education, women educators lobbying for equal opportunity for women and girls, and a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby. She worked on the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, which brought about far-reaching reforms for women in regard to education and child care, employment and poverty, divorce law and inheritance tax. She was also a founding member and honorary secretary of Women Into Politics, which researches and advises on the issues that hinder the participation of women in politics and public life.

Joan and other WEL members played a key role in setting up the Women’s Coordination Unit and the New South Wales Women’s Advisory Council. This was a huge achievement, with the unit being part of the premier’s department. In the 1980s I was fortunate to be on the Women’s Advisory Council, and this is when I first met Joan. My strong memory of Joan is that she was a woman of ideas and energy. Joan was always positive—if on council or in any campaign we hit a roadblock Joan would have a plan. Joan and Jocelyn Scutt were the driving force in achieving far-reaching changes to the sexual assault laws in the 1980s that council worked on extensively. In the 1970s Joan was actively involved in the federal Commission of Inquiry into Poverty. This resulted in legislation recognising the needs of single parents and their children.

As a lifelong advocate of equality for women in employment, education and public life, Joan was twice awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia: in 1988 for her services to women and girls in education, and in 2004 for services to women in politics and public life. Not only was she a tireless campaigner for the rights and equal opportunities of women but, with her inexhaustible energy, she also fought discrimination in all its forms, stood up for Indigenous and migrant workers’ rights at a time when few others did and lobbied to put an end to the White Australia policy.

Joan died in the year of the 40th anniversary of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, which adds to our sad loss. Joan was organising two tables for the celebratory event. It is very sad that Joan will not be at this dinner. On the day Joan suffered the massive stroke that killed her she had spent the day at Older Women’s Network’s Rights Roadblocks and Resilience forum. Joan’s friend Helen L’Orange, in writing about being with Joan at this event, gives a beautiful picture of Joan. On that day they discussed two of Joan’s passions—preserving the women’s prison site in Tasmania and addressing systemic discrimination.

Joan’s energy shone through. What I liked so much about Joan is how she just got on with the task at hand. Joan’s own words reveal her strength and the guiding force through her life. ‘I have always believed,’ she said, ‘that as one of the few of my generation that had the privilege of higher education, I could—and should—be of service to my fellow citizens.’ On another matter, the EWASH campaign is undertaking important work in Palestine. EWASH, which stands for the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group, is a coalition of almost 30 organisations, including the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF; the United Nations Development Program; the Applied Research Institute—Jerusalem; the Near East Council of Churches; the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee; and the East Jerusalem YMCA.

The campaign seeks to draw attention to the vast inequalities of water access between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. EWASH states:

As an Occupying Power, the Israeli government is responsible under International Humanitarian Law for the well-being of Palestinians, including ensuring that they have adequate water supply. Even though it controls all sources of fresh water in the West Bank the Israeli government has neglected this obligation.

The campaign has issued a challenge for people to live on 24 litres of water for 24 hours, including drinking, cleaning, cooking and hygiene. Sadly, this is a reality for many Palestinians.

One might think that in a dry, Middle Eastern landscape there simply is not enough water to go around. But the reality is that an accident of birth determines your access to life-saving water. For example, while many Palestinians regularly have their water supply reduced by the Israeli national water company, Mekorot, Israelis on illegal settlements in the West Bank face no such restrictions. Indeed, EWASH estimates that some settlements use 20 times as much water as their Bedouin neighbours. One such settlement, R’oi, uses 431 litres of water per person per day whilst the neighbouring Bedouin village of A-Jadida is only able to use 20, only just above the minimum amount that the World Health Organisation estimates is needed to sustain a life. Some, such as a report from the French parliament’s foreign affairs committee in January this year, call this ‘water apartheid’.

A recent report from the MA’AN Development Center in Ramada, entitled Parallel realities, explores the depressing water politics in the Jordan Valley, where Israeli settlers receive subsidised water, which ends up encouraging waste. The pictures of the full swimming pools and lush green gardens of the settlement of Masua within a parched landscape illustrate those water politics. An EWASH report notes that:

Due to the Israeli-imposed blockade on Gaza, restrictions on import to the Gaza Strip of materials and equipment necessary for development and repair of infrastructure have led the water and sanitation situation to reach crisis point. Poor maintenance of the sewage treatment plants (as well as restrictions on entry of fuel and electricity) has resulted in 60-80 millions litres of untreated or partially treated sewage flowing daily into the sea and contaminating the underground aquifer. During Operation Cast Lead, over 30 km of water networks were damaged or destroyed by the Israeli military in addition to 11 wells operated by the water authorities in Gaza.

The problem of water, a vital and strategically important commodity, runs even deeper. EWASH continues:

Israel retains control of all underground and surface water resources in the West Bank. Due to allocations of transboundary water resources agreed upon under the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (1995), Palestinians are only allowed to abstract 20 percent of the “estimated potential” of the Mountain aquifer under the West Bank, Israel abstracts the balance (80 percent) plus overdraws its sustainable yield often by more than 50 percent. Palestinians need Israeli permits to develop their water resources and infrastructure and are severely restricted on what they can do through the Joint Water Committee (JWC).

EWASH goes on:

Whilst both Israelis and Palestinians sit on this committee, Israel has veto power and final say on decisions. A number of essential projects for Palestinians have been denied permits or delayed as a result.

I do encourage the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, to raise the issue with the Israeli government to help ensure that Palestinians are not left thirsting for justice and that aid dollars allocated to Palestine are not wasted in the selfish water politics in the region.

I congratulate EWASH for their advocacy campaign and encourage Australians to get involved with their work to highlight the everyday injustices that the Palestinians face simply for being Palestinians and simply because of where they were born.

Link to parliamentary Hansard