Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Water Debt

In the shower. 
Jerusalem, April 12, 2010.

The water is running and spitting steam from the variegated spigot, filling the tub splish-splash in a fury.

As a child I would revel in what my Mother called my “shower-baths,” soaking under the shower head as low to the enamel of the tub as I could get, creating the maximum distance between me and the fount, letting the water strike the top of my head and cascade down my cheeks, my eyes, my ears and the nape of my neck. I’d let it in my senses till it dominated everything and the world ceased to interfere with the perfection of immersion in a world I wanted to inhabit but was denied by the presence of lungs and the absence of gills. I dreamed of those, of awaking to a bi-cameral world in which I could wander the upper chamber of air and the lower of water. On television one day the “Incredible Henry Limpet” came on, the tale of a man who suddenly became a fish in a cartoon world. You could have jack-hammered the chair under me and I would not have moved.

Many, many years later, the day before I was to start rehearsals for a new dance, utterly unsure of what to begin and where to start, “Splash” came on and “Falling Into The Sea” began. The pedantic romance between Hanks and Hannah was lost to me in the passion of literally a sea-change in life.

I say all this for context.

In that Jerusalem tub, at the end of a day which saw me awake on the Mediterranean coast, the sound of the sea erupting into my hotel room nine floors above the land on the Tel Aviv shoreline of Israel, I felt guilt. We are, in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, “water fat.” To lie in a tub and let it soak away a day of challenge in my Washington, DC home is an act of indulgence, yes, but somehow full of grace at the same time. To do so here is similarly an act of indulgence, but a profoundly selfish one. Coming face-to-face with that was not only unpleasant, but mind-bending as well. It was unpleasant because something I treasure was suddenly irresponsible and I didn’t like that feeling.

What was more unpleasant still was that it didn’t stop me from doing it anyway, and therein lies the problem.

In the Ramallah summer, and throughout the West Bank and, I presume, Gaza, the Israelis ration the water that comes to “Palestine.” A day on and a day off; a day on, two days off. All along the rooftops of Ramallah black cylinders adorn the rooftop. They’re storage tanks for the days when the water does not come, when the tub in which I would sit were I a guest would be filled with water not for bathing but for drinking and for cooking. For life, not for love.

In earlier days the floors were reinforced under the part of the bathroom where the tub would sit because of the weight of the cast iron and the water that filled it ere they would crash through to the story below.

At the shores of the Dead Sea, standing on the observation deck at one of the many “sea levels” which have existed through the ages, a soft brown earth is visible all around the perimeter. It stops just at the edge of the resorts that dot the horizon all around, on both the Jordanian and Israeli/Palestinian side. The distance between those resorts and the sea is the amount the water has retreated in just the few decades since they were built. They were truly “sea side” resorts. Now some resorts have little shuttle cars to take their guests to waters edge. The Dead Sea, already unique in nature, is dying because it is drying, denied a replenishing flow of water from the Jordan River, which is a river in memory only, diverted now into Israeli farms and faucets as well as Jordanian ones. The lowest body of water on earth is evaporating into the air, into memory.

Across the Sea lies Jordan, divided from Israel by a ditch that was sacred to the history of man, of the Bible and the Koran and the Torah and to pagan religions absorbed by and discarded by these. The bridge over it, which carries a political significance which suggests it should be as deep and as wide as the Mississippi, seems something more out of Monty Python than 20th Century politics. You could cross it and not know it had ever happened. Amman, the Capital of Jordan, will be waterless in 35 years. Virtually land-locked save for the spit of land and water at the Red Sea at Aqaba, it can’t easily afford to buy fresh water from the sea through technology. And soon the aquifers will be gone, millions of years of accumulation consumed in a lifetime. And when that happens, there will be no simple solution. The faucet will stand open, but will there be anything to flow from it save the sound of air hissing through empty pipes?

What we consume today is a debt we incur to our children, to their children, to the animals, flora and fauna dependent every bit as much as we are on the 3% of the worlds water that is fresh.  As I rail against the irresponsibility of people who do not recycle and who consume in the face of scarcity I hear in the water around my ears the hypocrisy of challenging people who don’t give up their cars, which I don’t care about, for the water I don’t give up which I do care about.

We shuttle water around the world today, moving it from Brazil’s sucking up of the Amazon into the fruit we buy in Manama, from the desalinated bottled water we drink in Amman drawn from the Perisan Gulf in a Saudi desalinization plant. Water born in the Cascades evaporates in Japan when poured from a bottle or discarded from a slab of beef raised in the valleys of Montana. It’s bizarre.

In 7 weeks in the Middle East I have seen it rain for 65 seconds and been able to count the drops on the windshield in Bahrain one-by-one.

There will be wars over water or peace over water. We will rise to it or fall beneath it as the land falls in immense sink holes all around the Dead Sea as the water of the ages drains, leaving only open caverns unable to bear the weight of the land above it.

Each drop is precious. Each gallon a life for a week, a meal, a thirst slaked, an ecosystem sustained, a tree nourished. It is currency as currency was defined throughout time, altered only when the Romans came and moved it from its natural flow to its Roman destination. Aqueducts changed history.

The most profound part of Kipling’s Jungle Books is not the tale of friendship or fight, but of the Water Truce between all living things which come when the river dries and all the jungle is thrown into common purpose, when the tiger and the doe share the stream as strangers share a counter in a diner.

In a land where water does not always flow, when Biblical rivers become streams which would envy Rock Creek, where summer means involuntary rationing, I watch the water cascade over my arms, feeling the muscles ease and the soul take comfort. Just as I have all my life I lower my head down, down into the tub, forgetting the day.

Somewhere a faucet is opened and the air hisses through it, adding to my water debt.

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