“WaterGy”, the Militarization of Water Development

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article comes to us from Sam Markwell, a new contributor to La Jicarita. Markwell is a graduate student in the Department of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. His article also marks the first contribution from a member of the UNM Environmental and Economic Justice Working Group (EEJWG). The Group is comprised of students and faculty at the University who, in collaboration with Kay Matthews, begin the work of reimagining the journal. This essay is one such effort. In it Markwell describes recent efforts on water development spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce, the Government of Israel, and New Mexico state government that, in our opinion, marks a frightful new turn in water planning. The world of WaterGy, As Markwell points out in the story, is not one designed to chart a future of more democratic resource use and planning. Rather WaterGy hopes to remake places like New Mexico and Palestine into the image of capital. WaterGy relies on histories of colonialism and militarism to reinforce authoritarian resource control, but Markwell sees histories and contemporary movements around water sovereignty, such as through Native and non-Indian acequia associations, as key sites of resistance to the globalization of water resources.]


ALBUQUERQUE: On September 16th 2011, New Mexico’s Economic Development Department, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, and the Economic Mission of the Government of Israel held the “WaterGy Conference” at Hotel Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque.  “WaterGy”, a less than acoustically appealing blend of the words water and energy, was billed as an opportunity for attendees to collaborate on the production, distribution, and utilization of efficient, cost-effective, environmentally minded water and energy technologies. The audience was composed of representatives from water utilities for regional municipalities and Indian reservations, scientists from national laboratories and university research institutions, state water administrators and engineers, and the professionals of architectural and real estate firms, all positioned to become customers and collaborators with Israeli state and settler proprietors of water and energy technologies.


Bob Feinberg, a real estate agent and co-founder of the marketing firm NoAz, (Hebrew for brash or barefaced) was one of the key organizers of the event. Feinberg, who is active in both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, kicked off the meeting by welcoming the audience, and, with a big smile, introduced Ronit Erlitzki, the cofounder of NoAz, as “a woman who used to be a big shot in the Israeli Army.”  Erlitzki addressed the crowd, emphasizing the ‘natural’ similarities between New Mexico and Israel, stating, “It is basically the same here but here we don’t have anybody shooting bullets at us.”   She went on to detail how this conference and the technologies on sale were not only useful for water or energy development, they were about “improving public health and environmental health which would be driven by capital investment, risk taking, and innovation in the private sector.”  The logic espoused here equates the arid landscapes and the beings that inhabit them through representational regimes of colonial and neoliberal value making as territorial sites, subjects, and objects for profitable settlement, production and development.


Feinberg and Erlitzki pitched the idea of turning New Mexico into a showcase for Israeli technologies.  Stating that no one could be against a program that created new jobs (echoing the rhetoric that privileges corporations as ‘job creators’), Feinberg said, “Why not? We’ve got it all.  We’ve got the land, we’ve got the water, we’ve got the resources.”  Feinberg’s unified ‘we’ rests upon the dispossession of indigenous peoples and Nuevomexicano communities that have been struggling against U.S. settler colonialism and the neoliberal marketization of resource rights, as well as the Palestinian’s struggling against the Israeli occupation.  As bourgeois primitive accumulation narratives go, the colonial regimes become the necessary substratum, or pre-history, of such a capitalist project.


Jon Barela, New Mexico’s Economic Development Secretary, who delivered the keynote speech, also set himself to work firming up contours of self and other.  Barela cast the conference as part of a civilization alliance between US-NM and Israel.  He stated that he was interested in “How to look at issues of water and global geopolitics and turn this into an economic opportunity”.  He asserted the matter at hand was of, “civilizations and countries moving forward… It’s about the evolution of the haves and have-nots”.  Further delineating the U.S. neoliberal shifting of the boundaries of personhood and belonging, Barela announced that he was working on designating New Mexico as an EB-5 program state.  Based on a section of the 1990 Immigration Act which has been re-invigorated following the 2008 financial crisis, EB-5 visas are extended to the foreign elites who can invest 500,000 US dollars into private corporations.  If this investment can provide 10 U.S. citizens with jobs for two years, the investor and their family are eligible for gaining U.S. citizenship.  Read alongside recent U.S. juridical and political affirmations of corporate personhood and the primacy of private property rights over other concepts of rights, Barela’s proposal shows how citizenship is reimagined and utilized as a just another apparatus to serve transnational elite class interests, in this case interests with settler-colonial investments in Israel. He concluded by positing that an economic-civilizational alliance would necessarily be driven by the private sector and would be facilitated by the states of Israel and New Mexico, which drew a standing applause from the audience.


A major topic of speculation was the world of profit awaiting those who could tap into the brackish-water aquifers, New Mexico’s newest resource frontier.  The state is predicting a “supply-demand gap” of nearly 750,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2040.  Surface water supplies are already over-allocated so the question on the table is: how do we turn this saline water deposited in geological formations over 200 million years ago into the lifeblood of further capitalist accumulation? John D’Antonio, now-former State Engineer, delivered a presentation titled “Deep Groundwater Management in New Mexico”.  What emerged from his slideshow was a relatively simple message.  The Office of the State Engineer is to promote development of water resources while ensuring new uses do not impair existing rights or interfere with interstate compact deliveries.  Unlike the thicket of problems that Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe have caused by depleting aquifers immediately connected to surface water (currently being “resolved” through the market in water rights), brackish water extraction would not need to be offset by retiring (purchasing) existing surface water rights. Desalinization cost-efficiency is the only “determining factor” in the impending extraction, and it just so happens that Israel has positioned itself as the global leader in desalinization technologies. The mile-deep aquifer is yet another glimmering oasis in the desert to which the technocrats and capitalists shall lead their cattle.


Since the 1970’s, researchers from New Mexico’s state universities and national laboratories have partnered with Israel on agricultural and industrial research and development projects funded by the U.S. federal government.   In the past twenty years, with a notable increase following 2001, corporations based in New Mexico have received millions of dollars from the U.S. state to conduct research with and deliver military technologies to Israel.   Also in the last decade, New Mexico’s largest municipalities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, have installed water filtration systems purchased from Am’iad Filtration Systems (AFS).  AFS, considered a “father” and “pioneer” of Israeli water technologies, was founded in 1962 at the Am’iad settlement located just north of the Sea of Galilee.  Am’iad, which translates as “my nation is eternal”, was settled in 1946 by Jewish WWII refugees subsidized by the Jewish National Fund and affiliated with Hanoar Haved, a Zionist-socialist youth movement.   Recently privatized and valued at over US $120 billion, AFS was featured last October in the BBC series ‘Horizons: Insight into the Future of Global Business’.  Am’iad employs the motto “as nature intended”.  The naturalization of capitalism and colonialism undergirds the logic at the core of their profit-driven business model.  The conference dripped with this end of history ideology.  Its attempt to replace the emancipatory politics of freedom with the exploitative freedom to conduct business has been raised to the level of a universal philosophy for creating the best possible world.  But nothing could be further from true universality.   This is a globalizing social order that ruthlessly benefits the few at the expense of the many.


The supposed self-evident good of this Israel-New Mexico alliance did not go uncontested.  Responding to the Palestinain call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, protestors from UNM’s Muslim Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the local Another Jewish Voice for Peace picketed at the entrance of Hotel Andaluz.  But the problem of developing and distributing water systems that do not reinforce exploitative colonialist and capitalist class relations remains intact, leaving one to wonder at how to expropriate expropriators who have transformed their wealth into capital and weaponized systems of violent control.   From this juncture, complex theoretical and practical questions emerge concerning how to build connections between New Mexico, the U.S. and the Arab world that are not overdetermined by destinarian settler colonialisms (Israeli and U.S.), militant Orientalism and transnational capitalist interests.


The capitalist connections reproduced through the “WaterGy” conference are maintained through the foreclosure of democratic, decolonial and anticapitalist alternatives to U.S.-Israel “business as usual”.   We should locate this form of economic development in the historical constellation of U.S. state repressions of post-1965 social unrest which “settled” the civil rights movement, the U.S.-Israel geopolitical alliance and its attendant securitized forms of segregated living (gated communities, settlements, policing and imprisonment), increasing disparity in wealth and health, increasing unemployment, and seemingly permanent U.S. imperial violation of foreign countries’ national sovereignty resulting in civilian “collateral damage”.  It is capitalist globalization, but it is a particular kind of globalization made possible through U.S. and Israeli settler colonialism.


If we think about acequias, which are the “lifeblood” of New Mexico’s Pueblo and Hispano/Chicano communities, perhaps we can grasp a symbolic and material basis for countering the Islamophobic thrust of the Israel-New Mexico alliance.  Acequias— whose communal irrigation water sharing infrastructures emerged from Arabic and Islamic egalitarian cultural, ethical and technological roots— have been transformed as they traveled West during the 8th century expansion of the Ummayad Caliphate (under which the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem) into the Iberian peninsula, and later to the new world under the 16th-17th century Spanish colonization.  Acequias remain an important site of cultural and political struggle over the means and modes of production even as New Mexico’s agricultural production has become engulfed in the Cold War economy of U.S. warmaking since WWII.


Nearly every single work on acequias that circulates in the U.S. recounts a trajectory of this sort.  But our East to West accounts tend to leave the East behind, often making a historical trace out of the potential connections that could differently mediate the dominant Orientalist links between “over here” and “over there”.  Acequias (or their ‘cognate’ systems: qanats, huertas, aflaj, etc.) have been shaped by Arabic, Islamic, Spanish Catholic, and Amerindian indigenous traditions in the numerous borderlands that these societies have shared. The potential in these connections— that recognition of an ‘other’ does not mean recognition of ‘the enemy’— is severely limited in New Mexico, where difference has been used since before the U.S. state to divide, subjugate, exploit, and declare war on non-white nations and populations.


The dominant ideological and material circuits through which New Mexican’s come to know the Arab world are those of Orientalist media and education, employment in the national security state, and military enlistment. This is the world according to “WaterGy”, which emerges from the fields of flexible racialization that work to reproduce New Mexico and Palestine as capitalist resource frontiers.  But these spaces are being rewritten from both sides of the equation in ways that trouble the colonial-imperial mathematics of value.  Over the past few decades Non-Indian and Native acequia activists have declared their fields and watersheds as spaces that do not neatly cohere into the U.S. state and its capitalist culture.  In these spaces between the polarities of ethnic conflict and capitalist accumulation are the potential routes for a class politics of decolonization in which planetary flows of water, energy and life will be transformed— unsettling the fields of power in which we are all bound up.



  1. Should be Another Jewish Voice Santa Fe that picketed the event (not Another Jewish Voice for Peace). Also, Jeff Hass and I (of AJVSF) spoke with Mayor David Coss when the event was announced and when we learned he was scheduled to speak. He listened to us quietly, but then sent a technocrat in his place and didn’t attend. We considered this a small victory. Jim Faris

  2. I share the author’s discomfort with the techno-political approach described, but feel compelled to comment on present plans to exploit fossil, saline aquifers (e.g. Rio Rancho): the illogic of basing water supplies for expanding populations on aquifer mining ought to be, but is not, apparent to water planners, who ignore the question “what will happen when these new sources are depleted?” Israel/Palestine may be forced to such expedients, but New Mexico is not…not yet.

    A more sustainable course was suggested by the late hydrologist Luna Leopold, who wrote: “There are in various parts of the western states ground-water bodies too deep to be economically developed under usual economic standards, or they have marginal water quality. These, and especially those remnants of the ice-age ground-water bodies not being recharged now, should be saved from ordinary development and reserved only for times of exceptional need. But advance engineering is needed to explore and tap them and to connect to them transmission
    lines ready for some future contingency”.

    That New Mexicans are considering the Israeli development model for our water future is a telling commentary on us. It seems as if we are willfully ignoring the existence of actual limits to our water supply and that, ultimately, developing to the nth degree threatens our ability to live in peace and prosperity in this place.

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