Portuguese activists fight state water company deal with Israel’s Mekorot

Adri Nieuwhof, The Electronic Intifada, 28 December 2009

In October, EPAL, Portugal’s state water company, announced a deal with Mekorot, Israel’s state water company. An intern who responded to the news by informing colleagues of Mekorot’s role in Israel’s discriminatory water policies and assistance in its violation of international law was immediately sacked. News of the firing has inspired Palestine solidarity activists to campaign to end the deal. Similarly, the EPAL workers’ committee has denounced management’s decision.

EPAL’s actions have also drawn the attention of the influential Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias. In an article published on 20 November, EPAL’s public relations director Jose Zenha admitted that the intern would only have been warned for using the internal communication system for circulating information if her message would have favorable for the company.

Following the intern’s dismissal, the Portuguese Solidarity Committee on Palestine (PSCP) has jumped into action by sending a letter to EPAL on Mekorot’s actions in Palestine, calling on the company to end the deal. EPAL replied, stating that it did not want to get involved in politics.

Meanwhile, PSCP has formed a coalition to fight the contract, including the local chapter of Amnesty International, anti-war groups and the Portuguese Campaign Against the Privatization of Water. On 27 November, the coalition dispatched a letter to EPAL stating that the collaboration between the company and Mekorot is not only contrary to international and European law, but also to EPAL’s social responsibility policies. The coalition has also requested a meeting with EPAL’s Zenha to discuss the matter, which Zenha refused. He only stated that EPAL intends “to strictly adhere to Portuguese, European and international law in all its activities.”

The PSCP has been actively reaching out to government ministers and members of parliament. Since EPAL is a subsidiary of the state water company Agua de Portugal, the PSCP asked Dulce Passaro, the Minister of Environment, for clarification on the deal. The PSCP’s request received spontaneous support from three political parties and coalition activists also met with concerned parliamentarians who were supportive of their efforts to end the Mekorot deal. Parliamentarians and the coalition are currently awaiting clarification from Minister Passaro.

On 18 December, the coalition also obtained support from the Sindicato Nacional des Trabalhadores da Administracao Local (STAL), the trade union of workers in local government. In a letter to Prime Minister Jose Socrates and Passaro, STAL explained that the EPAL-Mekorot contract is “not a purely commercial agreement.” Citing international reports, STAL asserted that Israeli water policy as implemented by Mekorot is contributing to systematic violations of international law and prevents the Palestinian people’s access to sufficient water by force and through imposition of various discriminatory practices. STAL expressed its support for the campaign to end the deal stating that it is “an agreement that is immoral and should end immediately” and demanded that the government take the necessary steps to terminate that agreement.

Building on these efforts over the past two months, the Portuguese coalition began raising international support for its campaign, including the publication of an international call for action to oppose the Portuguese water deal with Mekorot. Among the organizations in support of the call is Amnesty International, whose central office responded by sending a protest letter to EPAL.

Adri Nieuwhof is an independent consultant based in Switzerland.

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