Pollution in the Jordan River and the drying up of the Dead Sea are affecting all countries in the region. Cooperation is necessary in order to arrive at solutions to these problems. An Arab-Israeli NGO sees this as an opportunity to act. Beate Hinrichs reports
The environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) has worked for over a decade on cross-border projects advocating an ecological use of water and, in the process, has promoted an unusual dialogue. This has been achieved by its members in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, even during times when an exchange between their peoples has become increasingly difficult.
"Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians work best together when they pollute water," says Gidon Bromberg. In 1994, the Israeli lawyer from Tel Aviv was one of the founders of EcoPeace, together with the Palestinian environmental engineer Nader al-Khateeb from Bethlehem and the Jordanian architect Munqeth Mehyar from Amman. In 1998, EcoPeace became a part of the worldwide environmental organization Friends of the Earth.
Cooperation to save the Dead Sea
One of FoEME's largest projects aims to preserve the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, which is fed by water from the Jordan. The water level of the Jordan has sunk to such an extent through diversion projects and dams that this year, for the first time, no water will flow downstream into the Dead Sea. The effects are visible. The Dead Sea has already shrunken by a third.
In order to save the river and lake, as well as the precious flora and fauna on their banks, the Jordan and the Dead Sea should be declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. This would put pressure on governments in the region to work together in drawing up a sustainable development plan. In addition, the group envisages a "Peace Conduit," which would pump water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea, provided that the plan would not endanger any ecosystems.
In March of this year, high-ranking government representatives, including the mayors of affected communities along the bands of the waters in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, accepted an invitation by FoEME to meet for the first time and consult with each other on saving the Jordan River.
"If you ask our governments," explained Munqeth Mehyar, "the Middle East lacks around two billion cubic meters of water. If you ask environmental protectionists, they will tell you that there is no water shortage, but rather a distribution problem."
According to available statistics, the average Palestinian, for instance, uses 60 liters of water a day, a Jordanian 120 liters, and an Israeli 300 liters. Israelis enjoy clean drinking water straight from the tap, whereas a million Palestinians in Gaza only have access to unpalatable salty and dirty water.
Water trustees and good water neighbors
Another FoEME project bears the title "Good Water Neighbors." Ten communities from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan located along the Jordan River, a border demarcation line, have formed a partnership to learn about water conservation, purification, and avoiding water pollution.
Young people, so-called "water trustees," serve as mediators. Entire schools have turned water into a topic for instruction. Pupils from all communities meet at a summer camp. For most of them, it is the first time they encounter a young person from the supposed enemy side.
Environmental protection through partnership
"Water is a bridge – it brings people together," stresses the Israeli FoEME director Gidon Bromberg. "When governments sign peace treaties, it's great, but it isn't enough. People have to first establish a sense of trust."
This has been the aim in the Israeli community of Zur Hadasa and the Palestinian community of Wadi Fukin. They have even initiated a common campaign against the Israeli security wall, which surrounds whole Palestinian areas.
Friends of the Earth Middle East remains true to its original concerns of ecology and peace. The organization does not raise large-scale political demands, explained Munqeth Mehyar. "We are working against the wall. But we can't wait for a political solution. The environment can't wait."
Similarly, the three FoEME directors criticize Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands as illegal.
Yet instead of denouncing past political errors, the environmental activists prefer to turn their attention to the future. It hasn't always been easy.
But the people living in the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli partnership communities, however, look confidently into the future. "Working together, we constantly experience deeply satisfying moments," said Gidon Bromberg, "and that is what gives us the energy to continue."
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German by John Bergeron