Yesterday, the Israeli Air Force took out at least two buildings in Gaza City in response to the previous day’s Palestinian militants’ attack. Not far away, a group of environmentalists called Friends of the Earth Middle East is taking a different tack to quell the violence. By bringing together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work together on environmental issues that affect them all, they hope to build lasting peace.
It seems to be working.
Take the West Bank village of Baqa Al-Sharqiya, for example. Only four years ago the Israeli Army surrounded it with a Security Barrier that effectively cut it off from the rest of the West Bank, destroying large numbers of businesses and forcing the residents to rely on agriculture in a region with limited water.
To make living conditions worse, villagers use leaking cesspits to collect their sewage, which they routinely empty into nearby Wadis and valleys because they don’t know what else to do with it. In some places sewage bypasses the cesspits altogether, and pours right into the streets.
According to a report funded by the EU Partnership for Peace Program, the seeping sewage is causing “large-scale contamination of the soil and groundwater. Two of the four groundwater wells in Baqa Al-Sharqiya are located in close proximity to the wastewater dump sites.” Soon, the village will be drinking its own poop. It’s a health crisis waiting to happen.
Baqa Al- Gharbiya-Jat to the rescue! Just across the border, the Israeli town with a largely Arabic population is enlarging its waste treatment system, and has agreed to take the village’s putrid waste.
But before we get gooey eyed thinking that this reaching through the guns and razor wire to help a neighbor in need is all honeyed kindness, think again. This is the brilliance of the FoEME approach. Al-Gharbiya-Jat must help Al-Sharqiya to avoid a crisis of its own. The two communities share the same water source – the Mountain Aquifer, an underground reservoir that quenches the thirst of most Israelis and Palestinians. If the Israeli community doesn’t help the Palestinian villagers, they risk drinking sewage-infected water too.
Certainly, people have gone to war over water. During an extreme drought in 1999 in Gujarat, India, several people died in riots against police because of what furious citizens considered heinous mismanagement by authorities. In the Middle East tensions have been fraught at times because of what some term ‘hydropolitics’. The same year as the Gujarat riots, Israel cut water supplies to Jordan, almost derailing peace there.
So what’s different in the region now?
“There seems to be a real need, from the people themselves within these communities, to work together on solving the many cross border issues at hand,” Said FoEME’s Mira Edelstein, “Seeing as our governments are simply taking ever so long to do so.”
However, these divided communities united by a rapidly disappearing common resource need coaxing, training, tools, and money. That’s where FoEME comes in.
FoEME’s Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian directors, working from offices in Amman, Bethlehem and Tel-Aviv, raise money from international private donors and governments for their many projects. They bring together teenagers, community leaders, school teachers and other concerned residents from towns and villages around the region to talk through their problems and work out solutions together. In one project they call Good Water Neighbors, they pair up communities on either side of the Green Line that share the same water source and kick start cooperation, like Baqa Al- Gharbiya-Jat and Baqa Al-Sharqiya.
They’ve nurtured the start of an Israeli-Palestinian company. The cities of Tulkarem in Israel, and Emek Hefer on the West Bank, have taken the vow of marriage – as anyone in business knows it to be. This unlikely couple wants to turn giant piles of agricultural waste into compost to replace fertilizers used on the local farms that pollute the precious water source they too share, the Mountain Aquifer.
In another project, school children have turned their places of learning into models of water conservation. They’ve built rainwater catchments. They use water condensed from air-conditioning systems and drinking fountain wastewater to flush toilets and irrigate gardens. The kids even got the janitor in on the action.
And in the Jordan River Valley a Peace Park that traverses the Israel/Jordan boundary is under construction, a not insignificant act given the previous water-stress between the two countries. The river – the primary water source for the valley’s Jordanian and Israel populous – is shrinking and heavily polluted. A 1999 U.S. Department of State report said, “The combination of political strife, resource overuse, and contaminated sources means that freshwater scarcity in the Jordan River basin will reach a critical level in the near future.” Even slaughter houses run their effluent right into the sacred waters just upstream from where pilgrims wade in to be baptized.
Leaders on both river banks have agreed to include in the park large constructed wetlands to treat industrial and residential wastewater before it’s flushed downstream. The wetlands will double as a bird sanctuary, attracting not just the over 500 million migratory birds that cross the area twice a year, but eco-tourists from around the globe, they hope, and with them, money and jobs.
Do they have critics? I’m sure they do. What group doesn’t that’s trying to help the Earth and its citizens too, especially in a region where people with complicated, bellicose histories tend to shake fists rather than hands. Let’s face it, Palistinians, Israelis and Jordanians working together is not in everyone’s best interest.
But the folks at FoEME are telling them all to go take a flying leap in the river – The River Jordan, that is. Dubbed the Big Jump, they’ve orchestrated an international swimming party. In July, Jordanian and Israeli Mayors, along with other municipal leaders, children, grandparents, business leaders and anyone else who will join in the merriment, will gather on the island at the center of the river that divides the two countries. Together, they will hurl themselves into the flowing water that willy nilly joins their fates. In an act of solidarity, they have agreed to not only work together to halt the dangerous degradation of their river, but to build oases of peace in a war-torn desert.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the end of the six-day war that changed the face of the Middle East. How ironic if a tragedy of the commons – the very water that flows through and under three struggling peoples – is what unites them.