This post is for Richard at Mabinogogiblog and his enduring vision of a Middle East peace which floats.
On 24 March 2011, the New Israel Fund UK hosted three venerable speakers from Friends of the Earth Middle East – Palestinian Director Nader Al-Khateeb, Israeli Director Gidon Bromberg, and Jordanian Director and Chair, Munqeth Mehyar, mainly talking about the region’s shared water crisis.
Munqeth Mehyar gave a summary of FoEME’s work to date. Together, the three offices have been taking a dual approach in their response – top-down research and lobbying and bottom-up work within 29 communities. This includes initiatives like Good Water Neighbours which began in 2000 and survived as one of the few cooperation projects which withstood the Second Intifada. Good Water Neighbours is such a recognisably beneficial social enterprise that communities exist even between Israeli settlements and neighbouring Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem and Abu Dis.
Work like this has brought FoEME international recognition, including TIME magazine’s Environmental Heroes award in 2008, the Aristotle Onassis Award for the Protection of the Environment and a EuroMed award for dialogue work.
Munqeth Mehyar talked about the eco parks at Ein Gedi in Israel, Auja in Palestine and Sharhabil bin Hassan in Jordan’s Ziglab basin where a dam gives a vantage point from which it is possible to fully grasp the water source and the vast tracts of land it is required to irrigate.
Nader Al-Khateeb began with some statistics on Israeli and Palestinian water use. Israeli use averages 250 litres per person per day, excluding agriculture and as a population, 2 billion cubic metres per year in total. Palestinians use 50-70 litres per person to day, less that the 120 litres the World Health Organisation holds to be the minimum amount for adequate hygiene. The total Palestinian consumption including agriculture and industry is around 170 million cubic metres per year.
Israel controls the water in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Nader Al-Khateeb emphasised the constraints this has imposed – no legislature, no jurisdiction over the water courses, and limited funding – that is, no real control on the part of Palestinians. FoEME’s Model Water Accord, to which we have drawn attention in a previous post, records the demise of the previous approach to cooperation established in Article 40 of the 1995 Oslo II accords. Cooperation didn’t flourish, as evidenced by the great discrepancy in availability, the under-provision to Palestinians and the contamination of ground water. There is no access for Palestinian to the waters of the Jordan and so it is drawn from the other main source, the mountain aquifer. Because extraction is slow, much of the Palestinian water supply is intermittent and stored in rooftop tanks where any breaches leave it vulnerable to contamination.
Nader Al-Khateeb showed a freshwater map of the region which made a very strong point without any commentary being required that the problem of water is a shared problem which cannot be solved without cooperation. Water doesn’t recognise borders. A final picture showed a large and happy group of mayors from cities and towns in the three countries wallowing in, I think, the Jordan. You couldn’t tell who was from where and – again – where water is concerned it doesn’t make any difference at all.
Gidon Blomberg spoke next about the circumstances required for cooperation. He pointed out that Israelis could not unequivocally welcome the unfolding revolution in Egypt because the decades-old peace treaty was very little to do with ordinary Egyptian people – there had been very little action either between Israelis and Egyptians or between Israelis and Jordanians, with whom there is also a peace treaty. The peace is a peace of strong leaders and cannot be taken for granted as a peace of peoples. On all sides of the conflict there are spoilers who exert pressure to end cooperation between Israelis and their neighbours.
Gidon Bromberg believes that water can contribute to peace because it is so tangible and undeniably shared. Water shows its shared nature when it flows from place to place irrespective of borders. However, FoEME have observed that the politicisation of water by which it is treated as a bargaining chip in the final status settlement, badly undermines cooperation. Consequently FoEME are lobbying to have it removed from the list of issues to be resolved. In a region in its 7th year of drought, Cooperating over water can then be treated as what it is – not an issue of privilege or charity, but of self-interest.
Self-interest is very important. Gidon Blomberg observes that water creates unlikely peacemakers, and holds up self-interest as means for Israelis and Palestinians who, in cooperating over water, are forced to defend themselves against their respective spoilers – those who perceive any cooperation as an unwarranted concession. When Israeli and Palestinian school-age students meet together to discuss water, their parents must sign a release form indicating their consent for the exchange. When school teachers are attacked for fraternising with the enemy, as they frequently are, they are able to make a convincing argument of self-interest in response. So instead of focussing on the sometimes-other-worldly vision of a peace deal, Israelis and Palestinians can focus instead on improving their freshwater reality, with tangible results which are sometimes beyond the immediate remit of the projects. For example, the cooperation between the Israeli village Tsur Haddassah and its lower-lying Palestinian neighbour Wadi Fukin has not only improved water quality, but is also one of the few examples of successful opposition to Israel’s security barrier.
Somebody asked about veganism, and sadly everybody changed the subject to tropical fruit cultivation; in effect these countries are exporting their water in the form of bananas and citrus, whereas dates are far more appropriate, forgiving of a dry climate as they are. Munqeth Mehyar talked about sheep, the main animal eaten in the Middle East, pointing out that over-grazing and water consumption was not currently calculated in the cost of this meat.
I was going to ask whether the prospect of desalination was perceived by some as a silver bullet which removed the necessity be careful with water. Gidon Blomberg brought this up in a response to another question. Currently Israel is content to expend fossil fuel desalinating water, and membrane industry breakthroughs have enabled desalination at costs which compete increasingly favourably with extraction methods. The hope is that the crisis will stimulate further innovation in solar technology.
Somebody asked how the water situation had changed since the occupation. Gidon Blomberg responded that it was better to compare Palestine now to Jordan now rather than Palestine now to Palestine then, since infrastructure has undeniably improved since the occupation. However, whereas before the occupation, both Jordanians and Palestinians outside the main cities tended to rely on springs for water, the water realities in Jordan today are far better than in the OPTs. At the same time there is mismanagement across the Middle East, and even in Damascus where water is relatively plentiful there are times of intermittent supply. And while Israel may be very efficient, it is a mistake to confuse efficient use with sustainable use. Nader Al-Khateeb pointed out that whereas Israeli quality of life is on a par with that in Europe, Palestinians fare much worse, and Israel should expect to invest significantly in Palestinian water conservation and quality, again for reasons of self-interest.
Somebody asked why there was such low uptake of solar power given good elevation, around 3000 sun hours, and recent innovations in efficient CPV sun-tracking solar panels yielding shorter investment times. The reason is the Saudi oil lobby, and the Israeli and Egyptian natural gas lobbies. Munqeth Mehyar spoke eloquently about the ‘cash now’ mentality the Saudi rulers have adopted with respect to their oil. When we emerged from the stone age, he said, stones didn’t stop being useful to us. FoEME are lobbying for oil to be regarded as something precious to future generations which our children should have the chance to benefit from.
Postscript – for a party which appears, on the face of things at least, to take such a very keen interest in the Middle East and particularly Israel, I found it sad that the audience didn’t contain any members of the Green Party International Committee, nor any other Greens who have indicated their interest in various fora. My hunch, backed up by some references to “spoilers” from the panel, is that this kind of cooperation is absolutely incompatible with their hopes that Israel will fail and disappear. Fortunately for the residents of the region, the cooperation is strengthening because it is in everyone’s best interest that it does.
And because contaminated water does not recognise security walls, there may yet be an eco peace in the Middle East. Seven years of drought and 20 million mouths to feed along the banks of the Jordan says there must.