Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, was in Sydney recently. EcoPeace is a regional organisation, a partnership of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists and volunteers. The initial reason for Bromberg’s visit was because EcoPeace was one of three finalists for the Thiess International River Prize, the most prestigious award of its kind in the world. He took some time after that to meet up with Jewish community website +61 J and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies to discuss the project for which EcoPeace was nominated.
Joining him via Skype was Malek Abualfailat, who is based on the West Bank in the Jordan Valley. He has been at EcoPeace for the past four years, first as the Palestinian coordinator of the project Protecting Ground Water, which aimed to improve ground water access in the West Bank, and now as the director of the EcoPeace environmental education centre at Auja in the Jordan Valley.
The project for which EcoPeace was nominated related to the rehabilitation of the Jordan River. The focus, Bromberg says, is on water as a vehicle for peace. The religious importance of the river is paramount in all three of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The physical importance, however, is just as, if not more, important. The Jordan River, though not the biggest and most powerful river in the world, is very significant for the water scarce Middle East. A hydroelectric plant was built there in the 1920’s and once provided 40% of the power to the greater area. Now, Bromberg bemoans, a mouse wheel wouldn’t run in the river.
“The present condition of the Jordan River is reflective of the demise of the political, economic and social situation in the area,” he said. “Instead of the one hundred metre wide river it once was, it’s now more like a dirty creek.”
96% of the river’s flow has been diverted away from the valley area and what remains is polluted with saline water and effluent, including untreated sewage. This resulted from political tensions in the area, with the surrounding nations of Israel, Jordan, and Syria building channels and dams in an ever-increasing contest to halt water flow to each other. Syria alone built forty dams on a main tributary of the Jordan River
This leaves the people living in Palestinian areas in dire straits. They have no access to the Jordan River and in general their water needs are not adequately met. The water division is according to the interim Oslo Accords, which dictated that 80% of the shared waters would go to Israel and 20% to Palestine. This was intended as an – obviously unsustainable – interim agreement. But, as the boslo process never evolved, neither did the water agreement.
“1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza area have run out of fresh water,” Abualfailat said. “They are drinking water unfit for human consumption.”
“Water is a [human] right for everyone,” he continued. “This is the first step for the children of Palestine, Israel and Jordan.”
There is also not enough electricity in Gaza to run a desalinisation plant. Not just because of Israel, but also because of the conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas does not want to import more oil for energy if the attendant tax revenue goes to Ramallah.
Something can be done, though. For the first time in its history, Israel has an excess of water. It no longer depends solely on the Sea of Galilee. Desalinisation plants produce clean water from Israel’s Mediterranean coast to provide for the nation and Israel recycles more water than any other country in the world. This has allowed, for the first time in 49 years, 9 million cubic metres of fresh water to be released from the Sea of Galilee into the Jordan. Releasing more water to Palestine would not only curry some political favour for Israel, but be of genuine humanitarian benefit to the people of Palestine. It would also help soothe the tensions in the region.
“We have a responsibility as the children of Abraham to repair what’s been damaged,” Bromberg continued. “The Covenant for the Jordan River was signed last year by the former Mufti of Jerusalem, members of the Israeli Rabbinate and prominent archbishops of the church.”
The Covenant is a document that declares the vision – and the need – to clean up the Jordan River. It is a call to action for a mutually beneficial change for shared interests.
Unfortunately, projects like this always have their detractors. “Being accused of ‘normalization’ is one of the challenges,” Abualfailat said. ‘Normalization’, in Palestinian terminology, is any process that is perceived as making the occupation of Palestinian land more palatable and acceptable to the people. “We reject accusations of normalization. Our actions do not seek to preserve the status quo, they challenge it and seek to change it. They assert people’s rights and produce tangible results through cooperation that advances the self interest of each side. We show people the reality of the situation and how it affects everyone. Joint professional projects that lead to improvements on the ground are what can really convince people.
To that end, EcoPeace has a plan – a 127 point plan. Bromberg says the Jordan Valley Master Plan, altogether, would require something in the region of $4.5 billion to be fully implemented. However, half a billion dollars’ worth of plans for water and sanitation solutions, eco-tourism, education and co-operation projects can go ahead as early as tomorrow. They want to build a peace park to commemorate Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan along the banks of the river, near the former hydroelectric dam, which they would like to turn into a Jordan River-related museum.
We need to act fast though. “Climate change is a real threat,” Bromberg stresses. “There will be 20% less precipitation in the region. Climate change is something that Australia and the USA and Canada contribute to, but we are paying the price by already seeing more water stress.”
Getting governments to take part is all about creating political will, both men said adamantly. Grassroots action can influence political leaders. They talked of how they got Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian mayors to jump into a cleaned section of the river as a show of solidarity to try and get things changed.
Bromberg told a story about how EcoPeace tried to convince the former Israeli Minister for Water, Silvan Shalom, to double the amount of water going from Israel to Gaza from 5 million cubic metres to 10 million. Shalom’s response was, according to Bromberg, akin to, “Are you nuts? They send us rockets and you want me to send them water? When they get rid of Hamas, I’ll send them more water.”
“That’s very emotional. It’s very populistic. And probably a large percentage of the Israeli population will think the same,” Bromberg said. “But think what happens if the Gazans run out of water? You would see the [movement] of hundreds of thousands of people.”
The Israeli military leaders, they could see the problem coming. With no water, many thousands of people will be forced from their homes and come to the fences of Israel. And it would be the military who would have to respond. They knew what could happen and they didn’t want to see it eventuate.
“[The military] went over Shalom’s head to the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] and he approved the request for the doubling of the water,” Bromberg concludes. “You’re not doing them a favour. You’re advancing your own national interests, but in a manner that creates mutual gain.”
“All the factors that impact on human life – and nothing sustains human life more than water – impact the bigger picture,” Lynda Ben-Manashe, the Community Relations Manager of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, said in a concluding statement. “We like to think of peace as being the result of love and wanting the best for the other. But really, in the end, peace is about self-interest.”
And she couldn’t be more right.
The above +61J article may be republished if acknowledged thus: “This article first appeared on www.plus61j.com.au and is reprinted with permission.”
And see: Gazans consider the Strip ‘unhabitable’ now – Al-Monitor 24.09.15