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Poverty Times #2

Sharing water makes good neighbours

Friends of the Earth Middle East (foeme), which was established in 1994 under the name EcoPeace, was the first regional environmental organisation to include Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian environmental groups and actors. Gidon Bromberg, foeme’s spokesperson, says that strict inclusiveness is practised: not only do they have offices in all three of the countries, but each of their projects (working to save the shrinking Dead Sea; trade and the environment; renewables; and water) must have coordinators from each country. By Robert Lalasz

“The success of the organisation is that it decides on a single agenda, and then the staff from each country dialogues with that country’s press and policymakers,” Bromberg explains. “It’s a single effort to promote regional peace and environmental cooperation.”

Abdel Rahman Sultan, also from foeme, outlined the dire water situation in the Middle East, where population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices, and pollution are stretching this arid region’s scarce water to the point of disaster.

He says that, while Middle East rivers such as the Jordan and Yarmouk are being tapped beyond capacity, untreated sewage is ruining both the region’s surface water and its crucial aquifers (which are generally shared among many or all of the region’s countries). Inequitable water distribution also marks regional water management: while Israelis use an average of 300 cubic litres per capita per day, Palestinians receive merely 60 – barely above the generally agreed-upon minimum for human sustainability.

“Jordan receives water for only 12 hours each day and most Palestinian villages don’t have continuous water flows” he says. Since the Palestinian national workforce is more dependent on water-intensive agriculture than those of surrounding countries, such shortfalls are particularly dangerous for Palestinian economic sustainability.

Sultan also notes that high national population growth rates will continue to widen an already large gap between the region’s demand for water and its supply. Palestinian annual population growth rates average about 4 %, and Israeli rates are about 3.5 %. By 2040, Sultan says, the water demands of these burgeoning populations will outstrip a water supply that will increase only slightly despite a major drive to build desalination plants.

Better management

The region’s water mismanagement also plays a crucial role: policies neglect adequate sanitation and wastewater treatment, and allow agriculture and domestic demand to oversubscribe water sources (leading to widespread salination, contamination, and evaporation).

The level of the Dead Sea, for example, is dropping by a meter a year. Infants in the Gaza Strip are already afflicted with “blue baby” syndrome, attributable to high levels of nitrates in their water. Sultan also says that most cities in the West Bank depend solely on cesspools for their wastewater treatment.

Sultan advocates for Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians to look in a comprehensive way at pollution prevention to avoid the systematic contamination of whole aquifers. “The three nations meet regularly on water division and distribution,” he says, “but there is no discussion concerning pollution prevention. But this problem affects water supplies for the whole area.”
The Good Water Neighbors Project focuses on sensitising neighbouring border communities in the region to their shared water problems and then encourages sustainable solutions to those problems. The Project is working with five transboundary pairs of Israeli and Jordanian or Israeli and Palestinian municipalities. A typical project involves a Palestinian community with a water shortage and an Israeli neighbouring community that suffers from the Palestinian town’s untreated sewage

Better neighbours

Bromberg explains that the Project’s staff members come from the affected communities; these staff members educate their neighbours and elected officials about shared water realities between the paired communities and then work with these groups toward effective solutions. Between 20 and 50 “water trustees” from each town also commit to the effort.

“So much depends on the personal contact, on the dialogue we can develop between decision-makers,” says Bromberg. “We cannot provide more water for any community or state – we can only raise awareness in each community about water realities. When neighbours can lobby for neighbours and be advocates, that’s where we become effective.”

Results from the Good Water Neighbours Project could be used to launch a region-wide media campaign to show that the commitment for shared water decision-making is there if opportunities are created. Foeme also hopes to foster regional water solutions based on these pilot efforts.

Better politics

According to Bromberg, the Middle East political landscape has often been less than cooperative with its efforts. “Different ministries and authorities at times have seen the diffusion of power as a threat.”

“But municipalities have lost faith in their central governments recently, which helps us,” adds Bromberg. “They’re willing to take initiatives on their own that they wouldn’t have three years ago.”

In addition, Jordan has facilitated good movement toward regional cooperation on water issues since it signed its peace treaty with Israel. Agriculture is a major obstacle toward more efficient water use in the region, using 50 % of the region’s water supply.

“We are still planting bananas, citrus, and flowers, which are all highly demanding of fresh water,” says Sultan. “We would like to have farmers pay for real water costs and treatment of agricultural wastes, and we need to change the crop patterns. But no one farmer will be willing to change his water usage, so it needs to be a communal decision.”

Bromberg adds that the Middle East behaves “not as if we live in a desert, but as if we live in Europe. We can’t make the desert bloom, and if we try we pay an incredible price. We need to focus on sustainable water use and enjoying the sun, not being the breadbasket for the rest of the world.”

He ends by calling for more regional eco-tourism instead of agriculture as well as for attention to population issues as crucial steps toward addressing water scarcity there. “There simply is not room for everyone if we continue to behave in a water-rich fashion,” he says. “The region’s environmental community is only now aware of reducing population growth and immigration.”

Robert Lalasz is senior writer at the Washington City Paper and the former editor of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Project in Washington, dc. This article first appeared in pecs News (Spring 2003), published by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Project.For the full, original version of this discussion visit