SWEMIEH, Jordan – Following several years of intensive municipal and cross-border environmental analysis, 28 communities in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Spain will soon be implementing plans to ensure cleaner groundwater supplies.
“Without cross-border and cross-authority cooperation, we cannot actually deal with this problem,” said Dr. Youval Arbel, Israeli deputy director for regional environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), and the leader of the international project.
Arbel was addressing participants of the International Protecting Ground Water Conference, which took place Tuesday on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, in the town of Swemieh. The conference was part of the FoEME-led “Protecting Groundwater” project, which is funded by the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument Cross-Border Cooperation in the Mediterranean (ENPI-CBCMED).
FoEME organized the conference in partnership with ENPI-CBCMED, Diputacion de Malaga, and the Water and Environmental Development Organization (WEDO), with financing from the European Union.
The conference followed two years of intensive work on the part of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian municipalities to better understand the region’s groundwater challenges, explained Munqeth Mehyar, president and Jordanian director of FoEME.
Officially called “Promoting Sustainable Groundwater Resources in the Mediterranean Basin,” the project has focused on improving technical and administrative skills in select Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Spanish towns since 2011.
In the Mediterranean region at large, there are about 100 billion cubic meters per year of exploitable groundwater resources, and about onethird of this quantity is renewable, explained Prof. Lucien Chabason, senior adviser for the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.
Even though groundwater resources in the region are unevenly distributed and unequally exploitable, the resource is the main water supplier for one-third of Mediterranean countries, continued Chabason, who is also the president and former director of Plan Bleu – a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Mediterranean Action Plan.
“Groundwater cannot be managed without minimum organization,” he said.
Due to overexploitation in so many Mediterranean countries, he went on, the groundwater is now facing depletion and deterioration, accompanied by severe environmental impacts. Among his groundwater management recommendations for the municipal leaders attending the conference were controlling intensive exploitation, reducing pollution, restoring quality, and developing groundwater quantity and quality monitoring systems.
Stressing that in order to truly curb the groundwater deterioration process, “we had to start 10 years ago,” Arbel said that there were surefire efforts that municipalities could take to improve the conditions – such as connecting villages to sewage systems and minimizing nitrate-heavy fertilizer use.
All in all, 28 communities from Israel, the PA, Jordan and Malaga, Spain, have been participating in the groundwater protection project since its launch in 2011. Municipal workers participated in a number of courses that taught them how to identify and categorize the potential hazards to groundwater, Arbel explained.
At the beginning, teams of experts found a lack of awareness among community members, which has gradually been overcome, Arbel said.
Yet groundwater management problems still face a lack of political will among decision- makers, a risk of contamination from anthropogenic sources, and a lack of coordination in protecting the resource – both within countries and among them, he continued.
“Everything we do on the surface interacts with the groundwater,” Arbel said.
The project’s facilitators then began integrating geographical information systems (GIS) into the communities, tasking them with performing field research, data collection and data analysis to pinpoint physically vulnerable portions of their groundwater basins and assess anthropogenic, or humancaused, pollution hazards.
After overlaying the results of the hazard potentials with the vulnerability state, they were able to estimate risk for each location the communities had mapped out, Arbel explained. Municipal hazard reports identify the priority with which communities should be coping with each of their individual hazards, he added.
In areas deemed high-risk, municipal authorities have now become more attuned to preventing infrastructure growth that might negatively affect the groundwater, he said.
Now that the data analysis and environmental mapping on a municipal level have concluded, the cities are building implementation plans together – with the aid of environmental consultants in their respective countries – in order to reduce the hazards in practice, tailoring their methods to each place’s needs, according to Arbel.
While each implementation plan is unique, he said, they are all based on four major foundations: building capacities, inspection and enforcement, cross-border and cross-authorities coordination, and initiating a number of practical solutions, such as sewage treatment.
Khaleifeh al-Dayyat, mayor of the Deir Alla municipality in Jordan, stressed that establishing the GIS units and analyzing the resultant data had given his community the ability to prevent environmentally destructive activities.
“Before this project, the municipality was not able to take a good decision on the establishment of any industry,” Dayyat said.
Khalid Abu Farha, mayor of the Palestinian village of El-Jalameh, reported on having isolated dumping areas as sources of pollution, and added that his community was now conducting periodic reviews of its well conditions.
Most contaminants, he explained, are the result of agriculture and of village cesspools.
Since pollution is concentrated in residential areas for that reason, a modern drainage system could override the cesspool problem, he said.
In Israel, Mursi Abu Much, the mayor of Baka al-Gharbiya, said he felt his community was now “on the right track,” and even recently secured a sizable budget from the Environmental Protection Ministry, which will go toward protecting the town’s groundwater.
Malaga, too, is continuing to benefit from the work undertaken thus far, and the residents of the Sierra Yeguas municipality are aiming to making their groundwater 100-percent potable, according to their mayor, Miguel Angel Sanchez Jimenez.
“We need to ensure that this very important resource, water, reaches every single person,” Jimenez said. “We need to be proactive by implementing the solutions right now to solve any unforeseen problems in the future.”