It all trickles down to water

Friends of the Earth Middle East Good Water Neighbors Project aims to promote cooperative efforts to protect the region’s shared environmental heritage.

river 521 (photo credit: Friends of the Earth Middle East)
river 521
(photo credit: Friends of the Earth Middle East)
The map on the crisp opening page of the September 2012 Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) Good Water Neighbors Project report makes collaborative efforts among Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians look so simple.
Soothing light blue, sandy yellow, royal blue and khaki patches of color delineate Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian territory and their water sources. Neat little blue, red and green squares clustered along these water sources represent Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian communities that have joined together to establish solutions for water issues, ranging from sanitation and waste-water solutions for small communities, to stream rehabilitation, cross-border parks and storm water collection.
But each of those little squares represents hours of coordination and negotiation, of organization and planning that bring a project and its funding to fruition.
And the statistics show that this hard work has paid off. Whereas a decade ago the Good Water Neighbors Project struggled to reach 11 cross-border communities willing to work together, it now boasts 28 partner communities, with a waiting list of other communities eager to work with it.
“It is an indication of our success,” maintains Michal Sagive, the project’s Israeli coordinator. “At the beginning it was harder to get Jordanian and Palestinian communities – and also Israeli communities – who were willing to cooperate. Now we are approached by Jordanian and Palestinian communities who want our support. They see [our projects] have had an effect.”
So while politicians bicker over whether to meet, where to meet, water rights and whether to approve one another’s water projects, over the past five years alone FoEME has, through its independent advocacy work and partnership development, been able to secure an estimated $400 million worth of investments for water projects in participating communities via foreign government grants, foundation donations and local government participation.
Projects include $160m. sewage treatment plants now under construction in the Jordan Valley’s Good Water Neighbors communities. Funding to the tune of $240m. in the Mountain and Coastal Aquifer Stream-area communities has, among other things, connected every home in the Palestinian village of Baka a-Sharkiya to a water network for the first time and financed a soon-to-be-finished sewage collection and treatment plant for the Nablus-Tulkarm area.
THE GOOD Water Neighbor Project is one of a dozen environmental projects FoEME – a member group of Friends of the Earth International, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the world – spearheads, in keeping with the organization’s objective of promoting cooperative efforts to protect the region’s shared environmental heritage.
Though some of the projects may seem only to benefit the Palestinian or Jordanian communities, as they deal with improving their waste removal conditions, FoEME director Gidon Bromberg notes that it is very much in Israel’s best interests to solve these issues as well.
“The pollution coming from the Palestinian side pollutes the shared ground water that Israel takes a lion’s share of,” he says. “Israel has a very strong interest in Palestinians dealing with their pollution in a far more sustainable method.”
He points out other projects benefiting Israeli communities in a more tangible fashion, including a proposed Jordan River Peace Park that, according to a feasibility study FoEME conducted, would bring in 500,000 tourists per year and promote job creation in the area. A cross-border terraced landscape preservation project being developed in stages in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council/West Bethlehem villages area has brought in some ecotourism and would be an opportunity for Israelis to benefit from Palestinian experience in maintaining agricultural terraces, says Bromberg.
Furthermore, the group’s recharge project, in addition to creating green spaces for rainwater recharge in Tzur Hadassah and Wadi Fukin, provides educational opportunities for both communities by focusing on the impact that rapid construction in the area can have on the environment. In the process of working with these communities, FoEME commissioned a hydrological study. Based on its findings, it led efforts opposing plans to build the security barrier to the west of the village, saying it would destroy the village’s water source. The military-appointed hydrologist accepted those findings.
Though much appreciated in the local communities where it operates and popular with many in the international donor community, FoEME does face opposition in all three partner localities, says Bromberg.
“If you want to move things further, you will ruffle some feathers,” he says. “Anti-cooperation groups hate us because we are the example of what can be done. The far Right in Israel and the Islamic fundamentalists on the Palestinian and Jordanian sides hate us, condemn us and call us traitors.”
Nor are the water authorities of the three parties happy with the group’s water-for-nature stance, he says. Despite their opposition, says Bromberg, FoEME has moved forward with plans to rehabilitate the Jordan River, which calls for Israel alone to return seven times more water to the Jordan River than the Israeli Water Authority has agreed to provide.
IN EARLY fall, FoEME celebrated a decade of joint projects in the plush Jericho Intercontinental Hotel. Environmental activists and professionals, NGO workers, community leaders and parliamentarians came together to celebrate their achievements and give expression to their frustrations and hopes for the future.
Palestinian Water Authority Minister Dr. Shaddad Attilli spoke ironically of the procedural difficulties involved in getting an Israeli permit from the Joint Water Committee that the Oslo Agreement formed for anything water-related, from repairing sewage lines to drilling a new well. At the end of a long, drawn-out procedure, the process hinges on Palestinians also approving water projects in West Bank settlements, which Palestinians believe are illegal, he said, so he can’t approve them. Thus many water projects have been awaiting approval for years – although Israel recently approved a drinking water project in Gaza, he noted.
“We have to fix water and politics through cooperation between local communities, because they have the voices, so we push for these initiatives in the Jordan Valley communities,” said Attilli. “This is very important, because if we keep fighting, we will not find a drop of water, and with climate change, this is really serious. So we would like to face [these problems, including climate change] and to fix them together with Israel and with Jordan.
We would like to fix all consequences of climate change, and we would like to fix the resources we have so we don’t lose it, but we would also like to have our equal share.”
Standing up to government pressure and obstacles to her appearing before a Palestinian audience in Palestinian territory, Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz addressed the 250-strong audience as the only representative of her government. Applause greeted her as she arrived late to the opening ceremony, and she hurried to the podium.
“This kind of project emphasizes an exceptional cooperation between cities, towns and regional councils from three sides of the border,” she said.
“The partnership will result in better and more efficient management of water sources and will set a base and an example for future cooperation in different fields. The outcome of this cooperation will have only winners; the whole region will benefit from those joint efforts.”
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is much more than just a military or security issue, she said, and needs to be viewed through a much wider lens.
“We have to observe those issues... including water, energy, education, economy and other issues no one really pays attention to,” she said.
SAGIVE SEES the attempt to prevent Zuaretz from attending the conference as an escalation of the opposition to the organization’s work, and is disappointed.
“We are already at a point where it is not so easy for us to meet one another. They should be supporting such things,” she says.
“Over the years, there have been lots of these connections created between residents on both sides of the border,” she continues. “In the communities where the [security barrier] wall hasn’t been built yet, it is much easier. Where there is the wall and the area is divided into A, B and C areas, it is not that easy anymore. And for Jordanians to get a visa and visit Israel is even more difficult. But we see a lot of will on all sides on the community level. They ask for more events and more projects. Palestinians know that if they cooperate on a project with Israelis who know to knock on the right doors, their voice will be heard.”
Indeed, says FoEME, its ability to help leverage investments for local environmental projects is evidence enough for mayors and municipalities that it is in their interests to cooperate with each other. The organization also sees itself as a conduit toward improved relations, at least among the people of the cross-border region, as its projects succeed in bringing about concrete improvements for the region’s water infrastructure and environment.
In economically poor Jordanian border communities such as the Jordan Valley’s Fifa and South Gohrs, there is a dire need to move from the use of household cesspools toward an integrated sewage system for the entire village.
Money to undertake such a project is lacking, notes Hana Asa’d, the new Jordanian Good Water Neighbors Project coordinator, but with FoEME’s help, the parties hope to get it off the ground.
“There is no treatment plant nearby, and [villagers] have to pay a tank truck to pump their sewage and dump it in the wadi or other open space, and this ends up in our shared water,” she says.
“People are really suffering.”
Although other collaborative efforts have been severely frowned upon because of anti-normalization sentiments, the people of the villages have been eager to participate in Good Water Neighbors projects for the simple reason that they see it will be beneficial for them, says Asa’d.
“It was a bit hard at first,” she acknowledges of her own willingness to accept a position with FoEME last May, because of its Israeli component. “But now I feel I am doing something for Jordan. We have great ideas to protect the environment, and when we have something to do, we move forward with it.”
FoEME is the only environmental organization working in the Jordan Valley on the Jordanian side, she adds.
Still, not everybody sees it in a positive light, she says, and she has had to learn how to respond to some Jordanians who insult her group as “normalizers.”
“I will sit and explain every project and why we need to work with Israelis to protect our shared resources. Not everybody accepts my explanation, though,” she says.
Indeed, soon after the Jericho conference, one of the participating Jordanian mayors was handed a protest letter after Friday prayers at his mosque, condemning him for taking part in a meeting with the “usurper Zionist entity” and accusing him of normalization with “the Zionist entity under the banner of maintaining the land and the environment.”
The mayor, who preferred not to be mentioned by name, has nevertheless chosen to continue to work with FoEME. In a letter of response, FoEME Jordanian field staff explained the importance of the collaborative efforts.
“In 2008 Friends of the Earth came kindly to [us] and has worked until now in about 150 workshops urging citizens to love their country and... to maintain the religious teachings that encourage preservation of the environment and water,” the field staff said in their letter.
FOEME HAS also been active in the west Bethlehem hills, where the picturesque village of Battir nestles along the landscape with its ancient agricultural terraces and irrigation system. It is one of only a few villages where farmers have preserved traditional hill farming methods since the Second Temple period, depending on an aqueduct that descends the hill to the Refaim stream bed to water their crops. It is also among the many Palestinian villages located above the Mountain Aquifer – one of the most significant sources of water for both Israelis and Palestinians – with no safe sanitation in place.
FoEME has worked toward renewing the waste water network and building two water reservoirs, bringing in $3.6m. for the projects from outside donations. A feasibility study for Stage 2 of the waste water network is now in the works.
Villagers “for sure appreciate” the work that the environmental group has done in Battir, says Raed Samara, executive director at the Joint Council for Services, Planning and Development for West-South Bethlehem.
“FoEME is doing a good job inside these villages,” says Samara, noting that with the organization’s political and social savvy, residents are able to achieve much more than they could without it.
But Battir is also facing an uphill battle to protect its terraces from the security barrier’s construction, which could cause irreversible harm to the village’s traditional landscape. On October 22, the High Court of Justice responded to the village’s petition against the construction and ordered the IDF not to begin work on the barrier, giving the army 14 days to respond to the petition.
FoEME is preparing its own petition to the High Court in support of the villagers, collecting signatures from local residents and planning both a musical event and a bicycling event there to educate the public about preserving the site.
It has been a difficult year to convince people to work together, admits Palestinian Good Water Neighbors Project Manager Muhammad Obidallah. But despite the tensions and frustrations, most of the villagers have not considered withdrawing from collaborative projects with their Israeli counterparts.
“Even though some people are still skeptical, most are really interested in working together. In the summer, they have lots of water shortages, and the Israelis are interested [in the projects] so that our ground water pollution doesn’t go to the Israeli side,” he says.
“They are now working for a common interest.”