Water: The promise of a bountiful peace?

Friends of the Earth Middle Eastexplore whether Israelis and Jordanians can use water as an opportunity to further develop ties between the two countries.

Jordan River 521 (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)
Jordan River 521
(photo credit: Daniel Easterman)
Avoracious appetite for change in Israel and the wider Middle East seems to be all around us these days.
Into this wider drama steps Gidon Bromberg of the non-governmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). Long treated by the mainstream Israeli media as just another “greenie” NGO, FoEME has much grander ambitions than simply improving the environment. Where the received wisdom sees water as a source of conflict, Bromberg sees it as source of cooperation, and his organization has the record to prove it.
Through joint initiatives centered specifically on the issue of water, FoEME has successfully brought together neighboring Israeli and Jordanian communities, and neighboring Israelis and Palestinians, to work together on a number of cooperative enterprises. These have included everything from rainwater collection projects, to water conservation for public buildings such as schools, to joint hikes along each other’s shared water resources.
But FoEME’s efforts have not been limited to the grassroots level. One of the sites Bromberg showed us was a sewage treatment plant in mid-construction next to the Jordan River. In this case, approval for the plant came through the more traditional approach of lobbying decision-makers at the local and national levels. Bromberg insists that a combination of bottom-up and top-down methods is critical in order to achieve meaningful change.
PERHAPS THE most compelling place we visited with Bromberg as our guide was the somewhat dubiously named Jordan Peace Park at Naharayim. Its principal purpose at the moment is to provide a common space for Israelis and Jordanians to meet without undergoing the onerous restrictions and paperwork common to other border zones. The park is also earmarked to be a major tourist attraction for bird-watching due to its unique ecology.
Today the site essentially comprises an abandoned hydroelectric power station from the 1920s, and a border station zealously guarded by Jordanian soldiers. Although it is officially under Jordanian sovereignty, as part of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994, Israelis can visit the park without the need for a visa or even a passport. Nevertheless, the form we had to fill out at neighboring Kibbutz Gesher was checked vigorously as we waited at the imposing entranceway, which was proudly adorned with giant portraits of King Abdullah II and his father, the late King Hussein.
Once we finally entered the park, the place seemed to be a huge and cruel metaphor for the state of the peace process itself. A vast empty space seemingly filled with unrealized promise awaited us, punctuated by a series of dilapidated buildings from a different era entirely. As we surveyed the valley below from our position on a raised hilltop, Bromberg suddenly pointed to a tiny and solitary garbage bin, located incongruously in the middle of the enormous open space.
“Isn’t that cute!” he quipped.
Perhaps in that garbage bin – not a relic from a forgotten time, but a modern object, standing there by itself, defiantly unaware of the reality around it – was the seed of something at once highly practical and highly symbolic. The contrast with the gargantuan border edifice displaying King Abdullah’s portrait couldn’t have been greater. But in the face of the might and power that the official structure represented, once we looked closer, we could make out tiny cracks slowly emerging from behind the thin veneer of white paint.
Change is clearly afoot in our region. The question is, after years of neglect, can we have any say in managing the impending collapse and build something meaningful and positive in its wake?
DETRACTORS OF FoEME and projects such as the Jordan Peace Park argue that such grassroots efforts are pointless, since it seems that dramatic changes to all the established regimes of the Arab world are just around the corner. Take a look at the peace with Egypt, for example, they say: For years, under Hosni Mubarak, we had a cold peace with very little benefit to Israel. Now that the Mubarak regime is gone, the whole peace treaty is in jeopardy, and we are no more secure than we were when we started.
In response, Bromberg contends that it is precisely because greater efforts were not made at the grassroots level to build ties between Egyptians and Israelis (in large part due to opposition from Mubarak) that the peace was not allowed to develop. Instead of relying purely on the high diplomacy of an abstract treaty, more focus should have been on encouraging the warmth and inherent tangibility of person-to-person contact and cooperation.
He sees in water an opportunity to develop these kinds of ties through joint projects and mutual understanding of the other’s “water reality.”
A young Israeli recently rebuked me when I expressed the sentiment that in certain situations things “are just the way they are.” He declared, “When you see things that need to be changed, try to change them, and do it whenever you can!”
Bromberg seems to live by this mantra on a day-to-day basis. Back in 1994, the year FoEME was founded, he latched onto the seemingly divergent issues of water and peace, and perhaps said to himself: These things need to be changed, and I believe it is possible to change them.