15 October 2005

We are all connected

By Andrew Boswell

Poignantly last week's terrible Kashmir earthquake cut through human imposed borders. In affecting both India and Pakistan, the earthquake respected no border showing how we are all connected.

A connection which was aptly illustrated at last weekend's Resolving Conflict conference at UEA by three members of Friends of the Earth Middle East - Mira from Israel, Munqeth from Jordan, and Nader from Palestine presented their project for the Lower Jordan River saying "the River has no borders".

The river from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea is in environmental crisis. Just 50 years ago, a strong river took 1.3 million cubic meters of water from Mt Hermon and springs across Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan into the Dead Sea. Now the flow is just 10% of this, whilst the Dead Sea surface lowers 1 metre each year.

Waste dumped at Wadi Abu NarPhoto: waste dumped at Wadi Abu Nar

For 50 years, water has been progressively diverted to meet the needs of Israel, Jordan and Syria for water for agricultural irrigation and drinking. The ecological catastrophe is compounded by all the countries pumping untreated Israeli sewage into the river.

Friends of the Earth Middle East, founded in 1994 as 'EcoPeace' by Egyptians, Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, fosters environmental peace building projects across the region - their Jordan river project catch phrase is "Good Water makes Good Neighbours".

As Nader Khatid, Palestinian director has said "Water can be a bridge for peace - the water resources are so scarce in the Middle East that we have to work together with our Israeli neighbors in order to help guarantee that we as Palestinians get our fair share of water and all together stop the pollution of the water resource."

Turning around the river's plight requires a huge coming together of people who are also in conflict. Whilst all parties have contributed to the crisis by excessive water diversion and dam building, discharging sewage and saline into the river, it is only all party solidarity that can turn around these devastating practices.

Due to years of conflict, badly needed cooperative mechanisms between the parties do not exist, and Friends of the Earth Middle East are working hard to create these and foster joint sustainable development - the third joint meeting between Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian mayors in the valley takes place next month.

Internationally, they are lobbying UNESCO to recognise the river as a world heritage site, given its natural and cultural significance, leading to jointly developed cross-border nature reserves and national parks.

Their vision needs our support as real action to restore the ecology of the river directly challenges the prevailing tide of economic globalisation that benefits only a minority in the region, and worldwide - the ecological restoration of the river has to be built on a fundamental restructuring of the region's economy.

Right now, the region's agriculture is far from sustainable, nor justified in terms of the water economy. Much of Israel and Jordan's agriculture is for profit oriented export - high value fruit trees such as apples, peaches and bananas needing large amounts of high quality water are favoured by rich absentee farmers because they are more profitable than vegetables.

20th century agricultural development was about making the deserts bloom for burgeoning Western demands - huge amounts of water have been required for this project - literally diverted from the river, leaving it to shrivel away and die.

Yet, the economic benefit of this has only been for a minority of the population - 50 percent of Israel's water goes to agriculture, yet the sector's contribution to the GDP is just 3% (for Jordan, the figures are 75% and 6%). Friends of the Earth Middle East promote a return to sustainable agriculture that can feed the local people growing vegetables such as tomatoes and aubergines which make less demands on water.

Systemic problems of the imbalance of power and water poverty must be overcome too - Palestinians have a mere 70 cubic metres of water per head compared to 340 for Israel.

As elsewhere, radical change is needed quickly - the river's original water sources must be restored quickly so it may heal - otherwise like rain forests and ice sheets, it too will die. In battling for ecological rehabilitation of the Jordan, Friends of the Earth Middle East are in solidarity with all those who seek the life of the planet and people to be put before economic growth.

This approach, given a chance, could produce a beautiful outcome - restoration of the natural and cultural heritage of the river and its region, and water playing a fundamental role in the long term Middle East peace process - reminding us we are all connected.