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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May/June 2008

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Rehabilitating the Jordan River Valley through Cross-Border Community Cooperation

Fifteen years ago, the Ein Gedi spa sat on the edge of the Dead Sea. Today, it is roughly a mile away from the shore—just one example of the water crisis facing the Jordan River Valley. In 2001, the organization Friends of the Earth Middle East launched Good Water Makes Good Neighbors, a cooperative initiative that aims to bring together Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians to preserve their fragile environment, which is fundamental to the three peoples’ histories and their development—and could potentially contribute to peace in the troubled region.

Israel’s founding in 1948 was immediately opposed by its Arab neighbors, who invaded the nascent nation that year, sparking the Arab-Israeli War. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel wrested control of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The two countries did not agree to end hostilities until 1994’s historic peace agreement. From 1994 to 1999, a series of agreements gave the Palestinian Authority responsibility for most of the West Bank, but negotiations to determine its permanent status broke down with the second intifada (uprising) of 2000. Israel and the Palestinian government hope to reach a final accord by the end of 2008.

Sitting at geographic, historic, and ecological crossroads, “the Jordan River and Dead Sea are truly unique to the world,” says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FoEME. However, the water supply of the Jordan River Valley has been rapidly depleted, with more than 90 percent of fresh water diverted upstream to meet the competing water demands of Israel, Jordan, and Syria.

In the late 1950s, Israel began drawing heavily on water from the Sea of Galilee to sustain its domestic and agricultural needs. And with the upcoming completion of Syria’s Yarmouk Dam, fresh water will cease to flow into the Lower Jordan, Bromberg says. The remaining flow will then consist of diverted saline water, treated and untreated sewage, and (rarely) accumulated rainfall. The repository of the Jordan, the Dead Sea will soon battle not only pollution from the free flow of sewage-laden water, but also a loss in depth of approximately 1.2 meters annually.

Scarcity of fresh water is a daily reality for the communities along the river and the Dead Sea, who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. FoEME’s Good Water Makes Good Neighbors program works in 17 of these communities to promote conservation and cooperation in schools, municipalities, the tourism industry, and also within the region’s network of mayors.

Through Good Water Makes Good Neighbors, the mayors have engaged in a number of initiatives to promote rehabilitation. At one endeavor, the “Big Jump,” mayors from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan literally jumped into the river, hands clasped, to promote rehabilitation efforts. On Earth Day 2006, Israeli and Jordanian mayors discussed the creation of a peace park, where citizens from both countries could meet without the need for visas and passports. Yael Shaltieli, then–mayor of the Beit She’an Regional Council in Israel, says that people in her community cannot approach the river because it is blocked by fences and mines. “We need to give people a place to meet,” she says. “We will be able to rehabilitate the physical part of the river, but we have to make an atmosphere and a place where people can build bridges among themselves.”

The mayors have raised awareness of the need for rehabilitation, but the region’s water challenges remain critical. Among the proposed solutions is the construction of a canal to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. But most of the “Red-Dead” proposals, Bromberg says, do not mention bringing water back to the Jordan: “The Jordan, the lower Jordan and the Dead Sea have always been connected and we must guarantee that they stay connected.” The feasibility and environmental impact of the Red-Dead are also in question: “It would cost billions. And should we alter the unique composition of the Dead Sea, we lose the natural value of its water and we lose the attraction of why people come to bathe in its water. Certainly none of us can afford to do that.”

Munqeth Mehyar, chair of FoEME, suggests that governments look beyond the Red-Dead water transfer plan to other water strategies, particularly those that would reduce the agricultural demand for water. FoEME supports diversification of resources, with an emphasis on ecotourism.

Beyond local and regional initiatives, Bromberg emphasizes the importance of garnering international awareness. FoEME is currently looking into ways to protect the region as a World Heritage Site. Earning this recognition from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, however, requires an integrated development plan and an implementing body, both of which the region currently lacks. The mayors and FoEME have met with organizations that tackle similar issues—such as the International Boundary & Water Commission in El Paso, Texas, which oversees the water agreements between the United States and Mexico—to research ways to develop the required plan and governing body. These efforts, though, can run up against broader political problems. Hasan S. I. Hussein, mayor of Jericho in the Palestinian Territories, points out that the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections  cut off most aid from the international community and nongovernmental organizations. “Many municipalities do not sympathize with Hamas,” he says. “The Palestinian people are for peace, they want peace. For that particular reason, I am here with my colleagues from Israel and Jordan.”

While each of the mayors faces problems unique to their municipalities, they have come together to resolve their shared problems. And leaving a legacy of peace and sustainability is a goal they have all rallied around: “We are here to tell the world that we need help to preserve this wonder, one of the most unique places in the world. . . . And we definitely want to keep this for the next generation,” says Dov Litvinoff, mayor of the Tamar Dead Sea Regional Council in Israel.

Alison Williams
and Meaghan Parker

Environmental Change
 and Security Program
Woodrow Wilson International
 Center for Scholars

SOURCE: Originally appeared on the website of the Environmental Change and Security Program,

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