collaboration for land's sake
Water issues may dominate the environmental challenges of the region, but there are many other areas of concern as well. These include ever-increasing air pollution with serious health ramifications; preservation of open space and the need to preserve bio-diversity; the strain on environmental resources by the rapidly-growing populations to develop green energy resources; public littering; and a general disregard for the environment.
Despite these challenges, there are numerous examples of Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli NGOs working successfully together on environmental projects. One example is a joint study conducted by Palestinian researchers from the Water & Environmental Development Organization and the House of Water and the Environment together with Israeli researchers from the Arava Institute and Ben-Gurion and Tel Aviv universities. They undertook the first ever monitoring of pollution sources in transboundary streams in the region. The three-year project looked at the Hebron/Besor and Nablus/Alexander rivers and was able to create an in-depth picture of the ecological health and challenges they face. Based on this information, they made recommendations of what needs to be done to bring the rivers, as well as the others in the region, back to health.
Also involved in this area of work is the Friends of the Earth Middle East, which has put a tremendous amount of effort into rectifying the disastrous state of the Jordan River, working with Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli individuals and organizations. The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information has held conferences on the many complex issues involved with water in the region, while Kids4Peace has used the environment as a way to bring 10- to 12-year-olds together.
Ronen Schechner, a program director of Kids4Peace, explains, “There are many elements one can use to break down barriers and build bridges when one brings Israeli and Palestinians together. The environment, something that we all share, plays a very important role when we bring our participants together.”
Since 1996, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has been training a cadre of Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian environmental leaders in the region, in addition to operating a very active research department involved with numerous transboundary environmental projects between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Morocco.
There are tens of thousands of Bedouins and Palestinians living in Israel and the Palestinian Authority with no modern infrastructure; particularly no municipal trash pickup, nonexistent municipal sewer systems, and no electrical services. Methane gas produced from household and farm waste is one solution to this situation. Three Arava Institute Jewish and Arab researchers have spent time in India, China, and Central and South America learning about biogas anaerobic digester systems, which use organic matter from kitchen waste, livestock manure, and garden waste to produce methane that can be used for cooking and other household tasks. The material left over after the anaerobic process can be used for composting, and for cultivating trees and gardens.
This system is now being introduced to a number of Israeli and Palestinian Bedouin communities. Yair Teller was asked by the Villages’ Association to design and build a household biogas system in the outlying Palestinian community of Susya. That system is being used not only to bring methane to homes but the ‘compost tea’ from the process is being used to fertilize newly-arrived olive trees.
The environmental issues are exacerbated by the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Added to the political reality of the conflict and how it affects the shared environment between these two peoples there is also another reality. “The fact that geographically the heart of the conflict is actually in a very small area only increases the pressure on the environment,” points out Yonat Mordoch, 32, an Israeli master’s student at Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University.
Showing the complexity of the problem, Yousre Odeh, a 27-year-old Palestinian, adds, “From a Palestinian perspective, the environment may have a priority, but it is not as important as the political issues that affect the daily lives of Palestinians. It’s hard to make sense for such people when you try to talk to them about making their life green, when they face all these other issues, not to mention that they don’t have the required knowledge about the environment and how it is important.”
While the NGOs may be able to model what can be done and even overcome some of the obstacles mentioned above, Dr. Clive Lipchin, the director of the research department of the Arava Institute, points out, “While we may have the necessary data from the research we have done with Israelis and Palestinians on solving the environmental issues that we have in common, the problem lies in getting effective legislation and policy implemented, not to mention in a coordinated fashion, between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority. Until there is a peace agreement this becomes near impossible.”
Despite these challenges, the environmental NGOs of the region remind us that other modes of cooperation do exist. Based upon his studies at the Arava Institute with fellow students from the Middle East and around the world, Liel Maghen, 25, an Israeli Jew, says, “I have learned that ‘nature knows no borders’ and that although politics separate us into identities, the environmental problems unite us together.”