A Bridge Over Troubled Water

By Aaron Richards

Rain pelted the bus as our class trekked to Tzur Hadassah, a quaint town south of Jerusalem perched on a hilltop overlooking the Green Line. Soaking wet, we trudged through puddles as we entered the community library. Record rainfall provided an ironic backdrop for a discussion concerning the scarcity of water in Israel. As with any limited resource, Israel’s precarious water situation is a complex issue with much broader implications than the availability of water itself. Environmental assets transcend political boundaries. Their maintenance and availability often prove to be common sources of contention threatening peaceful relations with neighbors dependent on a shared supply. As we learned throughout the day, such opportunities for conflict can alternatively be viewed as potential outlets for cooperation.

Aaron Richards is a student in the MA in Peace and Conflict Studies Management Program.
Aaron Richards is a student in the MA in Peace and Conflict Studies Management Program.

The political conflict between Israel and Palestine has frequently created a decreased prioritization of environmental dilemmas. However, the vitality of clean water is an undeniable superordinate goal that presents an opportunity for discourse and cooperation on both sides. Because of this, the phenomenon of “environmental peacebuilding” has emerged as a necessary and mutually beneficial byproduct of conflict. Third-party organizations and NGO’s are being created to not only address the environmental concerns that create and are created by conflict, but also allow for new foundations of civil dialogue, networking, and cooperative policymaking.

In Tzur Hadassah we were introduced to one such organization–Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an environment-oriented NGO with branches in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. FoEME works as a regional advocate for cross-border resource stewardship, with a primary focus on water. Of particular interest during our visit was the contested nature of Israel’s Mountain Aquifer. This network of groundwater is the main artery for water access in the West Bank, and also provides significant volumes of water to Israel’s population hubs.  Although the majority of the Mountain Aquifer resides under Palestinian territory, 80% of its supply is routed to Israel. The allocation may seem alarming, but it is important to consider population ratios between the two areas when analyzing resource usage. The fairness of water allotment stemming from the aquifer is debatable, but unarguable is the guilt of both parties in its pollution. Solid waste and sewage from Israel and Palestine permeate the aquifer’s supply, inhibiting the amount of available water and threatening the viability of the resource for everyone involved.

From Tzur Hadassah we made the short venture directly across the border into the West Bank, where flooding from the continual deluge would take the lives of five Palestinian’s during the following week.  In the humble agricultural village of Battir, we assembled in a cobblestone building to further discuss resource-sharing between Israel and Palestine. The conversation, like the building itself, was overshadowed by the 30,000+ resident Israeli settlement of Beittar Illit. Regardless of the political implications of settlements, the environmental impact can prove to be just as controversial. Re-routing of already strained water supplies represents only a small portion of the difficulties created by their construction. The haste and often unregulated nature of the creation and expansion of settlements frequently makes for disastrous sewage run-off.  As in the case of Beittar Illit, such run-off often finds its way into ancestral agricultural grounds, ruining crops and hindering an already fragile source of Palestinian income. The transgressions of Beittar Illit have not gone unnoticed; immediately following our visit, the Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry made an unbiased concession ordering the settlement to repair its infrastructure to prevent future pollution.

Sewage from Beittar Illit pooling on Palestinian farmland in Wadi Foquin (via Haaretz)
Sewage from Beittar Illit pooling on Palestinian farmland in Wadi Foquin (via Haaretz)

After Battir, we found ourselves once again on rain-drenched roads, where narrow West Bank lanes progressed to modern highways and eventually the busy, flooded thoroughfares of Tel Aviv. We ended our day in Jaffa, where we met with Ambassador (ret.) Ram Aviram. Speaking on behalf of BIT Consultancy,  Aviram presented on “Water Beyond Boundaries”, a discussion detailing the role of water in Israel’s relationship with Palestine and Jordan. Similar to environmental peacebuilding, Aviram introduced us to the notion of “hydro-politics”, a term utilized in describing the cooperation between states in preserving water quality and supplies. Aviram detailed how hydro-politics in Israel has come to encompass a vast network of NGO’s, think tanks, and multi-national engineering companies actively engaged in the development of collaborative policy and infrastructure aimed at maintaining water as a resource for peace, not contention.  He left us with a quote from the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “We can change history, but not geography. We can change our friends but not our neighbors.”

The adage “Israel made the desert bloom” is often used to describe Israel’s miraculous accomplishments in transforming a once harsh national landscape. Here’s to hoping that water can continue to make the land and regional friendships of Israel blossom…

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