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 NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) launched Good Water Makes Good Neighbors, a cooperative initiative that aims to bring together Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians to preserve the region's fragile environment, which is fundamental to the three peoples' histories and their development. Five mayors from municipalities along the Jordan River and Dead Sea, as well as representatives from FoEME, gathered at the Wilson Center on May 8, 2006, to explore ways to use cross-border water and sanitation cooperation to restore the region's vitality and to build literal and metaphorical bridges. The meeting was co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program, Middle East Program, and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity.
Sitting at geographic, historic, and ecological crossroads, "the Jordan River and Dead Sea are truly unique to the world," said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FoEME. Three continents—Africa, Europe, and Asia—converge in the region, which was home to the first human settlements outside of the Great Rift Valley, as well as the 11,000-year old city of Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the world. The area is steeped in religious history, and also renowned for its unusual ecology and high biodiversity. The Dead Sea, sitting at the lowest point on earth—minus 418 feet—is known the world over for the healing power of its salts and minerals
The Jordan River Valley's future, however, is in question. Over the last half century, the valley's water supply has been rapidly depleted, with more than 90 percent of fresh water diverted upstream to meet the competing 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 said. 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 the 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. "The mayors have indeed shown incredible leadership," said Bromberg. "They have been the first decision-makers to make these public calls to rehabilitate the river and the Dead Sea."
Through Good Water Makes Good Neighbors, the mayors have engaged in a number of initiatives to promote rehabilitation. At one recent endeavor, the "Big Jump," mayors from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan literally jumped into the river, hands clasped, to promote rehabilitation efforts. This past Earth Day, 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, mayor of the Beit She'an Regional Council in Israel and a supporter of the peace park, said that people in her community cannot approach the river because it is blocked by fences and mines. And despite living only 10 meters from Jordan, she had never before met with any of its mayors to discuss their shared problems. "We need to give people a place to meet," she said. "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 said, 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, suggested that governments look beyond the Red-Dead water transfer plan to other water strategies, particularly those that would reduce the agricultural burden: "Are we really using what is available in the right way? Do [farmers] grow crops that require less water?" A walk through the valley's banana and citrus groves—two highly water-intensive crops—provides a clear answer. Additionally, Bromberg noted, agriculture is not paying: "The predominant income for all three peoples in the valley is [from] agriculture. And, therefore, the poorest people in the region for all three countries are in the valley." Alternatively, FoEME supports diversification of resources, specifically less agriculture and more tourism. "We are not against agriculture. It is about striking the right balance, and diversifying the economies in the valley so that people can benefit both from agriculture, [and] increasingly from tourism and the cross-border tourism."
While FoEME believes tourism will be the "economic engine" that brings water back to the Jordan and the Dead Sea, many of the event's attendees questioned whether traditional tourism—often extremely water-intensive— is any better than agriculture. FoEME, however, does not support "five-star tourism," but rather eco-tourism, which would promote the local attractions while educating tourists about challenges facing the region. "We are talking about tourists who are willing to use [a] towel three days in a row, and use the same bed sheets, rather than washing them every single morning," Mehyar said. "Studies show that this type of tourism in our region is sustainable, and in big numbers."
Beyond local and regional initiatives, Bromberg emphasized 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 UNESCO, 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, pointed out that the recent Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections has cut off most aid from the international community and NGOs. "Many municipalities do not sympathize with Hamas," he said. "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. "We believe that by working together, not only do we advance the environmental issues, the livelihood issues, but we also advance peace between our peoples," Bromberg said. 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," said Dov Litvinoff, mayor of the Tamar Dead Sea Regional Council in Israel.
Drafted by Alison Williams.
EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth, Middle East
Chair, Friends of the Earth Middle East
Palestinian Director, Friends of the Earth Middle East
Mayor, Mua'z Bin Jabal Municipality, Jordan