6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Building Peace Over Water in the Lower Jordan Valley: A Sister Cities Coalition

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

Water is a key ingredient for peace, especially in the Middle East. The Jordan River, which forms the border between Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, and Jordan, is central to the interrelated political and environmental challenges facing the region. Addressing these challenges requires not only high-level diplomacy but also direct, people-to-people engagement, which can form lasting relationships that go beyond water, said experts at the Wilson Center on October 17.

Representatives of EcoPeace Middle East (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East),Citizen Diplomacy Initiatives, and Sister Cities International, along with local government leaders from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank, came together to discuss grassroots peacebuilding efforts in the region and the potential to expand through multilateral “sister city” relationships with U.S. communities.

A Shared Problem

The Lower Jordan River has sadly “become famous for being a sewage canal,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East.

Contamination from wastewater is a pressing problem in the Palestinian West Bank, where treatment facilities are scarce, due in part to the ongoing conflict. “People just discharge their sewage through infiltration pits or cesspits, which is a big risk for pollution,” said Nader Khateeb, Palestinian director of EcoPeace Middle East. “The sewage can easily find its way to the groundwater, which is the major source of water for all sectors.”

The Jordan Valley covers almost a third of Palestinian West Bank and contains nearly 60,000 Palestinians and 9,000 Israeli settlers. But Palestinians have been denied access to the river since 1967. Almost all of the land is designated “Area C,” meaning it falls under full control of the Israeli government, which may or may not approve water development projects, Khateeb said.

The sacred town of Jericho, which celebrated its 11,000th anniversary last year and is “the oldest town on earth,” only just received a modern sewage system, he continued. And Al Auja, a farming community of 4,500 residents, lacks running water after a major spring dried up due to climate change and withdrawals by Israel and the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

But the degradation of the valley is an urgent problem for Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis alike, said Ali Al-Delki, mayor of the Jordanian municipality of Muaz Bin Jabal. “It needs all of us, it needs a lot of effort, and that effort needs political will and political support.”

“We see the Jordan River as an intersection of interests, and therefore the need for cooperation,” said Yossi Vardi, an Israeli major and member of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, which oversees a number of Israeli settlements.

Environmental Peacebuilding

EcoPeace is working to address the problem by advocating for a “fair share of transboundary water,” seeking Israeli approval for water projects, supporting infrastructure rehabilitation and development efforts, and conducting environmental education and ecotourism through its EcoCenters, said Khateeb.

The Good Water Neighbors project “has brought together Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian youth, adults, and municipal representatives from 28 communities to cooperate over transboundary water resources and jointly advance sustainable development in the region,” said Melissa Brown, director of USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, which helps fund the effort.

EcoPeace is the only organization – environmental or otherwise – jointly run by Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, said Bromberg. “Sadly, there’s no parallel to it in any other field.”

One focus is research, which allows scientists from all three territories to jointly investigate and address shared environmental problems, like water pollution, said Bromberg.

In the Palestinian village of Battir, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, EcoPeace supported  Israelis and Palestinians  in preventing the construction of an Israeli-proposed separation barrier that would have endangered an ancient and culturally important agricultural landscape, said Bromberg.

The Jordan Valley Regional Council is implementing a project to develop tourism and restore the valley’s biological diversity – including willow trees, which once flourished along the riverbanks but were later killed off by pollution.

Incentives for Cooperation

“We also know,” said Bromberg, “that to change policies it’s not enough to write reports.” EcoPeace directly engages individuals from opposing sides to raise awareness of one another’s “water realities,” which can be strikingly different, he said.

When you turn on the tap in any community in Israel, water will always flow. That’s not the case in Palestine, and it’s not always the case in Jordan either. And there are reasons for it, so it’s important for youth to understand those reasons – and a lot of those reasons are conflict-related.

Educating conflicting constituencies, especially young people, about their environmental interconnectedness can help create political will for change, said Bromberg.

“A thirsty neighbor will never be a good neighbor,” he said. At the same time, “no fence, no political boundary stops pollution from flowing from one side to the other.”

Opposing leaders are often reluctant to collaborate because of potential political costs, but framing environmental cooperation in terms of self-interest can help overcome this challenge, he said. People cooperate “not because someone is doing someone else a favor – because favors generally don’t last, and certainly not in conflict – [but] because they have a sense that they’re advancing their own interest.”

This combination of cross-border engagement and environmental education is working, said Bromberg. Local leaders are recognizing that “allowing that river to continue to flow is not empowering my enemy, it’s empowering my neighbor – and I want to empower my neighbor.”

Speaking at the Wilson Center earlier this year, Bromberg recalled an event in which mayors jumped into the Jordan River together to demonstrate their shared interest in cleaning it up, as well as the progress made in making it swimmable.

Sister Cities

The Middle East conflict has implications that extend beyond the region, said Steve Kalishman, director of Citizen Diplomacy Initiatives. “This is not an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian problem; it’s an American problem.”

EcoPeace, Sister Cities International, and Citizen Diplomacy Initiatives signed a memorandum of understanding to expand on the success of the Good Water Neighbors project by connecting communities in the region to those across the Atlantic. The initiative will incorporate U.S. cities into established Good Water Neighbors relationships and provide a chance for American “citizen diplomats” to engage in peacebuilding efforts.

“We want the Jordanian, and Palestinian, and Israeli youth to participate in these types of exchanges so in 20 to 25 years, those are the people sitting across from you at the desk when you’re talking about policy and some of these upper level issues,” said Adam Kaplan, vice president of Sister Cities International.

Bringing conflicting parties together to address shared environmental problems is essential in itself, but also promises long-term peace dividendsthat transcend a particular sector or cause.

“Once you build trust on one issue – water in our case – there’s no limitation as to where that trust can take you,” said Bromberg.

“When you get people together and build trusting relationships, everything is possible,” agreed Kalishman, who talked about his experience doing exchanges between American and Soviet communities at the height of the Cold War.

Beyond the River

Although enduring peace in the region is not yet a reality, efforts to restore the once-mighty Jordan River – including not only locally led initiatives, but Israel’s release of flows from the Sea of Galilee last year, a USAID-funded wastewater treatment and desalination plant, and a Japanese-funded sewage system in Jericho – offer reasons for optimism.

“There can be no peace without the leaders signing a peace treaty,” said Bromberg. “But what we also know [is] that in order to get there, it doesn’t just happen; it requires support.”

Fostering direct citizen engagement is a critical part of that support, said Munqeth Mehyar, the Jordanian director of EcoPeace Middle East. “Politicians must sign papers at the start, but the rest is up to the people.”

“It’s that bottom-up effort,” said Bromberg, “that creates the absolutely necessary constituencies – in your communities, in our communities – to get to that signing ceremony, to get to the peace that we all so desperately desire.”

Event Resources:

Sources: Haaretz, Japan International Cooperation Agency, RT, World Bank, UNESCO.

Drafted by Moses Jackson, edited by Schuyler Null.

Speakers

  • Gidon Bromberg

    Israeli Director, EcoPeace Middle East
  • Melissa Brown

    Director, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience
  • Steve Kalishman

    Director, Citizen Diplomacy Initiatives
  • Adam Kaplan

    Vice President, Sister Cities International
  • Nader Khateeb

    Palestinian Director, EcoPeace Middle East
  • Munqeth Mehyar

    Jodanian Director, EcoPeace Middle East