By Robert Lalasz

Can environmental problems be used to promote international cooperation even in the world's most contentious areas?

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) is an NGO committed to dialogue and working exclusively on transboundary environmental issues involving Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian communities, with a staff that is drawn equally from those communities. In this meeting, co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Project (ECSP) and its Middle East Project as well as FOEME and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Gidon Bromberg and Abdel-Rahman Sultan detailed FOEME's efforts to foster cooperation on water among some of the region's border municipalities.

Inclusiveness the Key to Success

FOEME, which was established in 1994 under the name EcoPeace, was the first regional environmental organization to include Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian environmental groups and actors. Bromberg said that FOEME practices strict inclusiveness: not only does it have offices in all three of the countries in which it works, but each of its projects (working to save the shrinking Dead Sea, trade and the environment, renewables, and water) must have coordinators from each country.

"The success of the organization is that it together decides on a single agenda, and then the staff from each country dialogues with that country's press and policymakers," Bromberg explained. "It's a single effort to promote regional peace and environmental cooperation."

The Middle East: An Impending Water Disaster

Sultan followed by outlining the dire water situation in the Middle East, where population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices, and pollution are stretching this arid region's scarce water to the point of disaster.

Sultan said that, while Middle East rivers such as the Jordan and Yarmouk are being tapped beyond capacity, untreated sewage is ruining both the region's surface water and its crucial aquifers (which are generally shared among many or all of the region's countries).

According to Sultan, inequitable water distribution also marks regional water management: while Israelis use an average of 300 cubic liters per capita per day, Palestinians receive merely 60—-barely above the generally-agreed upon minimum for human sustainability.

"Jordan receives water for 12 hours daily," Sultan said, "and most Palestinian villages don't have continuous water flows." He added that, since the Palestinian national workforce is more dependent on water-intensive agriculture than those of surrounding countries, such shortfalls are particularly dangerous for Palestinian economic sustainability.

Sultan also noted that high national population growth rates will continue to widen an already large gap between the region's demand for water and its supply. Palestinian annual population growth rates average about 4 percent, and Israeli rates are about 3.5 percent.

By 2040, Sultan said, the water demands of these burgeoning populations will outstrip a water supply that will increase only slightly despite a major drive to build desalination plants.

The region's water mismanagement, he added, also plays a crucial role: policies neglect adequate sanitation and wastewater treatment, and they allow agriculture and domestic demand to oversubscribe water sources (leading to widespread salination, contamination, and evaporation).

The level of the Dead Sea, for example, is dropping by a meter a year. Infants in the Gaza Strip are already afflicted with "blue baby" syndrome, attributable to high levels of nitrates in their water. Sultan also said that most cities in the West Bank depend solely on cesspools for their wastewater treatment.

"In eight to 10 years," he said, "the ground water there won't be suitable for drinking."

Sultan advocated for Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians to look in a comprehensive way at pollution prevention to avoid the systematic contamination of whole aquifers. "The three nations meet regularly on water division and distribution," he said, "but there is no discussion concerning pollution prevention. But this problem affects water supplies for the whole area."

Good Neighbors Make for Good Water

Bromberg then detailed FOEME's year-old Good Water Neighbors Project , which focuses on sensitizing neighboring border communities in the region to their shared water problems and then encourages sustainable solutions to those problems. "The focus on community is crucial," Bromberg said. "We hope to use them as leverage for regional change."

The Project is working with five transboundary pairs of Israeli and Jordanian or Israeli and Palestinian municipalities. A typical project involves a Palestinian community with a water shortage and an Israeli neighboring community that suffers from the Palestinian town's untreated sewage.

Bromberg explained that the Project's staff members come from the affected communities; these staff members educate their neighbors and elected officials about shared water realities between the paired communities and then work with these groups toward effective solutions. Between 20 to 50 "water trustees" from each town also commit to the effort.

"So much depends on the personal contact, on the dialogue we can develop between decision-makers," said Bromberg. "We cannot provide more water for any community or state—we can only raise awareness in each community about water realities. When neighbors can lobby for neighbors and be advocates, that's where we become effective."

He added that FOEME hopes to use concrete results from the Good Neighbors Project to launch a region-wide media campaign to show that the commitment is there if opportunities are created. FOEME also hopes to foster regional water solutions based on these pilot efforts.

In addition, FOEME also engages in ad hoc drives—such as its campaign to raise money to replace water storage tanks damaged or destroyed in the Israeli military incursion into the West Bank last year.

Politics, Agriculture, and Behavior

In response to audience questions, Bromberg said that FOEME has often found the Middle East political landscape less than cooperative with its efforts. "Different ministries and authorities at times have seen the diffusion of power as a threat," he said.

"But municipalities have lost faith in their central governments recently, which helps us," added Bromberg. They're willing to take initiatives on their own that they wouldn't have three years ago."

In addition, he said, Jordan has facilitated good movement toward regional cooperation on water issues since it signed its peace treaty with Israel.

Both speakers and audience members agreed that agriculture is a major obstacle toward more efficient water use in the region, using 50 percent of the region's water supply.

"We are still planting bananas, citrus, and flowers, which are all highly demanding of fresh water," said Sultan. "We would like to have farmers pay for real water costs and treatment of agricultural wastes, and we need to change the crop patterns. But no one farmer will be willing to change his water usage, so it needs to be a communal decision."

Bromberg added that the Middle East behaves "not as if we live in a desert, but as if we live in Europe. We can't make the desert bloom, and if we try we pay an incredible price. We need to focus on sustainable water use and enjoying the sun, not being the breadbasket for the rest of the world."

He ended by calling for more regional eco-tourism instead of agriculture as well as for attention to population issues as crucial steps toward addressing water scarcity there.

"There simply is not room for everyone if we continue to behave in a water-rich fashion," he said. "The region's environmental community is only now aware of reducing population growth and immigration."