EcoPeace explained

January 22, 2015 by Judy Singer
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Sydneysiders thirsting for signs of hope from the Middle East filled Newtown Synagogue’s Community Hall to hear leading Israeli environmentalist Gidon Bromberg, co-director of EcoPeace Middle East, deliver some encouraging news.

 Mayors, community reps and youth from Israel, Palestine and Jordan “Jump in the Jordan” calling for their governments to step up on the rehabilitation of the river

Mayors, community reps and youth from Israel, Palestine and Jordan “Jump in the Jordan” calling for their governments to step up on the rehabilitation of the river

 

While mistrust and gloom prevail at the political level, EcoPeace has succeeded in bringing together Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis through their shared interest in managing the region’s fragile water resources.

EcoPeace, formerly known as “Friends of the Earth Middle East”, has collected a swathe of global awards for its achievements in environmental peacemaking, and Bromberg and his Jordanian and Palestinian co-directors were named among the world’s “Environmental Heroes” by Time Magazine. The Time award highlighted the EcoPeace Good Water Neighbours project for creating real improvements in the water sector despite the conflict, one of the topics covered by Bromberg in his presentation. Right now, EcoPeace is working with youth and educators, residents and mayors of 28 communities on both sides of the Jordan River to rehabilitate their shared water resource. And in the process of problem solving together, these neighbors are building trust and understanding, standing up to extremists on both sides, and demonstrating that peace is possible.

 EcoPeace Co-Directors, Gidon Bromberg (Israel), Munqeth Mehyar (Jordan) and Nader Al-Khateeb (Palestine)

EcoPeace Co-Directors, Gidon Bromberg (Israel), Munqeth Mehyar (Jordan) and Nader Al-Khateeb (Palestine)

Despite being a sacred place for all the Abrahamic religions, a history of exploitation, intransigence and neglect by the three water neighbours has reduced the Jordan to what has often been described as a “trickle” and a “sewer”. 96% of the Jordan’s water has been siphoned off, about half by Israel and half by Jordan and Syria, while sewage, salinity and agricultural runoff have degraded the river’s quality and halved its biodiversity. But thanks to the continuing efforts of EcoPeace and the local communities perhaps we will see the emergence of a “trickle up” effect whereby the successes of grassroots ‘people-to-people’ activism finally percolates to the upper echelons of political decision-making.

While EcoPeace also works “from the top down” to develop policy for a future water treaty for the region, Bromberg stresses the importance of its grassroots, youth and community-based approach to problem solving. In the Palestinian territories alone, 20,000 school students have completed EcoPeace Palestine’s environmental courses. “We start with the kids because they break boundaries”, Bromberg told J-Wire. “It took five years for mayors on both sides to agree to meet because they needed their respective constituents’ support. And they could do that when they discovered that the schools in their communities had already done our environmental courses”. The kids inspired their parents, who in turn backed their mayors to stand up to pressure from their “own sides”, in the form of accusations of being “co-opted by normalisation” from the Palestinian side, and accusations of “working with the enemy who can’t be trusted” from the Israeli side.

A recent example of EcoPeace’s influence occurred on the 20th Anniversary of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. Due to tensions in the region, Jordan cancelled all official events except for the EcoPeace Conference on the Rehabilitation of the Jordan. “And all three states attended,” said Bromberg, “not to become best friends, because conflict, occupation, terrorism are still there, but because they have identified specific issues of self-interest which can lead to mutual gain”

Gidon Bromberg, (right), Uri Windt in Newtown

Gidon Bromberg, (right), Uri Windt in Newtown

The Newtown event, which attracted a diverse audience of Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, together with Christians involved in interfaith work, was organized by a peace group, iwJAFA, that emerged from Sydney’s Inner West Jewish community. Members of this predominantly secular, greenish and progressive community had become politicized when two Local Municipal Councils, Leichhardt and Marrickville, imported the Middle East conflict into the Inner West at the behest of local pro-Palestinian/anti-“Zionist” solidarity groups. iwJAFA sought to change the existing paradigm on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from one of irreconcilable “parallel narratives” between the supporters of two warring camps, to one which stressed dialogue and support for grassroots, people-to-people initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians. iwJAFA spokesperson, Uri Windt said “We invited Gidon because he exemplifies the peace-making approach that we have supported in the Inner West, and it’s been great to see the diversity of the people who turned out and the quality of their questioning.”

According to Bromberg this is a particularly exciting time for environmental peacemaking because “the introduction of cheaper new membrane desalination technology has been a game changer. And Israel is the world leader in treating sewage for agriculture reuse. 80% of sewage is treated and reused. The minister for water even asked for water production to be reduced”. So there is enough water to share with no sacrifice required from any sector of Israeli society, nor should there be any political costs.

Until now, all-or-nothing intransigence, the attitude of peace negotiators that either all issues must be settled at once, or none, has prevented a separate agreement on water issues, resulting in a lose-lose situation for the whole region. But Bromberg says water issues could be dealt with now; all that is required is the political will for change. In an encouraging sign, Tzipi Livni, centrist Israeli politician and one of the negotiators of the original water treaty, is now saying “Water can be solved today, so let’s solve it”.

Optimistically comparing the Israel-Palestine conflict to deep-rooted European conflicts, Bromberg sums up: “After the two most horrible wars on earth, the European Union was created on agreements struck on the two most important natural resources (coal and steel) of prior enemies France and Germany. Water and (solar) energy are the most import resources of our region. If we can strike an agreement on water and energy between our respective countries we can model European experience and turn hundreds of years of conflict into a community of cooperation, mutual gain, and mutual respect. Borders will no longer be so significant if we live in a region of peace and prosperity. And that is what water can bring to the table.”

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