By Michael Schwartz
Jolting contradictions often seem to deserve each other. Like “opposites attract”. That teardrops taste the same whether you produce them laughing or crying. How elections tend toward the politics of fear-mongering versus the politics of hope-building.
Surely one of the most unfathomable contradictions of humanity is that what we call the Holy Land is at once the presumed site of both Armageddon and Redemption. As if Armageddon and Redemption might be part of the same equation.
Or perhaps, as if we can choose between them. It turns out that in fact we can choose.
When it comes to water in this dry land in the Middle East, the choice boils down to either continued competition over water and the resulting pollution, conflict, and unsustainability of our very limited water resources that we see today.
Or, cooperation on water for the benefit – and maybe survival - of everyone in the region.
The demise of water basins shared between Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians -- the Jordan River, Dead Sea, Mountain and Coastal Aquifers -- reflects shortsighted choices and our forgetfulness that water is essential for the sustenance of all life forms.
When we deal with water resources so recklessly, it is not surprising that we treat both people and nature callously, ignoring water rights and failing to respect access to sufficient, clean water as a most basic universal need and human right.
For more than a decade though, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) - the only joint Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli NGO - has been promoting cooperation and a regional vision for managing water resources.
The pioneering methodology of FoEME’s "Good Water Neighbors" project identifies cross-border communities and utilises their mutual dependence on shared water resources to develop dialogue and cooperation, both grass-roots and between local leaders, on sustainable water management.
Five sets of 'partnering mayors' have signed memoranda of understanding promoting their jointly identified solutions to specific water problems negatively affecting both communities. These include waste water treatment networks, peace parks, better agricultural practices, and wise water use.
Twenty-eight communities in the region are today involved in the project, and in the last three years more than $200 million has been leveraged for implementation of these water and sanitation projects.
Why are these neighboring communities choosing to cooperate on water, which is one of the most sensitive – and pressing – issues facing this region which is still immersed in conflict?
Quite simply, there is more to be gained from cooperation, and less to be lost.
Only by dealing with the root causes of our shared waters’ mismanagement can we create the effective regional structures which are required to sustainably manage these resources.
The interdependent nature of the water resources in our region, and the severity of their demise, means that trans-national water management cannot remain hostage to lack of progress in the overall peace process.
Indeed, FoEME's experience has shown that if trust is built around shared water issues, it can then impact positively on other aspects of human relations, toward working cooperatively for common gain.
Local Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians are – together - today promoting sustainable water consumption, demanding sanitation solutions and a stop to pollution, supporting more equitable allocations of water between Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, as well as with Nature, and working to rehabilitate the severely depleted and polluted Lower Jordan River and the dying Dead Sea.
Eco-tourism initiatives hold the promise of livelihoods to be gained from cooperative efforts to rehabilitate natural resources – an essential economic inheritance for local communities with diminished water resources for farming.
Many of the water problems in this region are man-made and can be resolved through policy changes.
Redemptive choices can still be made to establish trans-national mechanisms for shared-water management, increasing water allocation to meet Palestinian needs and simultaneously investing in sanitation solutions in the West Bank and Gaza to stop pollution of groundwater and aquifers which threatens the long-term health of the region’s main water resources.
National programs need to be developed and launched which promote change in water consumption practices, based on clear targets and financial or other incentives, to encourage wiser use of scarce water resources in the domestic and agricultural sectors.
And perhaps most important in the long-term, public education must help youth and adults understand the shared water reality and visualize a sustainable water future: Cooperation rather than conflict, and hope rather than fear.
Water and life is not a contradiction. Water and life are synonymous.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz works with Friends of the Earth Middle East. The views expressed are his own.
*This blog was submitted as part of AlertNet’s special multimedia report on water. See more at “The Battle for Water”.*