Success is always a good story to tell
Good Water Neighbors Project (GWN) is a one
Mohammed T. Obidallah
Palestinian Good Water Neighbors Project (GWN) Coordinator
In the heart of the Jordan River Valley, water is not only the lifeblood of expanding societies in an arid region – from the Jordan River to Galilee (Lake of Tabariya) and the Dead Sea; its waters are carved deep into the cultural landscape and considered holy in the world’s three major religions.
Despite widespread reverence for and dependence on these waters, they have become yet another casualty of the prolonged, deeply asymmetrical conflict– resulting in unequal access to safe water for Palestinians, pollution that impacts both sides of the border, and gridlock preventing Palestinians from improving sanitation infrastructure. Current water management becomes end-of-the-pipe environmentalism at best and a complete dearth of infrastructure for water use and waste treatment at worst. Today, over 96% of the fresh water that once flowed in the Jordan River basin is diverted, leaving what is left heavily polluted with untreated sewage. The Dead Sea, known for its medicinal minerals, loses a meter from its water level each year. Simultaneously, Palestinian communities suffer from inadequate water supply – accessing just a third of the water consumed by their Israeli counterparts – due to diversion by illegal Israeli settlements, poor infrastructure and limitations on Palestinian development caused by the Israeli occupation.
Because water does not recognize political borders, management and conservation of the water resources in the region must include a comprehensive approach that transcends unilateral actions. While the circumstances are dire, EcoPeace – Middle East (Formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East) believes that effective governance of water can be achieved at low political cost to Israel, and with huge benefits on both sides of the border – building lasting local connections based on the common management of shared resources, and preserving the environment for future generations.
In particular, the Good Water Neighbors (GWN) program, launched in 2001, is working on the ground in 28 Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian communities partnered around nine shared local springs or larger watersheds and aquifers to identify specific environmental needs and suggest cross-border solutions. So far GWN has leveraged millions of dollars in governmental, international, NGO-sponsored and private aid across its project sites. It has connected community leaders, hydrologists, and youth from both sides of the border to take ownership of their shared watersheds.
Regionally, Good Water Neighbors works to oppose further degradation of the environment and unfair division of water resources including in the West Bethlehem village of Battir.
After three years working with EcoPeace – Friends of the Earth Middle East coordinating the Good Water Neighbors Project on the Palestinian side and two years of debate, the Israeli High Court of Justice decided on January 4th ,2015 to deny the request of the Israeli military to confirm the legality of the proposed route of the separation barrier that was planned to cut through the unique terraced landscape of Battir which would irreversibly destroy a canal irrigation system that has been sustained since the Roman times.
The case is based on a set of petitions filled by the Palestinian village of Battir, neighboring Israeli residents across the ‘green line’ EcoPeace Middle East, protesting the proposed building of the Separation Barrier on the site of the ancient terraced landscape of Battir.
Battir, characterized by extensive hand-built terracing and ancient irrigation systems, in World Heritage terms is considered an organically evolved landscape. Within the area are kilometers of dry-stone walls Terraces, necessary to hold the shallow soils on steep, stony slopes. This visually spectacular landscape also contains many other elements: a prehistoric hilltop, fortifications, roman graves, villages of ancient origin, fields of many different type and date, irrigation system and the features that made the landscape work for people struggling to gain a livelihood from it. Old tracks, contemporary with the fields, wind between them; among the fields and terraces are stone-houses, watchtowers, and steps and ramps between the terraces. Overall, these things form a cultural landscape of considerable scientific interest and beauty. Especially is this so in a Palestinian context where extents of such quality landscape have become quite rare under the pressures of modern development.
On June 20, 2014, EcoPeace Friends of earth Middle East celebrated successful efforts to promote Battir’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and maintains an ongoing campaign including a formal appeal to the Israeli High Court to prevent planned construction of the Israeli Separation Barrier through the heart of Battir’s terraced landscapes, which would irreversibly destroy a canal irrigation system that has been sustained since the Roman times.
In 2013, EcoPeace Friends of earth Middle East filled a request and the Ancient Irrigated Terraces of Battir have been enlisted in the 2014 World Monument Watch, because of the threats that menace the site. In 2011, Battir has been awarded the first prize ex-aequo of the UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes. EcoPeace- EcoPeace Friends of Earth Middle East also arranged different activities defending ancient terraced landscape of Battir and the Roman water System against any separation barrier in the area including:
- Experts meeting
- Site Visits
- Diplomats visits
- Local, regional and international media
- The Cultural Landscape of Battir – Draft Opinion of Conservation Expert Dr. Mike Turner
- Translations of the important sections of FoEME’s Petition to the Israeli High Court
- Video version of this event Celebrating the Terraced Landscape in Battir
EcoPeace Press Releases
- January 4,2015 ISRAELI HIGH COURT DENIES REQUEST OF ISRAELI MILITARY TO APPROVE SEPARATION BARRIER IN BATTIR
- September 21, 2014 The Israeli Government Decided Not to Decide: Netanyahu postponed the Cabinet’s vote whether to build the Security Barrier in Battir, a World Heritage site
- October 20, 2013 – Battir’s Ancient Irrigated Landscape Declared an Endangered Cultural Site on the World Monument Fund’s 2014 ‘Watch List’
- May 2, 2013 – Israeli High Court of Justice Orders Israeli Military to Halt Building of Separation Wall in Battir
- December 13, 2012 – High Court Accepts the Petition of FoEME Against the Separation Barrier in Battir
- December 11, 2012 – Israel Nature & Parks Authority in Response to FoEME Petition Against the Separation Barrier in Battir
- December 6, 2012 – Route of Separation Barrier Threatens to Destroy Shared Palestinian / Israeli Cultural Landscape Site
Other Major Achievements: Hebron – Baqa – Tulkarem and Gaza
EcoPeace Friends of Earth Middle East has made major advancements despite entrenched geo-political conflict. Take Hebron, one of the most politically charged and environmentally damaged cases in Palestine. The importing of sulfuric acid, which can be used to treat waste produced by tanneries, was banned in Palestinian territories by the Israeli government until recently due to its dual use potential. In April, through the work of EcoPeace Friends of Earth Middle East partnership with prominent journalist Thomas Friedman and USAID, the Israel Defense Forces agreed to discuss this ban.
Despite advancements on permission for the use of sulfuric acid, large challenges loom in Hebron and across Palestine, as EcoPeace Friends of earth Middle East remains dedicated to prolonged engagement. In Hebron’s industrial zone untreated waste from tanneries, and from the ceramic and stone-cutting industries are released into the Hebron Stream that flows through Be’erSheva, Israel, and runs through Gaza before polluting the Mediterranean Sea. While the municipality of Hebron is responsible for establishing environmental regulations, the industrial area is designated H2, giving the Israeli Civil Administration sole enforcement power. Effectively, this leaves mass pollution unregulated. Israel has built and expanded the Shoket Waste Water Treatment Plant using taxes from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the Green Line in attempts to treat this pollution through “end-of-the-pipe” solutions. However, this facility constantly breaks down and cannot handle the industrial quantities of sewage. Recently, $45 million was pledged by the World Bank, European Union and French Development Agency for a new facility in the West Bank. The project remains incomplete as Palestinians effectively pay twice for adequate waste treatment. Water resources like the Hebron Stream are the lifeblood of local communities on both sides of the border, and can be shared peacefully, but often fall victim to national political barriers – though water knows no borders.
While watershed breakthroughs have been possible through the work of EcoPeace Friends of Earth Middle East and other organizations in the region, the case in Baka al-Sharqiya and Baka al-Gharbiya is not an exception. Many fully planned and funded projects sit idle due to gridlock as sewage continues to flow. For example, the Hebron and Bethlehem Governates are home to over 800,000 Palestinians, who produce about 500 tons of waste daily. Currently, this waste is disposed of in 18 unregulated and unsanitary dumpsites, seeping into groundwater and causing health hazards for local residents. This problem persists despite a secured investment totalling over $27.5 million from groups like the World Bank, European Union and USAID designated to build a secure, sanitary landfill, transfer stations, and access roads at al-Minya. In fact, in October 2013, construction of the site was completed, is and now in operation. Located in Area C, under Israeli jurisdiction, the Israeli Civil Administration has made licensing and operation of the site contingent on an agreement to accept the waste from surrounding Israeli settlements, a condition that the Palestinian Authority, along with both the Joint Services Council and the World Bank refuse to condone.
Likewise, Israel’s military occupation of Palestine has allowed institutions to sidestep national and international regulations to pollute precious resources. Situated on the western edge of Tulkarem, Palestine, along the Green Line, there was once a strip of green space. In the 1980’s Israeli pesticide factory Gishuri relocated to this space, without a permit, to avoid Israeli’s more stringent environmental regulations. Instead of closing the polluting plant, in 1994 the Israeli Civil Administration began considering plans to turn the area into a formal industrial zone, as six more Israeli factories began producing in the region. Despite complaints from both Israeli and Palestinian residents in nearby areas, these factories continue to pollute the air and water with burning plastic and untreated industrial sewage without any approved statutory plan. Recently, EcoPeace Friends of Earth Middle East has begun to bring media and government attention to these cases, involving neighboring Israeli mayors to advance these complaints within their government.
Beyond the military occupation of the West Bank, much has been written about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But residents are reaching a perilous scarcity of a most basic resource: water. The coastal aquifer, currently the only water supply for Gaza’s 1.5 million people is near collapse. Groundwater is extracted at near triple the recharge rates. The remaining water is polluted by nitrates from untreated sewage and fertilizers from agricultural land, while water from the Mediterranean Sea infiltrates the aquifer raising its salinity to unsafe levels. Now, over 90% is unsafe for drinking without treatment. As early as the Oslo II Accords in 1995 Israel agreed to sell 5 MCM annually to the Gaza Strip and constructed a pipeline to Gaza for this purpose, but disagreements between Israeli authorities and the Palestinian authorities have prevented even a drop of water from flowing let alone even a proposal for a Palestinian water carrier that could connect and supply both the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, a fully completed Waste Water Treatment Plant that would serve over 400,000 residents in Northern Gaza was funded by the World Bank and has been fully completed since November 2013. However, it has sat idle since upgrades for additional supply were not completed and disagreements have prevented the necessary 3 MW of electricity from reaching the plant, as inches away, pollution runs untreated into the coastal aquifer and Mediterranean coast. EcoPeace Friends of Earth Middle East continues to monitor and seek solutions to this humanitarian and water crisis.
Through continued local stream rehabilitation projects and the successful creation of eco-centers in Auja and along the banks of the Jordan River, implementation of waste water sanitation solutions in communities like Fasayel and the villages of West Bethlehem, and fostering cooperation across borders like the Jordanian-Israeli model farm, the Good Water Neighbors program continues to protect water that knows no boundaries and good neighbors that are willing to build relationships across them.