Healing the wounds of conflict through water diplomacy

A baptism at Qasr al Yahud on the Jordan River. Renovating the site has increased visitor numbers fourfold but there are days when no ceremonies can be done because of water drifts and pollution © Itamar Grinberg/Israel Tourism

An audacious roadmap for the Jordan River involves a new US$4.6 billion master plan to bring peace, understanding– and treatment plants–to the most contested and politicised waters on earth. By Hunter Stuart.

In the 1840s, US naval officer William Lynch led three boats down the Jordan River to explore its potential as a commercial shipping route. Navigation was perilous, he wrote, as his 16-man expedition careered down whirlpools, waterfalls and rapids, which were “rush[ing] like a mountain torrent”.

Today, that torrent lies silent and putrid, often reduced to a trickle a child could jump cross. Sewage and industrial chemicals occasionally shut down even its cleaner sections. Currents forded by Israelites on their way to the Promised Land–waters that later baptised Jesus–have become treacherous and turbulent for different reasons: there’s not enough to slake the thirst of bickering rivals who fight over the last 4 percent of an artery that bleeds, anaemically, into the Dead Sea.
The Jordan River forms arguably the most contentious border on earth. Its trickle threads through Jordan, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, home to three million Palestinians. As the frontline of the festering Jewish-Arab conflict, the once lush Jordan Valley remains a military zone, closed since 1967.
They say the river’s rich natural ecology and its religious significance endow it with tremendous economic potential for the countries that have forsaken it. “This region has so much promise,” says Munqeth Mehyar, Jordanian director of the non-profit group EcoPeace Middle East and a self-described optimist. “It’s crazy how we’re wasting it through senseless conflict and not working together.”

Nader El-Khateeb, Director, Eco-Peace Middle East © Eco-Peace
Nader El-Khateeb, Director, Eco-Peace Middle East
© Eco-Peace

Mehyar, 58, has experienced senselessness first-hand. In the winter of 2000, during the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, he was shuttling between Jordan and Israel. The architect was mistaken for an official diplomatic negotiator and became an assassination target. “Someone tried to shoot me in the head,” he laughs. “The bullet passed through the windshield of my car and right in front of my nose!”

Rather than scare him off, the incident strengthened his resolve. So while crowded buses were being blown up in Jerusalem streets, and Jews and Arabs started falling back on deeply held tribal loyalties, Mehyar committed to negotiation. “Almost everyone at that time had turned their backs on peace,” he explains. “I felt that someone needed to keep a candle lit somewhere.”
For him, that candle is water. As water grows precious, he works with Israeli and Palestinian counterparts (unheard of in these parts, hence the bullet) trying to convince the region’s ancient enemies to clean, develop, and share their Jordan Valley in ways that benefit all three countries.
Lighting a candle involves more than kind words or gestures. To galvanise realistic cooperation, EcoPeace just released a 200-page master plan aimed at creating thousands of tourism jobs, boosting agricultural output, and bringing billions of dollars in revenue to the impoverished region. The proposal outlines 127 projects to be built for US$4.58 billion over 35 years to help build trust between people who’ve warred for 70 years. With the rest of the Middle East in turmoil, that can’t be a bad thing. “Right now, we are in the eye of the hurricane,” Mehyar says. “And we need to hold on together.”
Holding on won’t be easy. The non-profit research organisation, the World Resources Institute (WRI), says water scarcity was a major contributor to war in Syria, and in a report on water stress released in August, called water “a significant dimension of the decades-old conflict between Palestine and Israel”. With climate change, growing populations and urbanisation, demand for water will intensify. WRI’s report also projects that by 2040, 14 of the 33 most water-stressed countries in the world will be in the Middle East, with Israel, Palestine and Jordan ranked right at the top.
Jordan’s water has been spread especially thin by the influx of over 1 million refugees fleeing Syria’s horrific civil war. Many have settled in the Jordan Valley, where they join 600,000 residents already there, half of whom are unemployed, amidst rising heat and health concerns. “These people are not living with dignity,” Mehyar explains. “There’s sewage running down the streets of their communities”.
EcoPeace’s Master Plan calls for advanced wastewater treatment plants, whose nutrient-rich effluent could be used as fertiliser for agriculture. Ecological progress like that boosts socioeconomic prospects for trust. “When people see that peace brought a better way of life, that it opened jobs, that it let them live with dignity then they will start to think and act differently,” says Mehyar.
He seems to nod at his own words, but it is not only the Jordanians who need to come to the table.

‘Only through cooperation can we serve ourselves’

Across the river, the Jordan Valley’s Palestinians face acute problems when it comes to access to fresh water. Israel exercises total control over Palestinian water use. Amnesty International found the West Bank’s 450,000 Jewish settlers consume as much water as its 2.3 million Palestinians.
Inequities like that give Nader El-Khateeb headaches. “Because of the conflict, everyone wants to grab as much of the river as they can,” says the 56-year-old Palestinian director of EcoPeace, rubbing his temples. “Not only does it strengthen them, but it weakens their enemies. And that’s the mentality of the conflict.”
Sitting in his Bethlehem office under a framed portrait of Yasser Arafat, El-Khateeb gushes about how the Jordan River could become an economic force for the region. “The valley is like a natural greenhouse,” he says. “It has good weather in the winter. The conditions are ideal for agriculture.”
Perhaps. But for now the conditions remain ideal for sowing strife. None of the largely impoverished 60,000 Palestinians who reside in the Jordan Valley have access to the waters that flow through their backyard. And as temperatures rise, tempers flare.
El-Khateeb believes tensions would subside if this population had secure access to the river, agricultural infrastructure, and treatment plants that convert pollution into effluent that could irrigate olive fields. “The Palestinians want to regain their fair share of the river. They could be growing food here, and exporting it abroad,” he says, with the tone of that proverbial prophet not welcome in his hometown.
“There are challenges from Palestinians all the time,” says El-Khateeb, simply because EcoPeace cooperates with Israelis. “Just last month we had some issues with the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] groups. They think any discussion with Israelis is ‘normalisation,’” he says, taking his fingers off his forehead long enough to draw quotation marks in the air.
El-Khateeb spent the first nine years of his life in a Bethlehem refugee camp. He’s not naive about the suffering caused by Israeli occupation. Nevertheless, he find himself forced repeatedly to explain to other Palestinians that the point of EcoPeace isn’t to do favours for Israel, but rather that only through cooperation with its neighbours can Palestine serve itself.
“Since the watersheds cross borders, you have to have both sides working together,” he says, unable to grasp why other people still don’t get it. “It’s not done as a charity to the other. It’s based on self-interest that will create a win-win result.”
The Master Plan is said to be the first real roadmap of what this type of joint cooperation could look like.
Sure it’s ambitious, says El-Khateeb. But EcoPeace has made a strong case for return on public and private investments. Besides, he says, the biggest obstacle isn’t the price tag. It’s the conflict. “For people to invest, they need a peaceful environment,” says El-Khateeb, gazing in the direction of Tel Aviv.

Map Jordan River © Mycolors_Dreamstime-min
The most contentious water in the world: the Jordan River threads through Jordan, Israel and the West Bank © Mycolors | Dreamstime.com

No peace without sustainability… and vice-versa

Here in Tel Aviv, 65 kilometres away but a world apart, an Israeli-born, Australian-bred, American-educated environmental lawyer sits in a cafe on trendy Sheinkin Street, tapping on his iPhone. This is EcoPeace’s Israeli director, Gidon Bromberg. “Just hang on a minute,” he says. “This Al Jazeera reporter completely misquoted me in his story today, and I want to set the record straight.”
For Bromberg, 52, being misunderstood is nothing new. Like his colleague El-Khateeb, Bromberg is often accused of sleeping with the enemy. “I get called a traitor all the time,” he says. “There’s a sense that we’re somehow advancing the interests of the Palestinians. So we have to highlight that this is about selfinterest, for mutual gain.”
That’s an outlook shared by few lawyers, and even fewer water professionals working on the world’s most contentious riparian border. “No one is going to win from the current status quo,” says Bromberg. “In the short term, the status quo means the Palestinians pay a heavy price. But in the mid- to long-term, it’s a disaster for all of us.”
Although he shares the reins of its operation, EcoPeace is Bromberg’s baby. It was born in 1994 when an American philanthropist he’d met funded the concept at the heart of his master’s thesis in international environmental law. Bromberg had been researching the impact of the Oslo Peace Accords on the environment. “What I discovered was, many of the development programmes [in the Accords] had been planned with absolutely no thought given to sustainability,” he says.
So Bromberg concluded that there had to be a cross-border organisation devoted to environmental conservation. Neither tree-hugger nor peacenik, he’s just a guy who realised early on that in Israel-Palestine, peace won’t last without sustainable waters, and waters won’t last without peace.
Sharing water is hard enough everywhere; local politics in this region makes it almost impossible. The most controversial aspect of EcoPeace’s Master Plan is its vision for the creation of an independent Palestinian state by 2020, just five years away. It also assumes that the eastern border of that Palestinian state would be formed by the Jordan Valley–which Israel considers essential to its security, and is thus unlikely to relinquish control of anytime soon.
Further complicating matters is the presence of the roughly 9,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank who live in the Jordan Valley. To carry out EcoPeace’s grand plan, these settlers would need to be evicted; that happened before in 2005, but for Israeli lawmakers it remains akin to political suicide.
The Israeli government is officially opposed to the Master Plan because of the sovereignty it gives Palestinians. Without that support, the plan’s prospects are believed to be limited. “There’s only so much that EcoPeace, as an NGO, can do,” says Clive Lipchin, the director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management, which facilitates communication between water professionals in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. “Eventually, the governments have to step up. Because it’s their responsibility.”
Some signs indicate the governments have begun to recognise this. In June, 200 people attended a conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Amman to hear presentations about EcoPeace’s Master Plan. Among them were officials from the Israeli Knesset, the Palestinian Authority, and the Jordanian government.
Their presence suggests more than a flicker of interest in the EcoPeace proposition. Perhaps they appreciate that a regional, holistic, integrated plan like this offers realistic solution for managing the river, while unilateral action does not. What’s more, ecological deterioration doesn’t wait for politics.
Neither does EcoPeace. The three leaders have identified 20 to 30 infrastructure projects that can begin immediately, with US$500 million investment–even without improved diplomatic relations. That initial phase would be a baby step towards realising Admiral Lynch’s vision for the Jordan River as: “a richness of alluvial soil, the produce of which, with proper agriculture, might nourish a vast population”.
Now, 170 years later, the Jordan River’s population is vast, but still undernourished. Yet as water scarcity continues to spread, and tensions escalate, three unlikely men continue staking their careers–and perhaps risking their lives–on the symmetry of a radical idea: that if rivals can revive the pulse of their river, that shared river, in turn, will revive the pulse of its people.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director, Eco-Peace Middle East © Eco-Peace
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director, Eco-Peace Middle East © Eco-Peace

The economic value of clean, holy water

The Jordan River is the cornerstone of the three Abrahamic religions. It is sacred not only to Jews and Christians for its Biblical heritage, but also to Muslims, since several of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions are believed to be buried on its eastern shores. In short, the river is holy for half of humanity.
That translates into the potential for a lot of paying tourists and pilgrims.
According to official figures, a million people a year now visit the Jordan River’s three baptism sites but many others are deterred by the prospects of immersing in danger and filth. EcoPeace’s plan forecasts that the number of visitors to these sites will skyrocket to 5 to 10 million if the plan is implemented and the water restored.
Israel is attuned to both the challenge and the opportunity. The Civil Administration’s Natural Reserves and National Parks division has renovated the Qasr al Yahud baptism site, boosting visitation fourfold.
Still, it must prohibit visitors “during days where there are water drifts and pollution,” and then wait “until the water returns to the appropriate standards”.
Full clean-up, says the plan, means that by 2050 visitors to the three baptism sites–as well as the Jordan Valley’s cities, nature parks and museums that the report envisions being built–would annually inject an extra US$5 to US$10 billion into one of the poorest areas of the region.