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Water Can Be a Bridge to Peace in the Middle East

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The cradle of civilization is drying up.

The Jordan River is flooded with sewage, the Sea of Galilee has dipped to historically low levels and the Dead Sea is shrinking. In the Middle East, where disparate communities have fought for centuries over territories linked by these waters, their uncertain future is aggravating political tensions.

History is not on its side, but one group hopes to achieve a "blue peace" in this fragile ecosystem. It believes the water that runs across borders can transcend nationhood and ignite talks of political peace. Nature, after all, should be stateless.

Friends of the Earth Middle East is a group of Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmentalists that has found solidarity via shared water interests. Pushing political reform amid different cultures, countries and faiths, even through environmentalism, is perilous, perhaps futile. But the alternative is far worse.

"The failure of the peace process is holding water hostage," Gidon Bromberg, the group's Israeli director told us recently. Cooperation is crucial for sustainability.

We met Bromberg and his colleagues at a forum for social entrepreneurship earlier this year in the UK. It's near-impossible for the three men to arrange visas for all to meet in one of their home countries. We were instantly inspired by their sense of hope and wild ambition to save their shared water resources, like the Jordan River Basin and the Dead Sea, from overdevelopment, all while setting the framework for permanent reconciliation.

Of the 37 military conflicts instigated over water since 1950, 32 took place in the Middle East, according to researchers at Oregon State University. Israel and its Arab neighbours were involved in 30. This makes water a risky path to peace, and an often friendless journey. Dissenters call Bromberg and his colleagues "collaborators" or "traitors."

At a time when the Middle East only makes headlines for its conflicts, it can't help their cause. With every weapon fired, every home bulldozed, every suicide bomb triggered and every life lost, we can't help imagining that even their own families might start to question the group's allegiances.

Then there's the feat of running a three-country group across perceived enemy lines.

Good intentions can't fix faulty Internet connections, unreliable phone lines, and visa complications. But when we speak to Bromberg, he's hopeful; historic enemies are already working together.

The Good Water Neighbors project, launched by Friends of the Earth Middle East in 2001, is comprised of 29 communities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, all learning about sustainability at facilities like the Auja EcoCenter in Palestine. There, kids and adults alike learn what Bromberg calls the "water reality" of their neighbours. It's a bleak reality for them all.

Overdevelopment and lack of sewage treatment have worsened from neglect and military conflict. Climate experts predict the Dead Sea will be reduced to "a lake" if the surface area continues to shrink at its current rate.

In most participating communities, says Bromberg, 50 per cent of their water seeps through cracked pipes.

As they begin to see common problems, communities advocate for each other and lobby for funding. Grants from local and international governments fund water projects in Good Water Neighbor schools and public buildings -- a total of $70 million U.S. dollars so far -- to build rainwater storage units, greywater reuse systems and ecological gardens. It's a drop in the bucket that won't single-handedly jump start the peace process, but creating dialogue among adversaries is an important victory.

As history shows, water scarcity can provoke military clashes. Not just in the Middle East. There are about 263 watersheds around the world shared by more than one country. India and Pakistan share the Indus. China, India and Nepal share the Himalayan River Basin. Turkey, Syria and Iraq share the Euphrates.

Hence the urgent need for groups like Friends of the Earth Middle East. Their unique style of peace-making has started to receive global recognition. As Palestinian director Nader Al-Khateeb told Time magazine: "War will not generate water. But peace can."

Slowly consensus is building, reaching unexpected places.

Last month, Bromberg was part of a delegation of Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian residents, the first tri-national group to hold an audience with the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. Bromberg put forward what he calls the basis of a "water accord." He can't claim there was widespread agreement over the details. But representatives from three nations that have been mired in intractable conflict for centuries were talking about water as part of a shared destiny.

Around the Web

WATER AND PEACE - National Geographic News

BBC News - Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Water

The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water - Carnegie Endowment ...

Op-Ed Contributor - Water for Peace - NYTimes.com

The Blue Peace:Rethinking Middle East Water, 2011