The Israeli Gidon Bromberg, the Palestinian Nader Khateb and the Jordanian Munqeth Meyhar set out last week for a tour of the Jordan River. This perhaps sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in reality, it describes a joint effort to save waters that quench the thirst of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.
From their offices, located in Tel Aviv, Amman and Bethlehem, the three lead the Middle East branch of an international environmental organization known as 'Friends of the Earth', which has 70 chapters worldwide.
"We're talking about regional cooperation on issues that cross borders, primarily treatment of water - saving the Dead Sea and rehabilitating the Jordan River, the Gulf of Aqaba and the mountain aquifer," said Bromberg.
"Our activities are undertaken in the field and also among decision-makers. We write recommendations, consult experts and come to conclusions regarding sustainable development. Simultaneously, in order to increase awareness of the issues, we coordinate tours and conferences," he explained.
Dead Sea canal (Photo: Friends of the Earth)
As an example, he mentioned the testimonies given by members of the organizations to the US and European congresses, which roused interest because the heads of state are "very worried about water issues."
Concurrently, Bromberg says, the organization is active in 17 communities along the Israeli-Jordanian border, in towns such as Beit Shan, al Garbia, Tzur Hadassa, Tul Karem and Eshel Hanasi, and with regional councils such as Tamar and the Jordan Valley.
"The activity in each community, which is dedicated primarily to water issues, is led by volunteers who donate their time once a week," he explained.
"In some of the towns," said Bromberg, "we turned the local school into an example for water preservation: the students use rain water in the bathroom and for planting. They take care of ecological gardens that they planted themselves and take part in tours in order to become acquainted with water sources in their region."
"The activity is accompanied by lessons on topics such as sewage, water distribution, industry and agriculture, and water management," he added.
How did the Jordan River turn into a sewage dump?
A Friends of the Earth tour of the Jordan River was attended by 40 Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian representatives, including mayors and regional chairmen. "The objective of the tour was to show how we turned the Jordan into a sewage dump," raged Bromberg.
"An urgent change is needed in our environmental reality, both in terms of financial investment and in terms of correct political decisions, which need to be made at the highest levels."
"There simply isn't water in the Jordan," added his Jordanian colleague Meyhar sadly. "That's why people in Jordan are forced to gather rain water…and the crisis leads to theft. Additionally, there's a severe infrastructural problem, and consequently the agricultural situation is not encouraging."
Khateb, the Palestinian branch leader, has run into even harder problems than his colleagues. "The Palestinians don't even have access to water from the Jordan," he said.
How can the problem be solved?
"Some of the water sources must be released back to the Jordan," Bromberg declared. "In the past two years, we've logged many small victories on this issue, although regional leaders were skeptical."
"After we exerted public pressure, published articles, wrote letters to congress, to the prime minister and the king of Jordan, and emphasized that the river is holy to half of humanity, the commissionerships of the water conceded that we must release some of the water back to the river," he elaborated.
Struggle brings people closer
Regardless of their surroundings and objectives, the colleagues said that their joint projects succeed in creating optimism regarding the future of the conflicted region. "We work in our communities, collaborating with children and adults, and see that people still believe that the situation can and will change," said Khateb.
"We live the problems on a daily basis, but we must not give up. We don't have a choice but to continue to act," Meyhar added, stating "there's no doubt that the struggle (to protect the Jordan) brings people closer."
The group is proud of its joint projects, many of which involve both school children and adults, taking part in educational and community activities to protect water resources and the environment in general.
Thus, in the town of Sheikh Hussein in Jordan, they succeeded in creating an ecological garden. Dozens of hands turned some 100 formerly arid dunam into a garden for local enjoyment.
Despite obstacles, similar projects are taking place in Palestinian areas. "Sometimes we want to advance and are prevented," said Khateb. "The Palestinian Authority has no financial resources…Most people are busy surviving, making it hard to advance such projects."
"On the other hand, the situation highlights the need for water. People don't have money to pay for water and this creates collective punishment – because of the political problems that were dumped on us."
Nonetheless, Khateb doesn't despair. "We can't allow ourselves to give up. We believe in peace, because only this will advance us and the whole region. If we succeed in bringing about an improvement, it will be a win-win situation in which everyone benefits."
In the meantime, he dreams along with his two colleagues of creating a cross-border park on both sides of the Jordan River. "For this, we would need the acquiescence of regional authorities and, of course, a budget," Bromberg said.
"The American, Japanese, Norwegian and Finnish commissionerships have already expressed interest, especially after they understood that such community activity advances peace in region," he concluded.