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Arab – Israeli Environmental Cooperation: Yes and No

03 September 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Israel and Jordan will be cooperating on a project to replenish the Dead Sea with water taken from the Gulf of Aquaba.  In a joint effort over the next six years a pipeline will be built from the shoreline between Aquaba and Eilat and continue the length of the Arava border area for about 180 kilometers (110 miles) reaching the southern Dead Sea.  Over the years the Sea has been depleted of water resources due to Israel’s pumping of the Sea of Galilee and Jordan’s usage of the Yarmukh River both for drinking water and agricultural usages.  Much less water arrives downstream while the intense heat of the Dead Sea desert region leads to a continual annual massive evaporation of two meters a year only to be replaced by one meter of Jordan River waters.  This in turn has led to dangerous land collapse and sinkholes forming in the Dead Sea region. 

Both countries realize the environmental clock must be turned back as the water level drops dangerously by a meter a year.  In addition the Dead Sea region serves tourist and industrial development.

One of Israel’s biggest environmental problems begins with the Aswan Dam in Egypt.  The dam blocks silt from flowing downstream through the Nile Delta and out to the Mediterranean Sea where the current washes from west to east and then northwards up Israel’s coastline.  Previously sands were removed and replenished at a steady and balanced pace.  Today the sands are only washed northwards towards Lebanon and Syria with little replacement and much coastal erosion.  The damage is especially harsh in the Netanya area.

Unfortunately Jordanian style environmental cooperation also does not exist with the Palestinians.  The Palestinian Authority areas are not industrialized so air pollution is not a problem, yet organized garbage disposal is far from sufficient (check the dumps outside of any town or village) and water pollution is a major problem.  Raw sewage flows from Palestinian towns and proposals by Israel for joint water treatment plants even before the outbreak of violence 23 months ago, went unanswered.  Sewage from the West Bank flows westwards in general towards Israel’s coastal plain past Netanya and Hadera in particular.

The root of the lack of cooperation over water resources begins with the mountain aquifer, whose underground resources are used jointly by Israelis and Palestinians.  Each side pumps the water it claims it needs from the same subterranean reservoir without joint supervision, dangerously lowering water levels.  With the Palestinian initiated breakdown of all agreements the possibility of cooperation over the complicated and emotionally charged and intricate issue of water allocations is impossible. 

To deal with the immediate health threat of the waste water problem Israel will have to involve the international community, something which the Palestinian Authority wants desperately, or Israel will have to clean the waters itself at no small expense.  For Chairman Yasir Arafat, environmental issues are just another way to apply pressure to Israel and attain European involvement.

To make the problem worse, Israel’s continuing battle against terrorism adds concrete road blocks, barb wire barriers (the new fence to be built) and the uprooting of roadside trees (to deny terrorist snipers camouflage when shooting at traffic) to an already unsatisfactory situation.  The environment is always a casualty in war.

Unfortunately environmental cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians will only be possible once terrorism is defeated, Palestinian Authority reforms implemented and Arafat removed from power.

And that could take quite a while.