Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) is a unique organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists. The aim? By protecting their shared environmental heritage, they seek to promote regional development and create the conditions necessary for an enduring peace.
At an international conference held in Amman on 3 May, FoEME issued two reports concerning the current state of the River Jordan, and what needs to be done to remedy a worsening environmental problem. In brief, the organisation calls on the Israeli and Jordanian governments and the Palestinian Authority to work together to return fresh water to the near-dry Jordan river. For the first time the FoEME identified the ecological water needs of the Lower Jordan River and from where that water can come.
According to these studies, in the past 50 years more than 98 per cent of the river's water has been diverted to supply the needs of Jordan, Syria and Israel. The river now carries about 30 million cubic metres of water a year, compared to 1.3 billion cubic metres prior to the 1930s.
Based on the first study, Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME Jordanian Director, identifies the problem as the near-total diversion of fresh water from the river, resulting in a 50 per cent loss of biodiversity. He says that some 400 million cubic metres (mcm) of water annually are urgently needed to be returned to the river to bring it back to life.
FoEME Palestinian Director Nader Khateeb assesses responsibility for the annual return of the river's water, based on the proportions diverted, as 200 mcm by the Israeli government, 90 mcm by the Jordanian government and 100 mcm by the Syrian government.
That amount, which exceeds Israel's current water desalination output, seems impossible in light of the water shortage in the region. But FoEME states that the goal can be met, and in the second study, which deals with current poor water practices, explains how. It identifies over a billion cubic metres of water that could be saved and made available from water economies by Israel, Jordan and even Palestine for reviving the Lower Jordan River.
Gidon Bromberg, FoEME Israeli Director, is quoted as saying: "In the middle of the desert we continue to flush our toilets with fresh water rather then using greywater or – even better – waterless toilets. We can do much better in reducing water loss and we need to treat and reuse all of the sewage water that we produce." ("Greywater" is waste water resulting from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing and bathing. Waste water generated from toilets is designated "blackwater").
"If conservation measures are taken in Jordan, Israel and the PA," says Bromberg, "large amounts of water could be put toward rehabilitating the Jordan, at a cost below that of desalination." Measures proposed include repairing leaks in the water distribution system and covering reservoirs to decrease evaporation.
The UN has attempted to concentrate the world's mind on water usage and mis-usage generally by declaring 22 March "International Water Day". Israel takes the subject seriously, and while a parliamentary commission is currently charged with investigating how to meet the country's increasing water needs, reservoirs with a combined storage capacity of some 66 billion gallons are being constructed specifically to contain recycled and flood water. Construction has also just begun on a water treatment plant at Bitanya, south of Lake Kinneret, The plant will treat the sewage now coming in from the Tiberias area and will also desalinate brackish water. The treated wastewater will be used for irrigation, allowing Israel's Water Agency to send water from Lake Kinneret into the southern Jordan. Within several years, it is claimed, all the major sources of pollution of the southern Jordan will be taken care of.
Meanwhile the Southern Jordan administration, which includes representatives from local government and government ministries, is formulating a plan for rehabilitating the river which will cover such issues as water quantity and quality, public access, and the location of nature reserves. FoEME plan to turn Peace Island, at the confluence of the Yarmuk and the Jordan, into a joint Israeli-Jordanian park that will attract tourists. Work on creating the park and rehabilitating the Jordan River is to be carried out in parallel.
Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon all share the waters of the Jordan river and its source tributaries. Water is generally perceived as one of the high priority issues in the Arab-Israeli dispute. The key to success is co-operation, a co-operation based on self-interest. The Jordan Times recently gave particularly encouraging support for the position of FoEME: "All the countries on the river banks have to stop overusing its water, stop polluting it and assist in restoring its traditional sources of freshwater. If inaction continues, the riparian countries will face the condemnation of the international community."
Water resources in the Jordan river basin are trans-boundary. Sharing them has been an inevitable feature of life in the region in the past, is so now, and will remain so following any peace accord. Issues remain outstanding – one particular problem is in respect of the West Bank which largely contains the three principal underground aquifers of the region. One of these aquifers provides Tel-Aviv with most of its water. The eventual peace agreement, therefore, and a regional water settlement are closely interdependent, and the fact of life that water resources have to be shared should serve as a considerable inducement on all parties to reach agreement on the bigger issues.