Earth Day Water Access Summit Attracts All Ethnic Groups

NEVE SHALOM, Israel, April 13, 2005 (ENS) - Jewish-Israelis, Arab-Israelis, Druise and Bedouins are assembling in Neve Shalom for the opening tomorrow of an Earth Day Summit on access to water. Organized by the Earth Day Network, the two day meeting is intended to bring together historically opposed ethnic groups from around the country to address the critical need for increased access to clean water for all citizens of Israel.

“Like most aspects of Israeli society,” said Jonah Schein, Middle East coordinator for Earth Day Network, “the environmental movement is also highly factionalized. This leads to an inability to effectively respond to environmental threats that affect all citizens. This will be a way to change that dynamic.”

Neve Shalom

The village of Neve Shalom, Israel where residents live together in peace. (Photo courtesy A Circle of Friends)
The summit will take place in Neve Shalom, considered to be the only fully integrated village in Israel and an oasis of peace. Schein and other organizers see the gathering as an historic step in bridging ethnic barriers in this polarized country. They hope it will begin a dialogue and the creation of partnerships among groups that have never worked together before, giving them a common goal and purpose - water access - that transcends the region's religious and political conflicts.

Schein believes that NGOs have a pivotal role to play in ensuring that access to water is maintained in all areas during these years of limited supply and violent conflict, and also have served as a valuable tool in moving the region toward a sustainable future. While the region's government have been hampered by conflict, Schein says, "NGOs have led the way in encouraging conservation, awareness, and improved education at the community level."

An Earth Day Network partner organization, Friends of the Earth Middle East, has been working on the water access issue on a political level.

In a March 8 meeting organized by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), high ranking Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials met for the first time and agreed to call on their respective governments to ensure the survival of the disappearing Jordan River.

FOEME is suggesting that these governments apply to UNESCO to place the Jordan River on the UN agency's World Heritage list.

The biblical river, a holy site for Christians, Jews and Muslims, nearly runs dry during summer and is reduced to a trickle during winter because Israel, Jordan and Syria are all undertaking water diversion programs.


The Jordan River flows from Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea. (Photo credit unknown)
"I don't see why we have to continue with the policy of mutually assured destruction of the environment and resources," conference patron Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan, told the gathering.

Israeli Environment Minister Shalom Simchon told delegates that his government had "long recognized the urgent need for action." He called the river's health "a high national priority."

All officials agreed the river is at a critical juncture and urged governments to move quickly to save it before the damage becomes irreversible.

"One of the most important conference outcomes is that we have succeeded in truly placing the issue of the future of the Jordan River on the public agenda," FoEME Israeli director, Gidon Bromberg said at the end of the meeting.

Immediately after the conference, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian mayors from along the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea Basin met for the first time to strategize on what steps they can take to safeguard the river.

Bromberg said, "It is these communities that are missing out on lost tourism potential due to the drying up of the Jordan River and Dead Sea, and they have now come to realize that they need to cooperate together in a manner that both revitalizes their economies and promotes a healthier environment."

In the past 50 years, the River Jordan’s annual flow has dropped from more than 1.3 billion cubic meters to less than 100 million cubic meters per year, of which some 20 million cubic meters is untreated sewage.

The polluted river ends at the Dead Sea, which is also drying up. The sea has shrunk by 30 percent in the last 50 years, since its major source is the River Jordan.


Built in 1964, the National Water Carrier connects the Sea of Galilee with Israel's water system. The original goal of building the carrier was to provide irrigation water to the Negev region. Today 80 percent of the water serves as Israel's drinking water. (Photo courtesy Partnership 2000)
Friends of the Earth Middle East is organizing half a dozen Earth Day water awareness events in both the Palestine Authority and Israel. Water Trustees in Baka Al Garbia, Palestinian Authority will have a bike ride to local water resources in the area and will also visit Wadi Abu Nar and other polluted sights to follow up on the situation in Baka.

FOEME will open two water efficient schools on Earth Day April 22, one in Abasan, Gaza and the other in Tulkarem, Palestinian Authority. In Tzur Hadassa, Israel, water trustees will work together on the development of a water saving garden. And on Saturday, young people from the Emek Hefer Community will walk along the Alexander River; crossing from the Tulkarem area in the Palestinian Authority into Emek Hefer in Israel to tour of the rehabilitated sections of the river.

Across Israel, this week has been designated by the government as the Week of Love for Nature, Water and the Environment, dedicated to raising public awareness of water issues.

The week, which is being organized by the Nature and Parks Authority, Water Commission, Ministry of Education and Ministry of the Environment, will include tours of aquatic nature and heritage sites for the general public, free activities, including tours and workshops, for schools and soldiers of the Israel Defense Force, and presentation of scientific studies on water-related issues.

During the 20th century, most of Israel's marshlands were drained, its springs were impounded and stream water was diverted and exploited for drinking and irrigation. This affected both the natural landscape and aquatic and riparian biodiversity, the Environment Ministry says. Activities organized for this week "are meant to increase public consciousness of the importance of saving Israel’s remaining natural heritage."

President of Earth Day Network Kathleen Rogers says the Earth Day Network's water access summit is an important initial step. "Without access to safe, clean water, the health of our children and our communities is untenable," Rogers said from the organization's Washington, DC office.

"The international community has begun to acknowledge the need to work together to ensure access to sustainable water supplies for all people," Rogers said. "This summit is the first step toward doing this in the Middle East."