Rivers, religion and renewables

Peace and the environment in the Middle East

Peacebuilding through the environment - a revolutionary frontier? An interview with the founder of EcoPeace, the organisation showing that limiting environmental degradation and the peace process must go hand in hand.

“They’ve come to realise that across communities, everyone is losing, and sustainability can only happen if different sides work together”. This statement, by Gidon Bromberg, could apply to anywhere where conflict runs parallel to environmental degradation. In the Middle East, a conflicted region, peacebuilding is regularly touted by leaders to justify policies. Unfortunately, to those on the ground, these plans never seem to bring resolution. Especially now, environmental degradation is as significant a problem as conflict, and the two are intertwined. Peacebuilding has been tried through soldiers, through leaders, and through foreigners, yet always neglected was peacebuilding through the resources warring nations share. The ground they stand upon, the soil they till, and the rain that falls into their steadily dwindling rivers.

Until the mid 1990s, few spoke of venturing outside the paradigm that land and water were resources to fight about, let alone took action on peacebuilding through shared resources. In this vacuum, EcoPeace was created. Since the mid 1990s, EcoPeace, the first environmental organisation including Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians, has worked on community projects to promote care for a shared environment, and build consensus between conflicted communities. Since its inception it has created, as well as put into practice, environmental peacebuilding.

Surprisingly, environmental peacebuilding was not the reason for EcoPeace’s creation in 1994. Bromberg, a co-founder, and Israeli co-director of the organisation, explained the pragmatic decision to me over a Zoom call in May, on a day when the effects of the climate crisis on the region were evident- Israel was recovering from a week-long heatwave. Bromberg, 57, was working as a lawyer for an environmental NGO in 1994 when EcoPeace was formed.

“It was a time of euphoria, when peace was a given”, he says of that era, therefore peace was not a major focus. They instead combated negative environmental impacts of peace. Their original concern was “there was so much peace” that development plans were proposed without environmental consideration. EcoPeace was still breaking barriers through tri-regional cooperation on environmental problems, but their change in focus was one of relevance.

Following what Bromberg describes as the “rolling violence of groups trying to derail [...] the peace process”, the organisation began to reconsider its role in building regional consensus. From this reconsideration came an NGO that has defined and redefined environmental peace building, winning the Time Heroes of the Environment Award in 2008, and the 2009 Skoll Award.

In Bromberg’s words, in the 1990s, “using the environment for peace [..] wasn’t well understood at all”, and those who understood it had not put theory into practice. As this idea has developed, it has become increasingly relevant. Humans have fought over resources for aeons, but as the impacts of climate change make themselves present, water and arable land are set to become much scarcer. It is now imperative that projects promoting conflict resolution through shared resources are practiced globally.

Conflicts exacerbated by lack of resources include Sudan, Somalia, and Syria with regions such as the Middle East some of the most affected by climate crisis-induced drought. In an already war-torn region, this is a recipe for destruction. In this context, understanding intersections between war and environmental degradation is crucial, as is ensuring sustainability is included within peace deals. When EcoPeace first began, they were not the first to suggest that sharing resources between opposing communities could have benefits, but they were first to put this into practice locally.

Community water volunteers

Strong community, conflict immunity?

This began in 2001, with the Good Water Neighbours programme, EcoPeace’s most successful project. It links crossborder communities that share water sources, and uses youth education and community involvement to promote shared rights to water as a resource that flows through political borders. Especially along borders, where resentments flow deeper than the polluted water they share, this is immensely difficult. It is testament to EcoPeace that it has lasted for 20 years.

Part of its success is because GWN recruits diversely, from schoolchildren and pilgrims, to religious leaders and activists. Lessons can be taken from this for the environmental movement, which has a habit of appealing to small sectors of society, and ignoring those who could best spread messages within communities, or benefit most from sustainable development. GWN has particularly potent symbolism for the peace process, creating images such as mayors of opposing towns jumping into a stretch of the restored River Jordan together, demonstrating water’s ability to bridge enmity. When I asked Bromberg about GWN, he explained it had been received with mixed feelings.

Peripheral communities were welcoming, grateful anyone was addressing their droughts and polluted water sources. However in more central communities, it was less assured. EcoPeace got through by appealing to obvious self interests of communities- regardless of communal hatred for ‘the other side’, water issues are urgent, and life or death. By 2014, all three nations fell under the benchmark for UN absolute water scarcity. Anecdotally, when I travelled to the region last year, in Palestine and Jordan, people mentioned water as one of their major concerns, with taps regularly running dry, exacerbating resentment towards border nations accused of ‘stealing resources’. So, to link warring cross-border communities, Bromberg posits that self-interest is key: on the Jordanian and Palestinian side, the aim is to obtain a fair share of water and better technology, whilst on the Israeli side, the desire is removing cross border sewage from water.

Regardless of shared interests though, environmental work in a war zone is complicated. Bromberg recalls the Second Intifada, which flared up as Good Water neighbours was started, from 2000-2005. He describes how, having recruited volunteers, the organisation creates strategies for them on how to defend against those who questioned motives?

To Bromberg, the key is that to defend yourself, one must be “certain you're acting in your own national interest”. As soon as someone is seen working with EcoPeace, they could be “condemned as traitors”, because in a conflict where nuance has been eroded,

if you work with the other side, you must be working for the other side.

This is where EcoPeace’s combination of bottom-up and top-down work is effective, because their research, mostly on water security, highlights to communities how much everyone loses by refusing to cooperate.

After witnessing progress in 28 cross-border communities, and the 2013 success of seeing fresh water flowing in the Lower Jordan, you would expect Bromberg to be satisfied. And he is proud, but not appeased by their accomplishments. One of EcoPeace’s major theories, demonstrated in Bromberg's 2017 TED talk, is that once water issues are solved, this can help with other community problems such as unemployment and radicalisation. Despite precedents being set, Bromberg readily admits that community programs take longer to show results in practice than theoretically. In his words, “the potential is not reached”.

This is why their work continues to be relevant, especially due to its community focus in a region dominated by international power players. EcoPeace, in the middle, works with influencing nations where possible.

Water sharing symbolism

Onwards with multilateralism

“We need to work with whoever we can” he states, citing partners such as J Street, the Jewish liberal advocacy group, the US Democratic Party, and the UN. Working with different groups gives clout, and promotes multilateralism. This international approach can also be scaled to a national level, especially as EcoPeace works in nations where it is rare to see governments with a unified voice.

In Bromberg’s words, “every minister sees themself as the prime minister”, which is problematic for government policy, but assists organisations attempting to subvert the mainstream. Even in the Netanyahu government, the most right wing coalition seen in Israel, EcoPeace still has individual ministers and politicians who support them. Although Israel is still facing water issues, the influence of environmental groups on policy is one reason why the price of water in Israel now matches it’s scarcity. Israel’s water rates are some of the most expensive in the region, encouraging farmers to use treated waste water rather than fresh water.

Through technology, nations can begin to solve some of their water issues. However technology cannot assist the peace process unless innovation is shared. For Bromberg, although many of the region's issues have been caused by poor resource management, nations have no control over the global climate crisis, a major cause of water scarcity. The Middle East didn’t cause the climate crisis, but is being confronted with it’s long term human and geopolitical impacts more significantly than those who did. However, there is hope, if water sharing projects can be used to spark cooperation and conflict resolution.

Bromberg takes the optimistic route, believing the climate crisis to be a global problem, but “ solutions are all local”. This is the incentive for EcoPeace’s most ambitious new project. The Water Energy Nexus involves advocating for a tri-regional resource sharing agreement. This would see Jordan selling solar power to all three nations, powering desalination plants in Israel and Gaza and creating drinkable water that would be sold back to Jordan. This would be an unprecedented arrangement of resource exchange in any region, let alone one so riven with conflict, but Bromberg is determined.

“Rather than being fearful of being dependent, we can promote interdependence, through harnessing the sun and the sea, in a manner that advances the human security of us all”. Bromberg paints an ideal vision, but is it possible?

Perhaps it is unrealistic. However EcoPeace is used to breaching norms- they were told it was untenable to expect Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian stakeholders to agree on plans to rehabilitate the Jordan River, but in 2013 following EcoPeace advocacy fresh water from the Sea of Galilee was released again into the lower Jordan River for the first time in 49 years. In 2015, EcoPeace published the first-ever integrated master plan, adopted by the Jordanian Government, for the sustainable development of the Jordan Valley, based on detailed research and community involvement.

Complex Community Roots

Importantly for EcoPeace, a community organisation, the Middle East is culturally complex, which creates issues around religious conflict, but also brings benefits through the sway religion holds. Primarily, the River Jordan basin encapsulates a holy site for three major religions, meaning religion can be harnessed for environmental protection. In societies where faith is strong, it is crucial to use the voices of spiritual leaders for the environment, especially as the Abrahamic faiths share the desire for the Jordan to flow fresh again.

In February, EcoPeace hosted nearly 100 spiritual leaders for UN Interfaith Harmony Week. Faith leaders bring legitimacy, as well as a moral standpoint- Bromberg credits religious involvement as one reason why the US Senate and European parliament passed resolutions for cooperation in rehabilitating the River Jordan.

Another aspect that brings international respect and recognition, despite EcoPeace being locally rooted, is the community focus. This is the crux of EcoPeace, and Bromberg believes this is what brings genuine credibility.

Decision makers expect environmentalists to come up with these policies, but when it's school kids and their parents calling for these solutions, that's out of the box and makes us far more powerful.

Within this framework emerge further intersections of environment with other social issues, such as the roles women play in communities. In rural communities, women are often the first to notice environmental degradation: they are tasked with washing, cleaning, and cooking, so notice when fuel, water, or food supplies are dwindling. And they often pay the heaviest price of environmental degradation and conflicts, with women unable to flee due to caring responsibilities.

Bromberg claims to understand, and insists that EcoPeace includes women in all aspects of their policy process- women are now ⅔ of the co-directors, and a majority of their staff are women, as are many of their volunteers. Although most of the original founding team were male EcoPeace is now trying to gender mainstream, which could be revolutionary.

Bromberg speaking

Idealism versus the real world

So why is this organisation not even better known in the West - combining environmental concerns with peacebuilding seems ideal. To me, EcoPeace’s goals could be interpreted as overambitious due to their broad scope. On the surface it seems overly idealistic, however what immediately becomes clear when talking to Bromberg is his immense pragmatism. To attain their ambitions, the EcoPeace will work with whoever they can, and adapt methods for the cause. This practicality is something many of us must take onboard. Myself included, environmental and peace activists can fall into the trap of being unduly sanctimonious, believing the only true action is taken by those convinced by the morality of the cause. Bromberg is more practical.

Self interest is a legitimate cause of action,

he insists. Realistically, after decades of violence, generosity can be rare. That is why EcoPeace explores narratives around ‘enlightened self interest’. Self interest grabs attention more than immediately referencing mutual gains, as no one wants the ‘other side’ to win. However self interest can lead to a genuine passion for environmental protection, and a win-win. People do not like being lectured, according to Bromberg, so providing legitimate individual reasons for them to join the movement is a serious focus.This pragmatism, to me, is a major cause of EcoPeace’s environmental and community successes.

This pragmatism even extends to something that many environmentalists are against- desalination. Bromberg mentions using new technology often, referencing Israel’s desalination technology. Desalination helps with water scarcity issues, but is controversial. Desalination plants require immense amounts of energy, making them seemingly incompatible with reducing fossil fuel use. However, the Water Energy Nexus, EcoPeace’s grand plan, includes solar-powered desalination plants, requiring novel technology. There are other problems with desalination, most notably with the brine byproduct, which can include heavy metals. Desalination plants can produce 1.5 times more brine than fresh water, creating disposal problems, as releasing brine into the ocean risks damaging marine environments, and pollutants traveling up the food chain.

Desalination may be far from endorsed by many, however, in the complicated world EcoPeace works in, it is worth it. Desalination creates new water, reducing risks of animosity sparking over water sharing agreements. If Israel was seen as ‘losing’ fresh water to Palestine, farmers would block the roads in protest, Bromberg believes, but desalination allows Palestinians to receive their rightful share of fresh water in a ‘no losers’ approach.

A Bright (and solar powered) future?

So, where next? One stage is exporting ‘water diplomacy’ to struggling communities. EcoPeace has already shared their model globally, from the Balkans to Lake Chad. When I ask about their international work, Bromberg clarifies that it is not EcoPeace working, but working with other organisations to pass on community-based methodologies. For example, EcoPeace hosted a Bosnian organisation, then sent them home with the principles needed to create a locally-led model of environmental peacebuilding in the Balkans.

Back in Israel, the future is less bright. Discussing the new coalition, Bromberg states the obvious, that this is “not the government that [he] would like to see in power”. Netanyahu’s unilateralism is at odds with the EcoPeace’s ethos, forcing them to pray that Gantz will be a moderating influence, for Israel’s national and human security. However, ever optimistic, Bromberg remains confident they will find a way to work with the government: over 25 years, through cooperation and occupation, Bromberg has always found some politicians keen to work with EcoPeace. In fact, a mayor of a community they work with has been elected a minister, giving them a silver lining of influence within the cloud of right-wing governance.

And what impact has the unexpected social upheaval- COVID- had on EcoPeace’s plans? Bromberg contends that the jury is still out. Although EcoPeace has long understood environmental risks, he hopes COVID could be a wake up call. Even before this pandemic he was warning of the health risks of ignoring shared resources. With 97% of Gazan groundwater undrinkable, and the sewage of 2 million Gazans flowing into the Mediterranean Sea, refusal to cooperate over water must be seen as a regional public health issue. This has become especially prescient in light of the COVID pandemic.

Additionally, Bromberg asserts that COVID has shown two types of leaders: “those who act according to the best science, who have saved lives. And other leaders, who think science is a joke.” In his view, the public are paying the price for leaders that ignore science, and hopefully these leaders will pay the political price of their actions. A wave of science-conscious leaders could rise, and change the face of global climate action. Only time will tell, but EcoPeace will carry on it’s work regardless.

COVID is a new challenge, but when I asked Bromberg what the main barrier to EcoPeace’s work over the past 25 years, I was expecting to hear of violent insurgencies, repressive states, or apathy. His answer was astute, and an aspect that is easy to overlook. For Bromberg, the main issue is the all-or-nothing paradigm for decision-making.

This, to him, is a “political impediment”. The 1995 Oslo Accords aimed to take the difficult political issues- Jerusalem, borders, refugees, water (and more)- and to strike a deal resolving those issues together. This political paradigm, adopted by governments and the international community, was to either resolve all issues together or not at all. However, given advances in technology, Bromberg believes water issues could be solved now. Imprudently, the process does not allow resolution for just one final status issue. Bromberg believes a deal on water is currently possible, and would create a consensus that could lead to resolution on further issues. This may seem naive, but is better than the violent stalemate in existence since the Oslo Accords failed. All-or-nothing is bound to fail, and EcoPeace’s infectious combination of idealism and pragmatism is a model many groups could do well to adopt. Keep watching them, because they are sure to further shift regional and international boundaries.

EcoPeace website-