The TH Interview: Gidon Bromberg, Friends of the Earth - Middle East (Part One)

In the early 1990's, says Gidon Bromberg, everyone was convinced that peace was just around the corner in the Middle East.

Bromberg, then a young lawyer working for an environmental NGO in Tel Aviv, was frustrated that environmental issues were not being discussed as part of the peace process. Worse still, massive development plans were being drawn up by investors and developers, with little or no thought given to their impacts on the region's ecology.

However, as Bromberg would later find out, the surge of investor interest in the region in those days also had a flip side — funds suddenly became available to environmental groups as well. In 1994, Bromberg founded "EcoPeace," the Middle East's first regional organization dedicated to peace and sustainability.

Today, Gidon Bromberg is the Director of the Israeli office of Friends of the Earth — Middle East (FoEME), which absorbed EcoPeace in 1999. FoEME remains to this day the only regional organization promoting environmental cooperation among Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.

This week, TreeHugger paid a visit to the "Green Building" — an office building in the heart of Tel Aviv which is home to several of Israel's most prominent environmental groups — for a conversation with Bromberg about the links between peace and sustainability in the Middle East.

In the first part of this two part interview, Bromberg talks about FoEME's work, the challenges of cross-border cooperation and the Middle East water crisis.TreeHugger: FoEME defines itself as an organization that seeks to "advance both sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace in our region." How do you go about doing this in such a complex reality?
Gidon Bromberg: All of FoEME's work focuses exclusively on cross-border environmental issues involving Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. Cooperation among these three national groups is a central theme in our work, and all of our projects involve some level of collaboration between them.

We have identified water as the primary cross-border issue in the region, and water constitutes the key focus of all of our activities.

We work in two separate channels: top-down advocacy and bottom-up community work.

Our advocacy work includes reports that we issue on shared bodies on water, co-authored by experts from the three countries, which describe the importance of a given ecosystem, examine its demise and offer recommendations for its revival. These documents then become our common vision for advocacy.

Each office (we have offices in Tel Aviv, Amman and Bethlehem) then takes this vision to its particular governing structure and advocates for it within the country's particular cultural context. Using this approach, we have drawn up reports about the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, the aquifers, climate change, water security and other issues, all of which can be read on our website.


FoEME Directors (from left): Palestinian Nader Khateb, Israeli Gidon Bromberg and Jordanian Munqeth Mehyar - promoting trilateral cooperation.

The purpose of our bottom-up community work is to create a grassroots constituency for cross-border cooperation in solving concrete environmental issues on the ground at the community level. We see this as a first step toward developing a broader vision for each ecosystem.

Our "Good Water Neighbors" project works with 17 communities in the region, located along shared bodies of water. In each community, we work with several dozen young volunteers, teaching them about their water reality and that of their neighbors. We organize joint training events for Arab and Jewish students, teachers and mayors from these communities, in Arabic and Hebrew, where they learn how to build things like rainwater harvesting and greywater systems, ecological gardens, etc. Then we convert a school in the community into a green building.

It's a bit different in every community, but our emphasis is always on empowerment, education and trust-building. Soon, the students in the communities that we work with will begin putting their results up on our website on a regular basis, and will be able to compare how much water they collect, save and utilize with students in other communities.


Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians on a FoEME hike, near the Dead Sea.

In every community, we also have a forum for the adult residents. We organize town hall meetings, led by a professional planner, where we look at the sewage and waste problems in the community, as well as solutions. Not only do these projects raise awareness among residents of these communities, they have also led mayors in many cases to be more active in joint efforts with other mayors to solve their problems.

TH: Can you give us a couple specific examples of your work with cross-border cooperation?
GB: Using these methods, we set up a project between Tulkarm and Emek Hefer [a Palestinian town and an Israeli regional council], which, with the support of the German government, led to the construction of a collection pond and sewage treatment plant, which will keep raw sewage from flowing into the rivers in the area.

We also brought about an agreement between Baka al Garbiya and Baka al Sharkiya [two Arab villages, one in Israel, the other in the Palestinian Authority], under which sewage that currently flows into the valleys in the area will be treated on the Israeli side. We are supported in the work by the "Joint Water Committee," an official, joint body that deals with common water issues.

Our work with Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassa, a Palestinian and an Israeli village, has even managed to prevent the separation wall from being built between the two communities. The Palestinians of Wadi Fukin make their living from traditional agriculture, which is based on terraces and wells, a system which is probably around 2000 years old — and all of it is dependent on 11 springs in the area.

When it became clear that the wall would be built in the area, a group of Israelis from Tzur Hadassa volunteered to do a hydrological study of the area's water system. The survey concluded that the wall would negatively affect the area's 11 springs, as well as the 1,200 residents of Wadi Fukin. That led to a campaign, in which a third of Tzur Hadassa's residents signed a petition against the wall. We have organized many tours to the site, and the project has even opened up new markets for Wadi Fukin's produce. So far, the wall has not been built in the area.


Wadi Fukin's natural springs support traditional agriculture, from which villagers make their living.

The tours that we led between Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah led us to develop an initiative called "Neighbors Paths," which takes locals residents, Israelis and tourists to explore ecological problems in a community, always ending at the border. Over the next couple of years, we are planning 30 organized tours in all 17 of our communities, as a means of raising awareness.

TH: Israel is in the midst of a multi-year drought, and water authorities are putting up advertisements all over the place to try to convince people to conserve water. Is there a water shortage in the region today?
GB: We live in a semi-arid part of the world where water always has been and will continue to be scarce. Water shortage and Middle East are words that go hand in hand - no surprises there.

What we have on our hands today is a water crisis because of the mismanagement of water resources in the region as a whole. In Israel, we continue to allocate half of our water resources to agriculture at subsidized prices. A significant percentage of agricultural produce is then exported to Europe and the USA.

There have been piecemeal attempts to raise awareness at the local level of the need to conserve water. In other parts of the world, states have instituted bans on watering lawns, washing cars, using yard hoses, etc. Las Vegas recently banned all lawns! People there can still have gardens, but they must plant them with local, water-saving plants. They have even replaced grass on golf courses with artificial turf. In Australia, water authorities subsidize rainwater harvesting.

In Israel, we've seen the massive expansion in the past five years of lawns in municipal gardens, and seawater desalination is still seen as the option of first choice.

TH: What's wrong with desalination? Seawater desalination technologies are being used successfully in many places in the world, and especially in the Middle East. Why not use desalination to solve the water crisis?
GB: Desalination is an important technology that can help us overcome periods of serious drought and provide some level of water security during those periods, but it should be the solution of last choice, not first choice.

Desalination is energy intensive, and, at least for now, that means burning fossil fuels. Israel's desalination plants are being built right next to existing power plants, which continue to burn coal, oil and natural gas. As long as we don't have renewable fuels producing it, desalination remains a problem because it is so energy intensive.

The other problem is the brine which is released into the Mediterranean. Brine is a waste product consisting of concentrated salts, which have a negative ecological impact on the marine environment. Also problematic is the fact that desalination means building on the coastline, effectively closing the beach to the public. Beach space is already in short supply in Israel.


Inside the desalination facility in Ashkelon, Israel. (photo by Gideon Lichfield, via Flickr)
TH: Okay, so desalination is no silver bullet, but what other alternatives exist?
GB: Some leading water experts say Israel could have waited another 10-20 years to begin investing in desalination, had it focused better efforts on conservation and more realistic water pricing.

Studies show that we could save 20-30% of domestic water consumption through conservation. The way to do this is to provide real incentives to conserve water. Higher price is one. In Israel, we pay less for household water use than in almost any European country. Today, no sufficient regulation exists that would save water in Israeli households, and there are no economic incentives for rainwater harvesting, greywater use, etc.

If we took steps to encourage conservation, we could save 200 million cubic meters of water a year — that's roughly equal to two reverse osmosis plants like the one in Ashkelon. Instead, we are increasing our output from desalination to 750 million cubic meters, and there's talk of raising that to a billion. That would mean another 15 plants being built on the Mediterranean coastline.

Check out part two of the TH interview with Gidon Bromberg, in which he talks about food security in the Middle East, the role of agriculture in a semi-arid country and, of course, the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of FoEME.

Tags: Activism | Agriculture | Desalination | Israel | Jordan | Palestine | Rivers | Water Conservation

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