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

Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli Director of Friends of the Earth - Middle East, a trilateral NGO working to promote peace and sustainability in the Middle East.

In part one of this interview, Gidon discussed FoEME's work in promoting cross-border cooperation on water issues and how it relates to the Middle East water crisis and the controversial topic of desalination.

In part two, he talks about food security in the Middle East, the role of agriculture in semi-arid countries and, of course, the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal and the new proposals to turn the Israeli-Jordanian Arava desert into a Dubai-style real estate paradise.TH: Let's talk about agriculture in Israel. How will the national water crisis affect farmers, and what can be done to solve their problems?
GB: Today, 50% of Israel's total water supplies (including recycled wastewater) goes to agriculture. That's 30% of freshwater going to farmers, down from 80% in the 1960's, by the way. In Israel, agriculture accounts for about 2% of GDP, and less than 1% of the workforce. This doesn't make economic sense.

Since the 1970's, Israel has been a net importer of food. Food security is a fallacy in semi-arid regions with growing populations. We have been importing, and we will continue to import most of our food. We should try to produce as many fruits and vegetables for domestic consumption as we can, but it is somewhat ridiculous that we export flowers and other water-hungry crops abroad.

The price that farmers pay for water is a third of what we pay in the city, and treated wastewater is even cheaper. We strongly question the economic sense of continuing to subsidize water to farmers.

We should, however, increase efforts to provide farmers with high-quality treated wastewater. Right now, wastewater is not being treated to the highest standard, and we risk contaminating our aquifers by using it. This water can only be used to water trees, and not low-growing plants, for fear of contaminating them. If we treated wastewater to a higher standard, we could use it for all kinds of crops, with no risk to groundwater.

TH: So what is stopping Israel from treating its wastewater to a higher standard?

GB: The cost. Improving treatment would double the cost of treated wastewater.

Today, the government encourages farmers to engage in industrial farming, and to supplement rainfall with irrigation. We are growing bananas here! Bananas need the earth to be constantly damp, and we're in the middle of a desert. The bottom line is, if water prices rose, and we abolished some of our protectionist taxes on imported agriculture, we would not be growing bananas here. We could buy them from Sudan at half the price.

We don't think the government should renege on its commitments to rural communities, but that rural communities should diversify their sources of income, while cycling water back to nature. Rural communities would benefit from economies based on eco-tourism. 30% of incomes in the Galilee [rural northern Israel] are already based on rural tourism, and the prerequisite for rural tourism is a clean environment.

A sinkhole swallows up banana trees in Jordan. Caused by the shrinking of the Dead Sea, sinkholes have appeared on both the Jordanian and Israeli sides of the Sea in recent years.
TH: What is FoEME's position on the Red-Dead Sea Canal issue? Where do things stand on the project right now?
GB: The World Bank has already launched its environmental and technical feasibility study. Recently, the Bank held a series of public hearings. We attended in Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Amman and presented our objections and comments regarding the Bank's mishandling of the project. The project is supposed to be a project to save the Dead Sea — which we've been calling for for 14 years — and we're happy that the bank is showing its interest in and commitment to this goal.

However, the Bank is misleading the public by predetermining that the solution to the problem is the canal, instead of studying a set of alternatives and comparing their costs and benefits. Under pressure from FoEME, the World Bank has agreed to examine alternatives, but only 5% of the funds are to be allocated to this. 95% is still going to be spent on evaluating the Red-Dead Canal.

We also question the objectivity of those who are charged with evaluating the alternatives. Instead of publishing an international tender, the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian governments will appoint their own experts to examine alternatives to the canal. That's like asking a cat to guard the milk.

TH: What alternatives to the canal plan exist?
GB: Look, the demise of the Jordan River is the reason for the demise of the Dead Sea.

South of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan no longer exists. What flows there today is little more than a sewage canal.
The water the eventually reaches the Dead Sea is actually a pitiful flow of agricultural runoff, raw sewage and saline water from salty springs.

The World Bank project is studying a canal on the Jordanian side of the border whose purpose is to desalinate sea water, with the brine to be dumped into the Dead Sea. Our concern is that this will bring marine water with marine salts into the unique Dead Sea, which has a completely different chemical composition.

"Saving" the Dead Sea this way would completely change the nature of the Sea itself. Introducing new elements like gypsum and algae would turn the water reddish brown, and the whole attraction of this therapeutic natural spa could be lost.

The waters of the Dead Sea recede about one meter every year.

Not only would the Dead Sea be destroyed, but the canal project would actually have a negative energy balance. Water would have to be pumped uphill from Aqaba (on the Red Sea) for 100 km, before it hits the natural drop in altitude down to the Dead Sea. Once it hits this point, the pressure of the water would have to be increased in order to desalinate it.

Half of the desalinated water would then be pumped uphill some 1400 meters to Amman, which is going to take a lot of energy. Bringing that water to Jerusalem will cost $1 per cubic meter. Desalinated water from the Mediterranean costs $.57, so Jerusalem is not even interested in that water because it is not economically worthwhile.

Now consider that farmers in Jordan are paying on average $.01 right now for a cubic meter of water. How are they going to pay for water that costs $1 per cubic meter?

And that, by the way, was the projected price before the hike in oil prices, it will likely end up being significantly higher.

There are, of course, cheaper options, such as good water management policies, incentives for conservation, putting the water saved back into natural ecosystems to promote rural tourism, etc.

TH: So the World Bank wants to build the canal in Jordan, but there is also a competing plan for a canal on the Israeli side of the border?
GB: The other plan is really just an idea that's changed so many times it's hard to know what they are really thinking, but it is essentially a real estate plan. [Israeli businessman] Itzak Tshuva supports building the canal on the Israel-Jordan border, where it would flow through an open channel.

Along the route, artificial lakes would be built with themed real estate ventures along the waterfronts — Las Vegas, Dubai skyscrapers, an African safari. Like Disneyland in the middle of the Arava. Tshuva and Shimon Peres originally wanted to move this plan forward without any kind of environmental impact assessment, but the greens in Israel protested, so now he proposes ending the actual canal before it even reaches the Dead Sea. So his current plan does not even pretend to contain an element of saving the Dead Sea!

We take Tshuva very seriously, but his plans keep changing. We believe he will, at some point, try to create a seawater canal that reaches all the way to the Dead Sea. He is interested in using the canal to turn cheap desert land into valuable real estate, and Shimon Peres supports this because the canal by itself makes no economic sense.

TH: What kind of projects is FoEME planning for the future?
GB: We hope that the work we do will eventually help facilitate a comprehensive and just water accord between Palestinians and Israelis. We have prepared a model agreement, and we hope that over the next five years we can help raise the standard for what such an agreement could look like, with water justice and environmental sustainability at its heart.

We would like to double the amount of communities in our Good Water Neighbors project, creating a critical mass of communities that will influence decision-making.

We recently came out with a report on climate change and its effects on the conflict over water resources. We are producing a manual for members of Knesset [Israel's Parliament], in Hebrew and Arabic, as well as for Jordanian and Palestinian decision-makers, on the implications of climate change on water resources and the steps parliamentarians need to take to mitigate its effects.

There is a great sense of urgency to our work. We are in a critical period right now, we risk creating irreversible damage to water resources, surface and ground, and further destroying our natural heritage through loss of biodiversity, flora and fauna. We've got a lot to do and we need as much help as we can get!

All photographs courtesy of FoEME.

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