(Originally published in Stanford Report on August 23, 2018)
In 2013, the Israeli Water Authority permitted the release of fresh water into the Jordan River for the first time in 49 years. This significant event was a poignant victory for EcoPeace Middle East, a nonprofit organization of Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli environmentalists who are leading the effort to rehabilitate the historic river. EcoPeace Middle East is a unique organization that provides an outlet for civilians to step up to protect their shared environment, even in the face of regional conflict from divided communities.
In recognition of the work they have done to combine environmentalism and peacemaking, Stanford University is awarding Gidon Bromberg and Munqeth Mehyar, co-founders of EcoPeace Middle East, with the 2018 Bright Award. This annual $100,000 award recognizes exceptional contributions to global sustainability and is given to an organization in one of 10 rotating regions each year.
“The Bright Award was created by Raymond E. Bright Jr., an alumnus of the law school, who was a lifelong conservationist,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School. “Ray’s vision was to recognize important contributions to sustainability around the world and provide an international platform to showcase smart environmental solutions.”
Originating in Mount Hermon (Jabal al-Shaykh) at the Lebanon-Syria border, the Jordan River runs a 223-mile course, meandering southward through the Sea of Galilee and emptying into the Dead Sea. Along its route, the river flows between Golan Heights and Jordan to its east and Israel and the West Bank to its west. The river is one of the main sources of water for all of the surrounding territories. Although it is culturally, historically and spiritually important, the Jordan River has been damaged by pollution and diminished by water diversion. Attempts to rehabilitate it are especially complicated because the river lies in a conflict zone.
“Water scarcity is the most critical environmental issue that our region faces,” Bromberg said. “Managing our shared water resources is an issue of national and regional security and presents the opportunity to forge solutions that advance peacemaking in this region.”
Through their focus on cooperative efforts among divided communities to protect shared environments, EcoPeace Middle East has been uniquely positioned to tackle this complex challenge. To address the many differing positions on this source of water, EcoPeace worked with a broad spectrum of relevant stakeholders from the West Bank, Jordan and Israel to gain a regional perspective of issues that enabled the group to work together to develop a common vision for the river. To encourage understanding, EcoPeace members presented the joint vision to their respective audiences; Palestinian to Palestinian, Jordanian to Jordanian and Israeli to Israeli.
Although the peace effort continues to falter, the group’s environmental peacemaking mission is ongoing.
“Even in the most intractable of situations and conflicts, when we work together on a common objective that serves mutual interests, we can better the situation on the ground for both people and the environment, build trust and give good reasons for hope for a better future,” Bromberg said.
Environmentalism and peace
As part of his thesis for a master’s degree in international environmental law
at American University in Washington, D.C., Bromberg questioned how the Middle East peace process would affect the environment. Upon finding that environmental issues were not on the political agenda, Bromberg, along with Mehyar, a planning engineer and the vice president of the Jordan Society for Sustainable Development, cofounded EcoPeace Middle East in 1994 to remedy this omission.
Today, the organization has offices in Amman, Ramallah and Tel Aviv. It uses both top-down and bottom-up strategies – advocacy in the form of research, policy briefs and awareness events and grassroots efforts within and between communities in the region.
In addition to continuing their work on the Jordan River, the organization is leading another project to stabilize water levels in the Dead Sea. They also run several programs to encourage environmental awareness, collaborative sustainability and community involvement in their work.
Bromberg and Mehyar don’t yet know how they will use the Bright Award funding, but EcoPeace Middle East has several projects underway. One example is the Good Water Neighbors program, which creates partnerships among members from different communities. Each community learns about its own water resources and that of its neighbors. Together, they develop collaborative solutions to shared water problems.
“Bringing people together from divided communities, discussing their problems and working together towards solutions and cooperation is a part of our work that has always made us proud,” Mehyar said.