Building Bridges with Water

Mayors and activists from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan
Mayors and activists from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan “jump” into the Lower Jordan River in a united call to the three governments to rehabilitate the Jordan River.

The Palestinian village of Wadi fuqin, located west of Bethlehem, is home to fewer than 2,000 people and lies between an Israeli settlement in the West Bank to its east and an Israeli town over the Green Line in Israel to its west. Residents in this community rely on a nearby series of springs to provide water for their agricultural fields. Two years ago, the survival of these springs was jeopardized when a proposed security barrier, designed to provide protection for the nearby Israeli town of Tzur Hadassah, threatened to impede groundwater recharge and in affect, cut off the flow of water to the village. Aware this situation could further intensify existing hostilities, EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a USAID supported non-governmental organization comprised equally of Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, stepped in to help mitigate the potential conflict through the use of environmental peacebuilding, with water serving as the building block to cooperation.

FoEME’s Good Water Neighbors (GWN) program works in 29 cross-border communities to promote cooperative efforts aimed at protecting the shared environmental resources of the region. In Tzur Hadassah, FoEME initiated a campaign of educational activities to raise awareness of damages taking place to the area’s water supply and the environmental responsibilities that link surrounding communities.

 “All our main water resources cross one or more boundaries, which creates the reality of interdependence,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of FoEME. “We build on the interdependent nature, particularly of water resources, to try and change the mindset as ‘just Israeli’, or ‘just Palestinian’, or ‘just Jordanian’.”

FoEME is supported with a grant provided by USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation (CMM) and highlights the importance USAID places on integrating sustainability and peacebuilding into its development work. According to Cynthia Brady, a senior conflict advisor in CMM, the office provides assistance to USAID’s projects around the globe to ensure development efforts are thoughtful about the often complicated contexts of conflict and instability in which they may be working and generate peacebuilding efforts where possible.

“In my opinion, development and peacebuilding go hand-in-hand,” says Dr. Sandra Ruckstuhl, senior specialist for sustainable development at Group W Inc, who has worked extensively on the interplay between water issues and conflict. “for development to be sustainable you need peace and sustainability. How can we deal with certain shocks to the system if the system is not resilient enough? Peacebuilding helps communities deal with these shocks.”

Critical to working in an area affected by conflict is understanding the driving forces behind it. “We must undertake some kind of conflict analysis,” says Brady. “It is important to go beyond the obvious manifestations of violence or contestation in order to really understand the underlying issues, including identifying the deeper sets of grievances at play, the key actors with influence, and the upcoming events that might instigate conflict or possibly trigger peace.” Also key is the need for continued analysis throughout the life of the program. “We as practitioners need to continue to do analysis on the fly so we can course correct,” says Ruckstuhl. “Once you’re in the field you learn a lot – this is often a missed opportunity if we don’t adapt as we get new perspective.”

The need for adjustment of a program’s focus in response to changes in partner priorities can be seen in the work of USAID’s Environmental CooperationAsia (ECO-Asia) project, which works with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to develop tools and capacity for collaborative planning and decision-making, and integrated management of transboundary resources.

The Mekong River supports the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers, generates electricity from hydrological dams, and allows for the transportation of goods for the MRC member countries, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as for Myanmar and China.

While ECO-Asia’s initial support to the MRC focused heavily on capacity building in conflict prevention and management, the project shifted its focus to developing tools for sustainable hydropower development when the construction of dams became a source of tension among the river’s users. “In response to MRC requests for support, ECO-Asia is working with them and other partners to develop tools for comprehensive basin planning at the transboundary level,” says Chief of Party Paul Violette. Responding to the changing priorities of the MRC was a critical factor in ECO-Asia’s ability to maximize its impact.

According to Ruckstuhl, incorporating the knowledge of the stakeholders, even those not directly linked to, but still impacted by a project, is a critical step in gaining deeper insight and building a good working relationship with the people on the ground.

Continued analysis must apply not only to stakeholder involvement in general, but to the underlying social, political, and economic factors that impact the stakeholders within the context of a particular conflict. This can particularly play out in conflicts at a local level, where natural resources can sometimes ignite violence between groups. Improving the economic opportunities for these communities can be an important factor in de-escalating conflict.1

In South Sudan, USAID’s Sudan Transition and Conflict Mitigation (STCM) program is proving successful at fostering inter-communal peacebuilding by building small-scale infrastructure, such as check dams, to mitigate conflicts between cattle-herding tribes who compete for scarce resources.

Access to water is vital to the livelihoods of the nomadic tribes living along the border with Sudan, but the search for water and grazing land can be difficult at times. In the dry months from October to April, a lack of rain reduces the availability of water, while the wet season brings flooding to some areas. fights over the availability of water sources during the dry season often balloon into a cycle of revenge attacks, further exacerbating instability.

STCM is working to mitigate tensions by providing job opportunities for youth, who often instigate violence by raiding the cattle of neighboring tribes. “It’s the mindset you have to change and disarm,” says Dr. Jaidev Singh, team leader of the Office of Transition and Conflict Mitigation in USAID’s South Sudan mission. “Water helps, but you’ve got to disarm their minds. Water is a means to get peace. It’s one element.” Providing the youth with job opportunities, such as assisting with the construction of check dams, can help reorient perspectives and restrain these youths from resorting to cattle raiding.

In particularly contentious areas like South Sudan, this ability to ignite change at a local level is one of the benefits of focusing the attention of peacebuilding initiatives on water concerns. “Water issues are ultimately local. Individuals and communities need water every day to survive and that creates a powerful incentive to cooperate,” says Brady. At the same time, she notes that while change at the local level can be critical and often essential to building relationships of trust, to achieve sustainable peace it’s important to link work at the local level with reinforcing change at higher levels as well.

In the Middle East, where national governments often find it difficult to reach agreements and differences have led to war, foEME has introduced a wide range of activities that engage stakeholders on a local level, from selecting youth residents to participate in “Water Trustee” groups, to involving community mayors to help build consensus around water management needs. “It’s the people leading the leaders and encouraging them to take risks,” says Bromberg.

And taking these risks can pay off. After FoEME began its activities in Tzur Hadassah, one-third of the residents signed a petition requesting that construction of the wall be halted on the grounds that disrupting the spring’s recharge would actually hinder their security. Instead, Bromberg says the community requested alternative safety measures, such as border patrols. The Israeli army responded to this petition by agreeing not to build the barrier, and to this day, the watercontinues to flow for the residents of Wadi fuqin.

FoEME’s cross-border efforts also include work with USAID/Jordan’s water office and USAID/Egypt’s OMEP office to assist with the rehabilitation of the Jordan River, which today stands at dangerously low levels of water flow and is heavily contaminated with sewage. According to Bromberg, foEME’s work along the river has significantly increased investment into local communities, led to the creation of environmental education centers, and initiated the planning and development of a peace park along the banks of the river, encouraging further engagement among the three groups.

Bromberg is optimistic about the ability water can have as a tool to help invoke change within the region, saying, “We don’t think that our work alone is going to solve the conflict. It’s an example to those wanting to move forward and willing to listen that we can live differently and benefit from problem-solving together. Once a common interest is identified and trust is built,then there’s no limit to where the trust can go.”

C. Gumann

More Information:

EcoPeace: Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME)

Last updated: September 25, 2013

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