The Environment as a Tool for Peace in the Middle East

by |June 8, 2013

By Shahar Sadeh

Understanding the Middle East conflict is not an easy task, and adding an environmental component to the puzzle doesn’t make it any easier. Students in the Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East program, following an 18-day trip to the region, now see clearly how complex the issues actually are.The program was developed in partnership with the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University, the Earth Institute, and Columbia University’s Middle East Research Center. After visiting Jordan, Israel and parts of the West Bank, and meeting daily with local people who deal with environmental issues and the conflict, students have come to realize that sometimes the more you know and experience, the less things makes sense.

The first morning in Israel began with a “border incident,” when one of the group’s American participants with a Muslim name was detained for questioning on the crossing point from Jordan to Israel. Following that, students glimpsed the Egyptian locusts that are threatening agriculture in the region and heard a lecture on marine biology cross-border cooperation at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science in Eilat. After a quick dip in the Red Sea to cool off from the 112 degree temperature, they heard from a fascinating panel of Jordanian, Israeli and American students who are studying together at the Arava Institute, and finished with a night swim and barbeque at the Kibbutz Ketura pool. Packed full of meetings, travel and educational activities, this is a typical day in the program.

The Middle East presents a web of diverse and connected topics, and the complex system becomes more dense with each day as students delve more deeply into topics such as: water purification, desalination, sewage and allocation; nature conservation; tourism; development; culture; religion; scarce resources; overexploitation of ecosystems; agriculture; environmental effects of war and conflicts; cooperation; occupation; and refugees. Students have heard different perspectives on these issues from environmentalists, politicians, teachers, scientists, government, NGOs, local communities, universities and more. These important, yet sometimes contradictory, viewpoints weave a colorful and passionate story that gets more rich and complex with time.

Confusing and overwhelming – definitely. But at the same time, acknowledging this complexity has helped to enhance students’ understanding of it. They have seen that in the midst of this messy situation, “islands” of serenity and small-scale peace efforts can be created through cross-border environmental cooperation. Sometimes these efforts are highly publicized and crying out for recognition, like the work of Friends of the Earth-Middle East. Other times they are done under the radar (or “shushu,” as the Israelis call it) because people fear that publicity might harm their work by inflicting personal costs on those who cooperate with the “other.”

The students have been exposed to the power of the environment as a simultaneous source for fear and hope for local environmentalists: Fear of the region’s deteriorating environmental condition drives people to cooperate and to gradually develop hope for a better future. The students have learned about local initiatives which it first seem very black and white when looked at from a bird’s eye perspective, but later unfold to reveal the complexity of their parts. But, of course there is always a “but,” at the same time there are policy constraints at the national level that prevent these local collaborations from becoming the norm. The fear that drives the regional conflict and the resulting environmental decay will prevail until compromise and change are accepted at the national level.

Shahar Sadeh is a fellow at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute and the academic coordinator for the Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East program.

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