Beyond the conflicts and controversies in the Middle East, the one constant conduit that is generating cooperation and compromise between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors is water.
That was the message of two experts featured at a program presented last week by the American Middle East Institute, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that works to build business, cultural and educational ties between countries in the Middle East and the United States.
The May 10 Duquesne Club event, entitled “Water, Peace, and Prosperity in the Middle East: Examples of Remarkable Collaborations,” highlighted the quiet work that is being done mostly behind the scenes in which Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians are serving as equal partners in exploring and devising ways to address the region’s water crisis.
Former Israeli ambassador Ram Aviram, a specialist in hydro-diplomacy, began his portion of the program by explaining the seriousness of the current water shortage throughout much of the world, particularly the Middle East, and the effect that climate change will have making things even worse in years to come.
“We are in the midst of a real disaster,” said Aviram, a former chief of staff to Shimon Peres and the former ambassador to Greece from Israel, noting the drying up of resources.
Using the Jordan River as an example, Aviram explained that it is currently at less than 10 percent of its original flow, while the population in the area is burgeoning.
“All these people need to drink and to irrigate their fields,” he said. “And the story goes not just for the Jordan River, but to almost all natural resources in the Middle East.”
Although 60 percent of available water resources in the Middle East are trans-boundary — meaning they are controlled by at least two distinct sovereigns — water issues, Aviram said, are “low politics.”
“In hydro-diplomacy, we like to take shared water sources that can trigger conflict and make way for broader cooperation,” he said.
Those working in the hydro-diplomacy arena often find that countries at odds with each other on other issues can find common ground when it comes to water. Aviram recalled the Madrid Conference of 1991, an attempt by the international community to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The negotiations involved not only Israel and the Palestinians, but also other Arab countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, with the U.S. serving as “the gavel holder.”
“We were looking for a win-win situation,” he said. “We were addressing issues of mutual interest.”
One of those areas was water, he said, which allowed the countries to put aside more difficult political dilemmas and to work together for the common good through continued negotiations in Moscow in 1992. Those negotiations were attended by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians as well as some other nations in the international community.
Aviram explained the cooperation on the issue of water between Israel and Jordan that resulted from the two countries’ 1994 peace treaty, including collaboration in terms of desalination.
Israel, he noted, has developed an artificial source producing usable water out of the Mediterranean Sea, through its establishment of a desalination plant in 2005.
“Israel, today, is producing 60 to 70 percent of its needs,” according to Aviram. “They are losing the uncertainty of whether there is rain or no rain and enlarging the pie. This has changed the character of the negotiations.”
Currently, he said, Israel and Jordan are involved in “a sophisticated negotiation” in terms of water production.
“Suddenly, the whole atmosphere and ability to cooperate has changed.”
The second guest speaker, Ciarán Ó Cuinn, began his talk by answering a question that surely was in the minds of many of the attendees: “What’s an Irish guy doing in Muscat (Oman)?”
Ó Cuinn is director of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), an international organization working on solutions to fresh water scarcity in the region. MEDRC is one of the remaining vestiges of the Oslo Accords.
As a former policy adviser to the Irish government during the Irish Peace Process, Ó Cuinn picked up skills that were eminently transferable, as it turns out, to water negotiations in the Middle East.
“I worked for 15 years on the Irish peace process,” Ó Cuinn said. “It got fixed, and I got bored.”
In Muscat, Ó Cuinn’s role as head of MEDRC is “catalytic,” he said.
Through MEDRC, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians have found ways to cooperate on water issues, each having an equal voice in the decision-making process.
“Water isn’t generally what people go to war for,” Ó Cuinn said. “People find ways of stopping each other from poisoning the water.
“We are trying to develop a model where we use water to build peace,” he said. “The most important part is it become a resilient conduit for cooperation between equals.”
MEDRC currently sponsors 169 water research projects, bringing together global expertise along with regional researchers from 34 countries to find solutions to the issue of fresh-water scarcity in the region.
The hope is that the cooperation between these factious peoples on issues of water will have a “spillover” effect onto political issues that are more contentious, but such an outcome is not had easily.
“Unfortunately, the work we are doing in what we call environmental peace-building rarely gets into the realm of spillover,” said Aviram. “I have had wonderful relationships with a core group of people for five or six years, and we will remain friends. But when you geo to the general society, it is much more difficult.”
Ó Cuinn agreed with Aviram about the challenges of generating spillover cooperation but did note that even in the midst of intifadas and terrorist attacks, the meetings on water issues continue to take place.
Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of the AMEI, said that while her organization does not generally focus on Israel, she was intrigued by the model of water cooperation that is playing out among Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
“You don’t see a lot in the press about it,” she said. “And it’s a sensitive issue. They work very quietly together. They think that’s why it is succeeding.”
The AMEI program received support from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, The Jewish Chronicle, and Marco Q. Rossi & Associati.
Cindy Shapira, chair of the Federation, said that the shared work on water “is a great story that demonstrates there are a lot of positive things going on between Israel and some of her neighbors.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.