"We can't disengage from our shared environment" – Interview with Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli EcoPeace Directors
Without electricity, Gaza is unable to treat its sewage water. This has already led to the closure of one of Israel’s key desalination plants, which uses water from the Mediterranean Sea. In Jordan, recurring droughts and the influx of refugees have resulted in a water crisis with regional spillover effects. Such examples create a clear message: climate and environment know no borders. In this interview, EcoPeace Directors Nada Majdalani (Palestine), Yana Abu-Taleb (Jordan) and Gidon Bromberg (Israel) explain why disengaging from a shared environment can aggravate the region’s security challenges. They illustrate how a path of healthy inter-dependencies in the water and energy sectors can go a long way in advancing regional peace.
In which ways do climate and environmental impacts undermine security in the Middle East?
Yana: The Middle East region, specifically focusing on Jordan, Israel and Palestine, is feeling the effects of climate change, particularly in terms of water resources. We are already a naturally water-scarce region, but with the rising temperatures and severe long droughts that we are experiencing, water scarcity is reaching dangerous levels and undermining the systems that depend on it, such as food production. Water thus plays a vital role in security, both on the national and regional levels.
Gidon: Gaza has gone back to the Middle Ages when it comes to water and sanitation, and the crisis of Gaza is a regional security issue. When there isn't sufficient electricity, sewage is not treated. 100 million litres of raw sewage flow out of Gaza every day and are carried by the currents up the Mediterranean, which has been responsible for the intermittent closure of one of Israel's desalination plants north of Gaza. No one wants to desalinate sewage. Should pandemic diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, break out in Gaza they won't stop at the border. Additionally, in a scenario such as a disease breakout, the population doesn't just stay put. They are in fear and are likely to move and to revolt, which presents a security threat for neighbouring states.
Nada: Climate change and its environmental impacts are perceived as an exacerbating factor in the already fragile security situation in the Middle East. The region is already naturally water-scarce. With rapid population growth and political and economic instability, it is more susceptible to climate change impacts. Regardless of whether they are at peace or at war, tensions between neighbouring countries increase since their economies and resources are interlinked. The Israeli occupation’s control over water resources and the restrictions imposed on access to agricultural land and proper infrastructure undermine the ability of Palestinian communities to undertake the necessary steps for climate change resilience. In light of climate change, increased lack of opportunities in turn increases animosity and limits the chances of real peace and security in the region overall.
Are these issues perceived as a security threat in the region?
Gidon: Climate change at the moment is seen as a weather issue, as a water scarcity issue. It's not sufficiently understood how destabilizing the impact of climate change is and can be in the future. Furthermore, the security implications of climate change for our economies and overall stability are also not well understood. There needs to be investment at the highest levels in all of the relevant government ministries in our three countries, in awareness, in education, in understanding as to what the security implications of climate change are in order to translate knowledge into action.
Nada: As mentioned before, the region is already a security boiling hotspot. I agree here with Gidon though that it is difficult to interpret how and in which form and to what extent climate change will exacerbate the situation. In the Lake Chad region and other parts of the Middle East, for instance, climate change and lack of access to resources under fragile systems has led to the emergence of extremist groups and extensive bloodshed. The context and conditions in our region are different though, and we would not necessarily end up with the same consequences. What we know for sure at least is that what impacts one side will impact the other across the border. It is difficult to compare, yet it is necessary to understand different contexts and experiences so as to learn from them. It is the duty of the three governments, civil society, think tanks and security institutions to engage in a proactive discussion around this topic that is often neglected in favour of other more politically pressing issues. Today, it is necessary to prioritize discussions on weaving collaborative efforts for the mitigation of climate change impacts across the region, including, most importantly, out-of-the-box thinking and mechanisms for regional water and food security.
What role can foreign policy play in advancing environment and climate-related security in the region?
Yana: Foreign policy can support regional security by building healthy interdependencies throughout the region, particularly through the water-energy nexus. Particularly the water reality on the ground has changed in the last 10 years. If we look at Israel, it has become a world leader in desalination, producing water at the cheapest cost in the world on the Mediterranean coast. Water is the game changer. At the moment, Israel has bilateral agreements with both Jordan and Palestine for selling its surplus water at very cheap prices, which is helping our region cope with water scarcity, particularly in light of the ever increasing influx of refugees in Jordan. However, these exchanges should not be one-sided. Jordan, for example, has one of the highest solar radiation levels in the world, and therefore possesses an enormous potential for producing solar energy. Why not then sell this energy to Israel, which has a high energy demand, including for its water treatment? Also, Palestine should be able to meet its severe water and energy challenges and to have, for example, a desalination plant in Gaza. These interdependencies can be a real game changer for our region.
Gidon: One of the messages EcoPeace tries to bring to the forefront is that with climate change, achieving your own national water security is no longer enough. If your neighbour fails to meet the challenges of climate change next door, then that will have direct implications on your own national security. That brings home the message that we can't disengage from our shared environment. The notion of disconnecting, of building walls, is contrary to the self-interest of the parties involved. Foreign policy therefore, has a role to play in engaging the relevant parties to look beyond the day-to-day of the conflict, and to consider the external threat that climate change presents to the national security of each country involved, as well as for our region as a whole.
Nada: The role of foreign policy is important at various levels, politically and technically. Parties in dispute always require a neutral mediator to facilitate proactive discussions on climate and water security that adopt a problem-solving rather than a blame-game approach. The international community can utilize climate change threats and water security in the region as a low-hanging fruit to encourage parties to set prejudice aside and start to think collectively in practical means towards win-win situations. EcoPeace has many initiatives which foreign policy can adopt, including our Regional Jordan Valley Master Plan, our Water Energy Nexus concept as well as our Water Cannot Wait vision, where we aspire that water issues can be resolved in a negotiated manner. On a further technical level, foreign policy could support by encouraging investment and funding for the necessary infrastructure, particularly in Jordan and Palestine, where they are needed most for climate resilience. In return, technology transfer and know-how from Israel could be an asset for the stability of the entire region; which can be a form of trust building measures.
This interview was conducted by Raquel Munayer, adelphi.