New York City — Experts have long argued that the only way to effectively address the climate crisis is via a concerted, intergovernmental approach. It’s the issue world leaders and policy makers were in New York City to discuss at the United Nations Climate Summit last month and during a series of breakout sessions spread out over the week.
Among the over 150 Climate Week (Sept. 23-29) events and panel discussions, one particular one stood out for its unique approach. Faith leaders and environmentalists from the Middle East and New York came together at the Union Theological Seminary in Harlem for an interfaith water ritual ceremony to honor the shared risks communities and ecosystems face due to climate disruption.
The event was a collaboration of Hudson Riverkeeper, an environmental group that advocates for the Hudson River and its tributaries, the Center For Earth Ethics at the seminary and EcoPeace Middle East, an environmentalist peacemaking NGO with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian directors.
Under the towering stained glass windows of the James Memorial Chapel, Karenna Gore, director of the Center for Earth Ethics, spoke of the importance of inter-community work and honoring the spiritual aspects of our shared water sources, both the Hudson and Jordan rivers. “This is holy and sacred work, and this gathering is powerful,” she said before welcoming Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough Lenape Nation to share his community’s connection to the Hudson and surrounding land, their ancestral territory.
“Through our lack of connection to the land and the water and our drive to take and build and exploit, we … have ripped so many literal and figurative holes in the world,” Jessica Roff, director of advocacy and engagement at Riverkeeper, said. “From drilling fracking wells across the country, to tunneling pipelines under rivers, to allowing poisons in people’s drinking water, to damming rivers, to blasting giant quarries and then storing toxic materials in them. We have a lot to repair.”
Gidon Bromberg, who as the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East has made this work his mission over the last 30 years, said it’s no coincidence that the Jordan River is holy to all three Abrahamic faiths. “For Jews the river is a place of miracles, for Christianity it’s the place where Jesus was baptized and for Islam it’s the place where several of the companions of Mohammed are buried.”
Now both rivers are suffering from ecological collapse due to climate change and over-development.
Mother nature knows no borders
Long before climate change became a regular news item, EcoPeace was actively working to protect the environment while promoting peace, a unique combination of activism with the express aim of finding “peace with people, but also nature” as Bromberg put it, and one that is becoming increasingly important as more and more evidence shows how the environment and national security are inextricably linked.
Mother Nature doesn’t see borders drawn up on a political map, and the impact of severe climate-related events are felt increasingly across regional borders worldwide but particularly in the Middle East, an already volatile region.
We caught up with Bromberg in our Midtown offices in between his many Climate Week engagements.
“The Middle East is a climate hotspot according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Bromberg said, “Even if it wasn’t determined by the IPCC, we see it on the ground. We’ve experienced 15 years of drought in the last 20 years. The Sea of Galilee at the end of last summer hit the black line, that means that the Sea Of Galilee risked turning from a freshwater lake to a salt water lake. The Dan Stream, which is the main stream that feeds the lower Jordan, had its lowest output in a 100 years of historical record.”
Bromberg says that if conditions persisted in northern Israel the Sea of Galilee, once the main source of Israel’s drinking water, would begin to look more like the Dead Sea than a natural reservoir. (Israel was forced to begin manufacturing potable water from desalination, more on that later)
Given all this evidence on the ground climate denial is rare in the region and most agree on how water security, threatened by climate change, directly impacts national security.
From Tasmania to Taba
Now 55, Bromberg’s interest in environmentalism started when he was a young law student in Australia when he volunteered with an environmentalist group that helped to successfully secure a third of Tasmania — the island state jutting out on Australia’s south — as protected wilderness.
This success, at such a young age and on such a grand scale, helped spur his career in the field of environmentalism, one he soon combined with peacebuilding.
A few years later in 1993, while he was completing a fellowship in International Environmental Law in Washington D.C. and watching Rabin and Arafat negotiate the details of the Oslo Peace Accords detail-by-harrowing-detail, he was surprised to note that no thought was being given to the long-term environmental impacts of a peace deal. He set out to research it himself.
“My research found that there was a lot of lip service being paid to the environment, but that was it alone,” he said. “There were 50,000 hotel rooms being proposed on the Dead Sea alone without any sense of carrying capacity.” His report floated the idea of a regional environmental organization that would put environmental issues on the peace agenda. Not one to wait, Bromberg set about creating the organization himself. He sought out Jordanian and Palestinian co-directors and so was born the organization which held its first trilateral meeting in Taba, Egypt in 1994.
It’s a partnership that’s sustained even as the Oslo agreement deteriorated and the prospect of peace unraveled, and that’s notched up a slew of impressive successes that are easy to miss if you don’t pay close attention as Bromberg rattles them off self-effacingly.
‘We can’t clean up our act unless we work together’
Much of the organization’s efforts have centered around water diplomacy, particularly in regards to the Jordan River and its basin and the Dead Sea, an area bordered by Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. Prior to EcoPeace’s efforts, the Lower Jordan suffered from water diversion from all sides and was essentially a dumping ground for sewage runoff.
“Israel was first; we cut the water flowing south into the Jordan River because water flowing south goes to the border and is seen as empowering the enemy.” Bromberg said, “The Jordanians and Syrians did the same thing and built dams and canals that led water into their areas.”
When the peace accords were signed, Israel was in a water crisis because it was completely reliant on natural water. Now, thanks to innovative desalination plants and water treatment centers, Israel is water secure and a world leader in the field. (70 percent of Israel’s drinking water comes from desalination plants, Spain is next at 25 percent.)
But even with Israel’s water abundance it hesitated for years to release more water into the Jordan river from the Sea of Galilee, which was causing it dry up. The little water flow it had was contaminated with sewage.
Much due to EcoPeace’s advocacy Israel started to release 9 million cubic meters of water annually down the Jordan in 2014, with a commitment to increase that to 30 mcm annually.
“The groundwater aquifers are all underground crisscrossing borders… You come to see that these are issues that the borders make no sense. We can’t clean up our act unless we work together.”
“Now with Israel’s desalination plants, and the reversal of the national water carrier back to the Sea Of Galilee because of climate change, we see even more potential for releasing more water down the River Jordan and further water to be supplied to Jordan as part of regional stability,” Bromberg said.
Aside from governmental advocacy, EcoPeace educates schoolchildren and communities on all sides of the border about their water realities versus their neighbors, giving them context to understand the issue and then push their mayors and regional leaders to cooperate. It takes them on “tiyulim” or trips around the nature reserves in the area and it’s created the first water diplomacy curriculum for high schools.
“These issues [are all] interrelated given that the water resources are all shared, The sources all cross borders.” Bromberg said. “The groundwater aquifers are all underground crisscrossing all the borders… You come to see that these are issues that the borders make no sense, that we can’t clean up our act unless we work together.”
One of their most colorful events was a “big jump” where mayors from all sides came together, dunking into a clean stretch of the Jordan River in an effort to promote cooperation on cleaning it up. “They made a big splash, they’re mostly men with big bellies,” Bromberg said. “But the important thing was that media from all sides was there and that they were jumping into the river, not as best friends, but that they could only benefit their communities by working together. And that has been the rationale of the organization… [that] these issues are issues that can bring us together, and they’re also issues that can’t wait.”
On Israel’s Eastern border, Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, a problem that was only exacerbated as it took in over two million refugees from Syria. Amman’s wealthier neighborhoods get tap water one day a week. (At the UN Panel on Climate Change the week we met, Bromberg spoke about this issue and particularly how climate change was one of the contributing factors to the Syrian crisis.)
“With a stability issue affecting Jordan, it becomes a national security issue for Jordan, and also a national security issue for Israel because the stability of Jordan is essential for the security of Israel on its eastern border,” Bromberg said. “That’s why promoting and understanding climate change is not just a development issue, it’s an urgent security issue.”
Until a few years ago Gaza’s two million residents were also running out of clean drinking water. The ground water was contaminated with sewage and construction of a planned sewage treatment plant was constantly being stalled because building supplies were being turned back at the border. (Israel was concerned Hamas was using the cement to construct underground tunnels.) The sewage runoff would flow into the Mediterranean Sea, and follow the natural currents 7 km up north to Ashkelon where it was causing the consistent closure of one of Israel’s main desalination plants. (The Ashkelon plant accounts for 15 percent of Israel’s drinking water.)
“You can’t build a wall or an Iron Dome that will stop pandemic disease. Nothing will stop viruses or disease moving in our surface water or groundwater or the coastal movement of the seas. Therefore it’s in our interest that everyone has clean water…”
EcoPeace lobbied the Israeli government showing how this humanitarian issue was felt on all sides of the border. The ban on building supplies was lifted and, while the first plant took 14 years to build, the next one is due to be completed this year after four years of construction.
“Promoting the security aspect of these issues helps us all understand that we’re all in the same boat,” Bromberg said, “You can’t disengage, you can’t build a wall or an Iron Dome that will stop pandemic disease. Nothing will stop viruses or disease moving in our surface water or groundwater or the coastal movement of the seas. Therefore it’s in our interest that everyone has clean water, that everyone can treat their sewage. Otherwise we all pay the cost.”
A win, win for all
Reallocating water doesn’t mean Israel would be at a loss because it can easily replace natural water with manufactured water at a reasonable cost, EcoPeace claims. This means that everyone can essentially be winners, an approach that is true for water but extends to other environmental and humanitarian factors as well.
“Why is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one we have to solve everything at once?” Bromberg said. “The fact is that it hasn’t worked 25 years later. It’s time to think out of the box. It’s time to resolve the water issues and use it both to improve livelihoods on the ground and to move forward on the other final status issues too.”
In the last decade EcoPeace has leveraged over half a billion dollars in financial investments from the World Bank, development agencies and the international community that they’ve invested into sewage treatment infrastructure in the region.
“What’s holding us back is this mindset of all or nothing and that’s what we’re major advocates for changing,” he said.
Things are heating up
The U.S., China and Europe are the leading global emitters of greenhouse gases, so people in the diaspora that care about Israel and the region need to understand that the effects of climate change are felt demonstrably on the ground in the Middle East and threaten the stability of the region as a whole, Bromberg emphasizes.
“While the rest of the world is worried about a two degree rise in temperatures, we’re worried about a four degree rise in temperatures,” Bromberg said. “We’re worried about areas of southern Israel and the eastern part of Jordan where the temperatures will be so high that it won’t be safe to live there anymore.” (A recent Tel Aviv university report estimated a near 50% increase in summertime temperatures in parts of the region.)
Ironically, more cooperation might be happening in the Middle East than internationally.
“This is one issue where Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians are working together. But we’re not going to succeed if Americans don’t take leadership or responsibility,” Bromberg said.
Back uptown in the chapel, Bethany Yarrow (daughter of Peter Yarrow) shared a moving musical piece honoring the life-giving nature of water. Later, Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary, noted the importance of water in Jewish liturgy and read the prayer for rain Jews recite at the end of Sukkot: “May it be for blessing and not for a curse; may it be for life and not for death; may it be for abundance and not scarcity.”
“May it be for blessing and not for a curse; may it be for life and not for death; may it be for abundance and not scarcity.”
The environmentalists and faith leaders huddled around a bowl in the center of the chapel and poured from chalices that held water from the Hudson and Jordan rivers.
“It’s a symbol of blessing and to remind ourselves that we are all one,” Gore said.
In typical New York fashion what had been a beautifully sunny day turned grey and windy as the group, a motley mix of environmental activists many who came seeking a spiritual addition to their packed itinerary of Climate Week events, proceeded out of the seminary, down Riverside Drive and west a few blocks to a pier extending onto the Hudson River.
Steps away from our own wastewater treatment plant, with the New York City skyline on one side and the New Jersey skyline on the other — the Hudson River a border too — Bromberg and Chief Perry poured the water into the waters below. An act of transnational solidarity to honor the life in all our collective waterways.
“Most politicians see the Jordan River as a border,” Bromberg said “We see the river as a bridge.”