Creating Healthy Interdependencies To Combat Climate Change in the Middle East


As drought in California continues to worsen, state regulators have once again had to curtail more water rights to farms in the Central Valley last week. In looking for global solutions and inspiration, the American Jewish Committee West put on the webinar Environmental Collaboration: The Israeli and West Coast Models, with speakers Gidon Bromberg of EcoPeace Middle East; Denny Heck, the Lieutenant Governor of Washington; and a response by California State Senator Ben Allen (pictured), and moderated by AJC’s Sam Jefferies. During the panel, the speakers each share innovative climate projects being worked on in their respective regions and call for a more collaborative effort in addressing these challenges. A link to the full panel can be found here.

Gidon Bromberg: The climate challenge doesn't hit only one country in a particular way. It hits an entire region. The efforts of working together to meet the climate challenge must be replicated throughout the world. That's what the Green Blue Deal and EcoPeace Middle East are all about. It recognizes that, particularly on water issues, the most water scarce parts of the planet are overwhelmingly transboundary. Given that the climate crisis is going to even further impact water scarcity, the Green Blue Deal identifies four pillars for very practical actions that Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, but also the broader Middle East, must act towards, otherwise we're never going to meet the challenge the climate crisis presents.

One of the pillars of the Green Blue Deal is bit like Europe after World War Two, where coal and steel were identified as the two key engines that could promote peace and cooperation. We asked what is the coal and steel that's relevant to the Middle East. We identified harnessing the sun and the sea as the critical natural resources that can build climate resilience.

We even got the chance to help move this forward. A historical agreement was signed in November of last year between Israel, Jordan, and the UAE. Based on our research and advocacy efforts, Jordan identified that it has a comparative advantage of vast desert areas where it can produce renewable energy at scale and at prices that Israelis and Palestinians could only dream of. Therefore, Jordan could be a major producer and exporter of renewable energy to meet the climate commitments of her neighbors.

On the other hand, Israel has the comparative advantage of being on the Mediterranean coast. Having leadership in technological innovation, and particularly on desalination, Israel could desalinate sea water and produce it at price and at scale that Jordan could only dream of as well. In that way, for the very first time between the two countries, Israel and Jordan started to create healthy interdependencies. By increasing the water pie through desalination, we can guarantee that everyone in our region will have enough water to meet not only the basic domestic needs, but to really power our economies.

We think that this model of creating healthy interdependencies is critical for all regions in order to build the climate resilience and shared prosperity. The region as a whole can move forward, reflecting the ecosystem because the Jordan River is a border from a geopolitical perspective, but the river doesn't know it's a border. If you have been to the lower part of the Jordan River, you would see that there's not much of a river left. Instead of freshwater, there's mostly a lot of pollution. That's what happens when we deny the fact that the river and ecosystems are shared. Cooperation on these issues is not a privilege; it's a necessity. It's an issue of self-interest for Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis together, and the broader Middle East. It's an absolute issue of survival.

Sam Jefferies: What you said about each of those participating entities in making something of great value which they could have to offer is especially resonant for me. When you speak about offering value and reciprocity, not just cooperation and collaboration, that benefits each to their particular needs, that has so much value.

I wonder if you could speak to another recent example of your work looking at the cleanup work that was done in the Mediterranean, which allowed the opening of a beach in Gaza. Could you tell us about that work, how it came about to be a priority, and how it was conducted?

Gidon Bromberg: For the past decade, Palestinians in Gaza would simply want to go to the beach. They were risking their lives because of the conflict, but also underdevelopment and lack of finance. A combination of issues left Gaza without sanitation and sewage treatment plants, and the sewage was flowing into the Mediterranean. At EcoPeace, we promote the understanding that we need to look at the conflict, not only from a military-security perspective, but also the other legitimate security concerns like water security, health security, and broader human security.

What EcoPeace revealed was that the pollution leaving Gaza was naturally being carried not only to Gazan beaches, but also to Israeli beaches. It was also intermittently closing one of Israel's five desalination plants and threatening a second desalination plant. That meant that 15 percent of Israel's water supply was at risk because of the sanitation crisis in Gaza.

One of the reasons why the World Bank was unsuccessful in building this plant was because Israel was limiting the inflow of cement, concerned that Hamas was stealing cement to build tunnels to attack Israel. What we had on paper looked like a lose-lose situation. By revealing that if sewage is not being treated on one side, the implications on water and health security are also felt on the Israeli side, we were able to broaden the discussion.

Then cement started to roll in. In fact, Israeli residents around Gaza were raising their voices the loudest because they were also fearful of potential pandemic disease breaking out in Gaza. Through our intervention, within two years, the first modern sewage treatment plant was built. Then, two additional sewage treatment plants were built in a space of only four years.

As a result, today, both Palestinians and Israelis can swim in cleaner beaches. 65 percent of the beaches in Gaza are now open to the Palestinian population to go back and swim in and get relief from the heat of the summer. Of course, Israel's water security is reinforced because the sewage is no longer threatening the desalination plant in Israel. Environmental cooperation is a win-win for all sides.

Sam Jefferies: I think one of the really challenging elements of speaking about climate change is it feels so abstract. Thinking about a practical example like that directly and immediately impacts the daily lives of the folks in your region resonates with people and speaks to the importance of on-the-ground work.

I wanted to speak a little bit about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. For those who aren't familiar, BDS is a movement which seeks to isolate Israel and separate it from global trade. In the framing of this discussion as regional cooperation and ignoring borders in pursuit of innovation and progress, could you speak to your own experiences with the BDS movement and the dangers of its impact on environmental progress?

Gidon Bromberg: It really does bewilder me at EcoPeace, where Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis together are trying to improve the reality for all of our peoples. BDS doesn't make sense. I don't know of any other conflict in the world where you have an organized group who are trying to stop like-minded people working together productively for the benefit of all of the people in the region.

At Eco Peace, we are Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis, working for close to 30 years with some real breakthrough improvements to people’s lives where we got the Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli mayors to jump into the Jordan River, not because they’re best friends or because they ignore the conflict, but to understand that in order to improve the reality on the ground and to start to build trust, they want to work together. BDS tries to stop that. Whose interests are they serving? They're certainly not serving the interests of the people in the region.

Sam Jefferies: Given that this event comes out of the West Coast and regional AJC offices in Washington and California, I wondered if you could speak to any engagement with US government entities with the federal government. Also, do you see a role for state and local governments to help advance the work of EcoPeace across the region?

Gidon Bromberg: We're very grateful to the American people because USAID has been a major supporter of EcoPeace for almost all of our 27 years. We even have a grant at the moment that Secretary of State Blinken awarded to EcoPeace. This current grant is about climate resilience through cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. We're grateful for the support that the American people have shown and their commitment at the global level to fight climate change under this administration.

As far as cooperation at the state level, we see that the West Coast of America, shares many of the same trans-boundary water issues. You have the water scarcity issues that we're very familiar with. The type of cooperative solutions that we promote and are implementing on the ground, such as the water-energy nexus, is something that we would love to see implemented in other parts of the world, including in relevant parts of the United States. We're open to cooperation and think that we have a lot to learn from the experience in North America. We think that we also have a lot to offer from our learnings of close to three decades on advancing peacebuilding through the environment.

Ben Allen: It’s been fantastic having this chance to listen to you about your work and all the interesting things that are happening in Israel on the river with Jordan. Our caucus is going to be traveling to Israel next week, and of course, water and water issues will always be top of our agenda because of our terrible drought in California.

We actually talk about Israel quite a bit as an inspiration. They've been able to build out such an extraordinary agricultural system and manage their growth as a society with so much less water than even we have. We can and must learn from them, especially as we continue to suffer from the ever worsening impacts of climate change. I'm happy to continue learning and see what we can do to draw from the Israeli experience and see how our partner states such as Washington also draw from it.

We're, of course, doing a lot in California. We have an MOU with Israel on a number of these issues in trying to increase our academic exchanges, agricultural exchanges, and policymaker exchanges. We're also trying to take the lead on fighting against climate change with Washington. We've been working closely together to see how we can continue to combine our efforts, given the size of our two respective economies.

One thing that I'm working on a lot right now, we're trying to get really comprehensive plastics pollution reduction legislation across the finish line, as to head off a possible ballot measure. Our bill is the product of a really extraordinary deal that's been struck between environmental groups and the Chamber of Commerce. Never have the two met on this topic before. This extended producer responsibility system is inspired by British Columbia and some of the interesting efforts happening in Ontario, Washington, and Oregon.

For us in the Jewish Caucus, we've always been really proud of the bill packages that we put forward every year, taking our responsibility to heal the world seriously. It's important as Jews and also as legislators to focus on that part of the work. We're always trying to find ways to both partner with friendly states and our friends in Israel to continue to help keep our environment a little cleaner.

We've got enormous problems on our hands, and in many respects, we're all on the defense. We need to continue to learn from each other, collaborate, and build upon the best practices that we're starting to see in places like Israel and Washington and elsewhere. That continues to be our focus, and we want to continue to be partners in these important efforts.

Sam Jefferies: Lieutenant Governor Heck I wanted to the question about the Growth Management Act. Can you talk about this balance between development and efforts to combat climate change? Could you tie together some of the efforts on sustainability with the high growth in the Northwest, and how you square that with combatting climate change?

Denny Heck: The Growth Management Act was adopted into law some 30 years ago. In the ensuing 30 years, our population has grown tremendously and continues to grow. It continues to grow because we're a very attractive place to work, and we have a very desirable quality of life which, by the way, I think will only increase over time as the effects of climate change continue to be experienced.

The bottom line is pretty clear because that demand to live here is going to continue. We cannot put up a gate at the border coming into Washington state. We're simply going to have to grow more densely if we want to avoid some of the negative implications of sprawl. Sprawl is bad for the environment because it requires you to not only make the significant financial investment of infrastructure out into suburban and rural areas. It also creates more impermeable surfaces, more tailpipe solution, and more stormwater runoff. We're going to have to build more densely, and that's going to face pockets of opposition to innovation. People don't want that four story multi-family next door, but we're simply going to have to do it. By the way, we're also going to have to do it if anybody's ever going to be able to afford rent or purchase a condo or a home. We simply must increase the supply of housing, but we’ve got to do it smart.

"We think that this model of creating healthy interdependencies is critical for all regions in order to build the climate resilience and shared prosperity."—Gidon Bromberg